Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Spy Among Friends

Kim Philby was the epitome of the upper middle class British boy. He started his schooling in a horribly brutal boarding school, then went to Eton and then on to Cambridge just like everyone else he knew. But Philby had a deep aversion to rules. He hated keeping them and would do everything he could think of to wiggle out of obeying them. He considered his greatest skill to be making friends and he was very good at that. And  he could also keep a secret - like the one about his being in a Pro-Nazi group in his youth.

He entered the British secret service by dropping hints among people he knew and then he just waited. He didn't have to wait long. He was hired into MI6 Section D (for destruction) and was sent into covert training. On leave from this training he met Nicholas Elliott. Their fathers were friends and so were they. Philby prepared British spies for occupied Europe and Elliott intercepted foreign spies sent to Britain. Philby was in the perfect position as he now knew who was both coming and going.

Elliott began to emulate Philby. They rose rapidly through the ranks and both were eventually placed into counter intelligence. They served together at Bletchley Park. Everything Elliott told Philby, Philby automatically transmitted to the Russians. Philby soon  added Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt to his group. With the addition of  Donald MacLean, and John Cairncross the group became known as "The Cambridge Six."

Most people think Philby was a spy for Germany. No, he was a spy for Russia. He was responsible for passing along thousands of pieces of information and for the destruction of many lives. He spied in Spain, Britain and he passed along American intelligence. He was a one man wrecking machine and he got away with it because he was "charming."  He was the subject of several investigations, but never charged most likely because his friend, Guy Lidell, was the head of counter-intelligence. A defecting Soviet spy mention that there was a Soviet spy in the British intelligence but he never mentioned Philby's name. Philby was eventually outed by an acquaintance, a most anti-climatic end.

This book is not an autobiography and it is not told through official file information. The files are still sealed. It is told through secondary source material and told it is. Fast paced, it reads like a spy novel, which is really what it is. But you couldn't make this story up - no one would believe it. Except that it's true.

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Friday, December 26, 2014

Staff Picks for 2014

Our 2014 Faves!
Looking for something great to read? Check out the following list of some of the library staff's favorites reads of 2014. We've also thrown in some movies at the end for variety's sake!

We've got a selection of these on display in the library. Stop in and let us know your favorites!

Alarson, Daniel. At Night We Walk in Circles
Baillie, Martha. The Search for Heinrich Schlögel
Balsam, Ronald. Once We Were Brothers
Bellow, Saul. Seize the Day
Binchy, Maeve. Chestnut Street
Bloom, Amy. Lucky Us
Butler, Nicholas. Shotgun Lovesongs
Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White
Condran, Jeffrey. Prague Summer
Cullen, Lynn. Mrs. Poe
Davis, Lydia. Can't and Won't (stories)
DeBoard, Paula Treick. The Fragile World
Doerr, Anthony. All The Light We Cannot See
Doughty, Louise. Apple Tree Yard
Echenoz, Jean. 1914: a novel
Eggers, Dave. The Circle: a novel
Epstein, Joseph. The Goldin Boys: stories
Faber, Michael. The Book of Strange New Things: a novel
Five Russian Dog Stories
Ford, Richard. Let Me be Frank with You
Fossum, Karin. Broken
Fowler, Karen Joy. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
French, Tana. The Secret Place
Geni, Abby. The Last Animal: stories
Gilman, Susan Jane. The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street: a novel
Go, Justin. The Steady Running of the Hour: a novel
Harrison, A.S.A., The Silent Wife: a novel
Harvey, Samantha. Dear Thief
Hayes, Terry. I am Pilgrim: a thriller
Henriquez, Cristina. The Book of Unknown Americans
Hirsch, Edward. Gabriel: A poem
Horan, Nancy. Under the Wide and Starry Sky: a novel
Hull, Jonathan. Losing Julia
Juska, Elise. The Hazards of Sleeping Alone: a novel
Kafka, Franz. Metamorphosis and Other Stories
Keillor, Garrison. Guy Noir and the Straight Skinny
Kubica, Mary. Good Girl: a novel
Manko, Vanessa. The Invention of Exile: a novel
Marciano, Francesca. The Other Language: stories
Maupin, Armistead. The Days of Anna Madrigal
Mirvis, Tova. Visible City
Manaweera, Nayomi. Island of a Thousand Mirrors
Norman, Howard A. The Next Life Might be Kinder
Offill, Jenny. Dept. of Speculation
O’Neill, Heather. The Girl Who was Saturday Night
Penman, Sharon Kay. A King’s Ransom
Richman, Alyson. The Lost Wife
Schumacher, Julie. Dear Committee Members
Seth, Vikram. An Equal Music
Stiefvater, Maggie. Blue Lily, Lily Blue (YA)
Tropper, Jonathan. This is Where I Leave You
Villalobos, Juan Pablo. Quesadillas
Waters, Sarah. The Paying Guests
Weir, Andy. The Martian (SF)
Zevin, Gabrielle. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

Cooperman. The Question of the Missing Head
Fowler, Christopher. Bryant and May and the Bleeding Heart
Hitchman, Beatrice. Petite Mort

Brown, Daniel. The Boys in the Boat. Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Doyle, Tom. Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s
Gawande, Atul. Being Mortal
Gay, Timothy M. Satch, Dizzy and Rapid Robert: The Wild Saga of Interracial Baseball Before Jackie Robinson
Gonzales, Laurence. Flight 232: A story of Disaster and Survival
Goodheart, Adam. 1861: The Civil War Awakening
Graeber, Charles. The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness and Murder
Halbreich, Betty. I’ll Drink to That. A Life in Style With a Twist
Hill, Christopher. Outpost: Life on the Frontlines of American Diplomacy
Johnson, Steven. How We Got to Now. Six Innovations that Made the Modern World
Letters of Note. An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience
Nestor, James. Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves
Petrusich, Amanda. Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 RPM Records
Short, Martin. I Must Say: My life as a Humble Comedy Legend
Sides, Hampton. In the Kingdom of Ice. The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeanette
Worsley, Lucy. The Art of English Murder

Bell, Cece. El Deafo
Novak, BJ. The Book With No Pictures
Willems. Mo. Waiting is Not Easy!

Alive Inside
Begin Again
Dancing in Jaffa
Draft Day
The Eagle: A Crime Odyssey. Season 1
Edge of Tomorrow
The Lady in No. 6
Lone Survivor
The Lunchbox
Nicky's Family
The Normal Heart
They Came to Play
What If

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

I am so glad I did not read advance reviews of this book - I might not have picked it up! It has a science fiction element to it, and I have always contended that I don’t like science fiction, so I would have been scared away. Don’t be! I loved it! I was so far into the book, devouring it, by the time any unusual elements were introduced that it all made sense.

Main character Peter is a minister, and he and his wife Bea are preparing for him to go on a mission to bring the word of God to a new population. (yes, right away, fond echoes of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.) He has been selected by a major corporation in an extensive interview, and as much as he wants to, is not allowed to bring Bea with him. It’s a good thing, as they soon realize that she is pregnant, and the place that he is sent to is…much different than either of them could imagine.

So much to talk about in this book, it screams book club to me. Faith, fidelity, communication, role of missionaries, future world, marriage, separation, identity, politics, oh yeah, the three things I was taught not to talk about in public; sex politics and religion. Beautifully packaged to look like a holy book, The Book of Strange New Things is making big waves with readers and reviewers alike. Highly recommended!

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Friday, December 19, 2014

The Arsonist by Sue Miller

The Arsonist, by Sue Miller, is an engaging novel that explores human relationships in their many dimensions.

Frankie Rowley has just returned to her parents' summer home in Pomeroy, New Hampshire. She has been employed as a relief worker in Africa for many years. Now in her early 40s, Frankie is disillusioned with her life's work; she questions the impact she has had on regions plagued by famine and war. We, the readers, are given a picture of her life abroad - the constant tension, the hordes of sick and starving people, the threat of violence by warring factions.

Now, having the benefit of distance, Frankie realizes she was never a part of the fabric of this society. She and other aid workers lived in gated communities with a variety of servants. Unlike the people she helped by day, Frankie and others could retreat to safe quarters in the evening. She accepted the class division as natural, even though she felt alienated from genuine relationships. Likewise, her romantic encounters were highly charged but emotionally empty. There was no sense of permanency in any part of her life.

Seeking resolution, Frankie returns home to think about her next career move. Unintentionally, she walks into the very situation she has spent her life avoiding - personal entanglements. First, her parents are facing the health issues confronting many in later years. Her mother, Silvia, has become a caretaker for her father, now afflicted with dementia. And for the first time, Silvia makes Frankie her unwilling confidant, confessing to marital issues that Frankie did not know existed.

The second entanglement is with Bud Jacobs, the owner of the town newspaper. He, too, has sought an escape from a former life -that of a Washington journalist and unhappily married man. He meets Frankie while covering the rash of fires, labelled arson, that have plagued the summer homes of residents. Like Frankie, he feels a sense of dislocation and is at loose ends.

Miller is empathetic toward her characters and we sympathize even with the suspected arsonist. She also accurately depicts the class divisions inherent in any tourist town - the wealthy summer residents vs. those who live and work in the town year-round. The reader is given to wonder if arson is the result of this tension.

As Ron Charles of the Washington Post concludes:

Set against the acts of a serial arsonist, which in turn, are set against the attacks of African terrorists, these ordinary folks' hopes and fears could seem small and petty, the kindling for some bitter satire about American self-absorption. But that's the continuing miracle of Miller's compelling storytelling: She knows these people matter, and as she moves gently from one character's perspective to another, her sensitive delineation of their lives convinces us of that, too.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Brief Encounters by Dick Cavett

Those of you who are literate and in tune with the publishing world probably already know that Dick Cavett has been contributing a column to the New York Times for a number of years. As someone who only gets his news from Twitter, I was surprised to discover this fact, while delighted to learn that a number of these (new to me) columns have been assembled in the book Brief Encounters.

I'm officially a member of the David Letterman fan demographic but in my mind there have only really been two talk show hosts - Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett. Erudite while still allowing his guests to lead the conversation, the line that Cavett was able to comfortably walk between respecting old Hollywood (not surprising since he got his start writing for Jack Paar, Jerry Lewis and Carson) and welcoming the love generation's new heroes is something for any talk show host to try to emulate.

The columns collected in this book cover two main subjects: personal memories and insights and celebrity encounters. While there were some enjoyable moments in the former, I was mostly on board for the latter. We get special reminiscences of celebrities who had recently passed, such as Jonathan Winters (in a hilarious column that makes you want to hunt his appearances down on YouTube), James Gandolfini and Eddie Fisher (though his name is merely an excuse to pay tribute to George S. Kaufman).

Lest you think that the book is merely a tribute to long-gone entertainers, well, I suppose it largely is. Some of these are quite moving, such as the Winters tribute or Cavett's memories of schoolmates long gone. But there are also many laugh out loud moments, such as the story of Laurel and Hardy's encounter in front of the Christmas tree. The book slows down in the multiple chapters about Cavett's dreams but they're easy to skip.

It's easy to hear this book in the author's voice while you're reading it, and even easier if you listen to it on CD, since Cavett is the reader. The book's also a great bathroom reader, with most chapters reaching no more than 5 pages. I finished this book in five days and I'm a sloooooow reader, so you might enjoy knocking it off in an evening! A fun, fun book!

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Map Thief by Michael Blanding

Edward Forbes Smiley III was a charming man, a family man with a good sense of humor who was a consummate dealer of rare maps. He was also a fraud. Smiley came from a solidly middle class background and though he had siblings he spent a lot of time in the library as a child. He went to an "experimental" private school and a small academically good college where he was the guy "that just knew more than anyone else." After college followed a girlfriend to London, where he fell in love with old maps.

In 1979, when Smiley (who called himself "Forbes") was 23 he found a job in B. Altman and Company's rare books department. Using the job as an internship he studied Altman's inventory and the rare maps in the New York Public Library. He acquired quite a bit of knowledge and in 1987 decided that he would start trading in the maps, starting his own company "E. Forbes Smiley III."

Smiley started the company by buying a rare atlas, taking it apart and then selling off the individual maps. Map sales at the time were done on the "gentleman's agreement' method - money doesn't necessarily change hands at the time of sale but there are deposits and promises of checks. Smiley's check for the first atlas bounced. The seller of the atlas waited for weeks while Smiley sold off pieces of the atlas to make some money. This lack of financial acumen would be Smiley's downfall. He continued in the rare map market for years, building up a client base and making money.

On June 8, 2005 Smiley's world came to an abrupt halt when an exacto knife fell out of his pocket while in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale. The librarian saw it and alerted security. Then the library staff started going through the items Smiley had looked at and they discovered that maps were missing. The FBI was brought in and Smiley's downfall was complete.  Smiley was charged with stealing 108 maps even though the searches showed 256 maps were missing from a variety of world class institutions. He served 3 years and 6 days in a federal prison.

This was an interesting book. Maybe because I'm interested in old maps but also because it documents the world of rare map trading and the history of some of the missing maps. The library's maps were woefully unprotected, the dealers worked on handshake deals and the provenance of the maps is never really looked at. It was a recipe for fraud. Some of the institutions didn't even say anything publicly because they didn't want any bad publicity to effect their donations! This is not your normal light holiday read but it will serve as an interesting one!

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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris

A first novel, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris is easy to read and hard to put down.

The setting of the novel is an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in a suburb of London. The subject is marriage and family relationships revolving around marriage, with a focus in on two couples. Chani Kaufman and Baruch Levy are a young, newly met and newly engaged couple, about to be married. Rabbi Chaim Zilberman and Rebbetzin Rebecca have been married for nearly 30 years, but are having difficulties in their relationship.

All four main characters are portrayed as interesting and complex individuals living and loving and seeking a balance between their ultra Orthodox world and the modern world. There is much humor in the telling, as well as discussion of serious issues of family, life styles, and faith. The inter-related stories are told from differing and alternating points of view, which adds to the feeling of "I must keep reading to find out what is going to happen"

Reviewers have compared the book to two other recent novels, The Innocents by Francesca Segal and I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits. Those who enjoy the works of Allegra Goodman or Tova Mirvis would also enjoy The Marrying of Chani Kaufman. If you want to read more about the author and her first novel, here is one review which includes an interview:

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Friday, December 5, 2014

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami's latest book, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, is a coming of age tale that is both timeless and existential. The main character, Tsukuru, lacks any quality that makes him stand out. "I've always seen myself as an empty person, lacking color and identity," he says. (p. 177) In high school, he befriends 4 students and they become inseparable. But when he goes to Tokyo to college, these friends cut him off without explanation. And Tsukuru does not ask for one. Instead, he falls into a depression, thinking only of death.

Now thirty-six years old, he meets a mysterious woman, Sara, with whom he has an affair. It is Sara who sees his emotional growth as stunted and frozen in adolescence. She gives him an ultimatum - find his former friends and determine the reason they shunned him.

Thematically, the novel examines the journey motif in which Tsukuru's travels take him as far away as Finland. But as he locates and speaks with his boyhood friends, Tsukuru travels deeper into his own psyche. The growth of the character and the development of his self-perception is one of the strengths of the novel.

As with all of Murakami's books, his characters suffer from a sense of otherness and alienation.No one seems truly connected to the people around them. The image of the sea of commuters at the railway station, heads cast downward, is likely a metaphor for the book as whole.

To quote Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings and The Ten Year Nap:

Colorless Tsukuru's mystery is solved before the end, but the mystery of the spell that the great Murakami casts over his readers, myself included, goes, as ever, unsolved. The novel feels like a riddle, a puzzle, or maybe, actually, more like a haiku: full of beauty, strangeness, and color, thousands of syllables long. (NPR, All Things Considered, August 18, 2014)

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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Invention of Exile by Vanessa Manko

Austin Voronkov is Russian. He has fled his violent homeland for the safety of Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he falls in love with Julia and works as an engineer. Austin stays connected with his homeland by joining Russian social clubs and lecture societies. In 1920 he and others are arrested at a club and deported under the assumption that they are communist sympathizers. Under duress, Austin inadvertently confessed to being ...an anarchist. He and Julia move to Paris, then other parts of Europe, virtually stateless as they begin their family and try to find a home.

Because of the anarchy charge, and deportation, no nation will accept him except Mexico, where they eventually settle. As he struggles to get his family back to the U.S., Austin is advised that sending his wife and children ahead of him will make it easier for him to seek U.S. citizenship. It should only take a month or so, he is told....but it takes much longer for him to be reunited with his beloved family.

The writing in this debut novel is excellent, and the author is a wonderful story teller. This is NOT a fast paced beach read that fits into that "light but good" category. It is what I call "a thinker." You will want to read this book slowly, appreciate the writing, identify with what Austin is going through. I had so many questions at the end that I want to re-read it, which means it will be great for book club discussions.

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Friday, November 28, 2014

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker

Harry Quebert is a writer of some renown. He wrote one massively popular best seller and another book that was equally well received and he now teaches writing for a small but prestigious university. His protege is Marcus Goldman, an insecure but talented college student. Marcus believes in Harry and Harry believes in Marcus. Harry is always explaining writing by using larger life lessons (i.e. knowing the importance of how to fall.) Marcus takes these to heart. Fast forward and Marcus has written his own best seller, but he now has writers block and has only months to finish his next book or he will be in violation of his contract. He goes to visit Harry and the Nolla Kellergan case is once again in the spotlight. His publisher wants Marcus to write about the case. This is story line number one.

Story line number two is the disappearance of Nolla Kellergan from a small New Hampshire town in 1975. This coincidentally is when Harry was living in the town and working on his book. It being a small town, Harry and Nola knew each other. Nolla was 15 year old girl, the daughter of a minister, and desperately in love with Harry. Now, 30 years later, her body is discovered and  Harry becomes a suspect in her murder.

Story line number three is the life of Nolla herself. She could actually be a whole book.

This giant (640 pages) book is new to the United States. An international best seller, I was actually reading it while a  British friend of mine was reading it in England. That should be enough to get you to read this. This book took some getting used to. Multiple story lines all intertwined and each one could be an entire book all on it's own. That said I really liked this book. The jumping between story lines wasn't distracting, it actually added to my interest. The characters are all interesting, in a some what weird sort of way and that also adds to the appeal. The translation is good and the dialogue easy to read - just be prepared for its length!

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Let's Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell

If I die, survive me with such force 
that you waken the furies of the pallid and the cold,
from south to south lift your indelible eyes,
from sun to sun dream through your singing mouth.
I dont want your laughter or your steps to waver, 
I don't want my heritage of joy to die.
Don't call up my person. I am absent.
Live in my absence as if in a house. 
Absence is a house so vast
that inside you will pass through its walls
and hang pictures on the air
Absence is a house so transparent
that I, lifeless, will see you, living,
and if you suffer, my love, I will die again.  
Pablo Neruda, Sonnet XCIV

Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship (2010), by Gail Caldwell, reminds me of this beautiful poem by Pablo Neruda. The author, in fact, quotes a couple of its lines when recalling the death of her dear friend, Caroline Knapp, and describing her process of healing from that loss.

The memoir is the story of a deep friendship - a bond in which two women are linked by their love of family, literature, writing, dogs, and the outdoors. They had other similarities,too - these of a darker nature. Both had struggled with and overcome the addiction of alcoholism.

Caldwell talks candidly about her own family history with this disease and how drinking was very much a part of the culture of her birthplace - Amarillo, Texas.

Because my tolerance allowed me to drink hugely but functionally for years - I survived most of graduate school with a cache of scotch," she recounts.  I cultivated an image that waffled between tragedy and liberation. The self-perception was constructed to fit the need: With alcohol the mandatory elixir, I would erect a stage set to justify its presence. I would be the sensitive heroine, or doomed romantic, or radical bohemian - I was Hamlet, Icarus, Edith Wharton's Lily Bart. God forbid that I simply face who I was, which was somebody drunk and scared and on my way to being no one at all... (p. 50)

Early on, Caldwell acknowledged her love of writing, which co-existed with her drinking. Studying for her doctoral oral exams in Austin, she would sit at her typewriter, "primed with a glass of scotch and a pack of Winstons. "The writing was the life force and the whiskey was the snake in the grass. For as long as I could, I chose them both." (p. 52).

What changed everything was a series of alcohol-related accidents, culminating in memory problems. Caldwell's drinking began to influence her ability to write. A life without writing was unimaginable. She was now living in Massachusetts and working as a freelance writer. It was the summer of 1984. Six months into being sober and with the help of AA meetings, she was hired by The Boston Globe as its underling book critic.

By the time she and Knapp became friends, Caroline had been sober a couple of years and was trying to keep balanced after publication of her book, Drinking, a Love Story. Caldwell, nine years her senior, had been sober for 15. The had initially met at a literary event, but cemented their friendship while out walking their dogs. Their shared love of rowing and long walks in the forest created a deep bond that grew stronger as time passed.

Caldwell's description of those walks is evocative. Her purchase of a home and joy of decorating it are life events that the author recalls as grounding and joyful. Carolyn's carrying her over the threshold evokes a smile, and the reader shares this happy moment with both women.

Clementine, Caldwell's beautiful Samoyed, plays a key role in this memoir. Her energy is matched only by the author's love for her.

In describing Let's Take the Long Way Home, Julie Myerson of the New York Times concludes:

This may be a book about death and loss, but Caldwell's greatest achievement is to rise above all that to describe both the very best that women can be together and the precious things they can, if they wish, give back to one another: power, humor, love and self-respect.

(The New York Times Book Review, August 20, 2010)

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Friday, November 21, 2014

Prague Summer by Jeffrey Condran

This is a debut novel, a thriller, that kept me on the edge of my seat!

The book begins with the story of six female friends, who, post-college, shared a house together on Coventry Drive, in the U.S.A. This house was the focal point for fun and glamor, and a testing ground for any potential man friends. All the girls weighed in on each other's dates!

One of the girls, Stephanie, married Henry Martin, and moved to Prague. Stephanie is a career diplomat assigned to the State Department at the U.S. Embassy in Prague. Henry is a rare book dealer who can work anywhere. He opens a book store called, of all things, "Hades."

Fast forward some years, and one of Stephanie's friends from the Coventry Drive house, Selma, comes to visit, ostensibly to recover from a crisis. Selma's husband, Mansour Al-Khatoub was arrested under the Patriot Act and jailed in the US for unknown reasons. He was there on a work visa, and Selma claims he was arrested merely for being an Arab in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Selma says she has come to Prague to escape from her husband's grim fortune, and while she is there, never ceases lobbying U.S. congressmen and senators, hoping they can secure her husband's release.
It turns out that she also has an ulterior motive behind her visit to her old pal Stephanie and her suggestible husband Henry - Selma plans, through whatever means necessary, to convince Henry that his wife Stephanie should use her considerable connections and influence at the Embassy to get Mansour released.

Good writing, suspense, an intriguing storyline about the rare book world, and lots to think about in terms of friendships and loyalties - what would one do (or not do) for a friend, or a lover?

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

I am Pilgrim opens with a grisly murder scene: a woman is found face down in a bathtub of acid which destroyed her facial features, teeth and finger prints making identification nearly impossible. One of the investigators present recognizes the scene - it's a reenactment from a book he wrote about forensic investigative techniques, a very obscure book.

The investigator is known by many names: Ramon, Scott Murdoch, Brodie Wilson, Peter Campbell, "Rider of the Blue," and later as Pilgrim. Ben Bradley, the lead homicide investigator is in charge and he has brought the Pilgrim with him to have a look. The Pilgrim was a member of a deep shadow United States government organization. Its task was to police the US intelligence community - it was known as "the world's covert internal affairs department" or more simply the "Division." As a member, Pilgrim saw lots of bizarre crimes. As the best of the intelligence agents he was known as "The Rider of the Blue."

Pilgrim spent years chasing terrorists and traitors around the world. Retired, he has been asked to come back and find the Saracen, a middle eastern terrorist who became more strident  in his beliefs after the execution of his father. He was a mujaheddin and then he trained as a medical doctor so he could carry out his world changing idea. He sets up his lab in the desert and practices his idea on 3 victims. It is successful beyond his imaginings. Saracen's problem is that there are governments looking for his 3 victims. While Pilgrim arrives too late to save the victims, he pieces together exactly what the Saracen plans to do but then he realizes he's looking at the problem all wrong!

This is a 600 page book but don't let that scare you off. It takes almost half the book to lay out the background and get to the main event. This book races along, layer after layer. It's a thriller in the classic sense. The Pilgrim has a personal history that is gradually shared. Ben is the perfect sidekick and he has his own past.  Plus the story line just moves - the plot line has twists and turns. Everyone is hiding something. Excellent!

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Friday, November 14, 2014

I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend by Martin Short

I missed Martin Short's new book in the tidal wave of upcoming celebrity memoirs that always greets the season, but this is somehow appropriate in that Short has always seemed to be on the cusp of massive fame but has had to settle into simply being well-known. I snatched this book off the shelf and read it in a weekend since in my world, Martin Short is one of the funniest men alive. Like Short, the book is charming and hilarious while his reminiscence of his wife of 30 years and her death by ovarian cancer is moving.

Short got his start as a professional actor in a Toronto production of Godspell with future SCTV co-stars Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin and Dave Thomas as well as David Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer and Gilda Radner, who he would end up dating - can you imagine being out with those two on a double date? A Canadian branch of Chicago-based Second City eventually opened with John Candy, Brian Doyle-Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Joe Flaherty joining the cast. If it seems like there were a lot of funny future celebrities hanging out in Toronto at the time then that certainly was the case, and we end up hearing stories about all of them.

Short eventually joined up with Second City in Toronto, made his way to Hollywood where he starred in a few ill-fated pilots and landed at the now well-established SCTV where he proceeded to create some of the characters for which he is best known, including Ed Grimley, Jackie Rogers Jr. and songwriter Irving Cohen. Some of the characters followed him to Saturday Night Live, where he joined a cast that included funnymen comedians Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest and Jim Belushi. On the verge of superstardom Short made a number of movies that did...ok. Since that time he has popped up in starring and supporting roles on TV as well as feature films, with an upcoming role in the adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice in the pipeline. Chicago was lucky enough to see him onstage in a comedy show with friend Steve Martin a number of years back and he has even hosted his own Broadway show.

There are two particular aspects to this book that make it stand out. First, it is full of anecdotes about Short's relationships with his famous friends, who include the aforementioned Steve Martin and Paul Shaffer as well as Nora Ephron and others. If you don't want to crash one of his star-studded Christmas parties after reading this book then you really don't know how to have fun. There's even a poignant section on Robin Williams that must have been written since his death. Admittedly, my favorite celebrity anecdote involves a conversation between George Burns and Jack Benny that he heard second hand and which is too filthy to share here.

Beyond being a celebrity memoir though, this is a love story, with Short's wife a presence throughout. His warm remembrance of her makes this a very touching holiday read for any fan of Martin Short's comedy.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Chestnut Street by Maeve Binchy

It’s been said that no one really knows what goes on behind closed doors. However if those doors are on Chestnut Street in Dublin, Maeve Binchy will clue us in to the inner workings.
A collection of nearly 40 somewhat interwoven short stories, this book, published posthumously, is Binchy’s last. It’s a nice coda on her literary life. The book’s stories feature a lot of humor, some sadness, a wee bit of sex, and many happy surprises about the life choices made by the middle-class residents of this long crescent-shaped street in Ireland’s capital.
If you've read this charming writer before, you won’t be disappointed, just wistful that this is her last offering. However, if you haven’t read Binchy before, this collection is a good way to be introduced to her (our Library has over a dozen of her works, so come on back for more when you finish this one).  But grab a cup of tea before you turn to page 1 of Chestnut Street, as you’ll want to settle in for a cozy time when  you meet "Dolly’s Mother" (what IS she doing behind the closed door with that man who is not Dolly's father?), "The Older Man" (why did Helen want to marry him, of all people?), the four lost souls who end up together having a very festive dinner  "One Night a Year", and so many other Dubliners of various ages, backgrounds, and sensibilities.

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Friday, November 7, 2014

New Life, No Instructions by Gail Caldwell

 (But) it's no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.
-Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
( epigraph of New Life, No Instructions)

Gail Caldwell is the former chief book critic of The Boston Globe as well as winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism. New Life, No Instructions is her third memoir and it continues where Let's Take the Long Way Home left off.

It is now 2011, and the author is reflecting on events leading up to the summer of 2008 - the deaths of her adored father, her beloved mother, her best friend, Carolyn Knapp (Drinking, a Love Story, B KNAPP), and finally, her thirteen-year old Samoyed, Clementine. The loss of her faithful companion, Clementine, who had helped her with the other losses, was the blow that seemed to fell her.

After she was gone, Caldwell reflects, I wanted to lie down amid  the rubble and stay thereAnd yet, she continues, I sensed that I had not just been pummeled by death but reshaped by it, poised now at some crucial junction between darkness and endurance, which is the realist's version of hope. It seemed obvious that every gesture we make to way-lay loss - a walk taken, a symphony heard or composed, was either a trick on death or a transient reprieve, and I felt so saddened from this insight that I didn't think I had much fight left in me...I needed the rambunctious miracle that would prove the lie." (pp. 25-26)

This miracle comes in the form of a Samoyed puppy - a mixed blessing indeed. Tula, a dog bred to pull a thousand pounds - a sled dog--was quite a challenge for a woman in her late fifties. But the author welcomed challenges. Having had polio at the age of six months, she never let a limp slow her down. She hiked tough trails and was a strong swimmer and recreational rower. As with everything, Caldwell believed she was up for the task of raising this puppy.

New Life, No Instructions is much more than the story of this human-animal bond. The vigor of the puppy is contrasted with Caldwell's increasing frailty. During Tula's first year, the author's limp becomes more apparent, she is in increasing pain, and she falls repeatedly. After months of misdiagnoses, she finally sees a surgeon who orders an MRI. All the others attributed her decline to post-polio syndrome. Instead, the cause is revealed to be a disintegration in the scaffolding of her hip. She needs a full hip replacement. The surgeon also suggests lengthening the leg that was affected by polio and effectively erasing her limp.

The six months of healing - enduring the physical pain and weakness, re-learning to walk, using muscles in her lengthened leg that had never been used - is a testament to the determination and  strength of the author. It is also exploration of the single life and a testament to deep friendships  - without which Caldwell could not have managed her long recovery. And although Caldwell's recovery is a focal point in the book, it serves as a metaphor for the many hurdles we all face in life. As she observes:

One of the quiet profundities of aging is when you realize this is an ordinary and very un-profound moment. Inside every aging person is the ageless, blinking mind, asking, "How did I get here?" There may be a former linebacker inside the elderly man being helped across the street; the eighty-five-year-old woman selecting two oranges at the grocery store used to be a dancer, or a lawyer, or hoisted her children up over her head when they were small. It helps to know this, I think, because it widens the future, humbles you before the sovereignty of time...You can see all the corners of the map in your fifties, probably for the first time in life. You still get to shape some of it, and finally have the sense to know how. (p. 30)

New Life, No Instructions is a lyrical self-examination that brims with humanity and salutes all who have the courage to live with vigor and optimism.

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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Steady Running of the Hour by Justin Go

I could not stop reading The Steady Running of the Hour, this first novel by Justin Go. There is history and mystery, romance and epistolary (letter writing). The novel is compelling on many levels and much better written than my second sentence. I want to write something brief about this book and leave you to discover it for yourself. I do not want to give too much away.

The novel can be described as a quest novel. The narrative alternates between two time periods and main characters. Ashley Walsingham is an English mountaineer and a World War I veteran. In 1924,  he dies while trying to reach the summit of Mount Everest. He leaves his fortune to his former lover, Imogen, a woman he has not seen since she left him during the war. His lawyers can not find her and the estate is unclaimed.

"The letter came by courier last week." So writes Tristan Campbell, in the first sentence of the book. He is a young American college graduate, who is notified by a British law firm that he may be the heir to a fortune. Nearly eighty years have passed and only a few weeks remain before the trust expires. New information has led the law firm to Tristan who must find evidence of his relationship to Imogen to claim the trust. Conditions of the trust require that he not reveal his search or its purpose to anyone, so Tristan must search alone and unaided.

In the course of the two narratives, the reader is transported throughout Europe, "From London archives to Somme battlefields to the Eastfjords of Iceland..." The book is written with excellent attention to detail of places and a fine understanding of the multiple characters.  The Steady Running of the Hour is an story of adventure told with sensitivity. I found it hard to put down. I look forward to more from Justin Go.

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Friday, October 31, 2014

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

This is a fun book, just right for when you want something entertaining to read, and don't want to think too hard.

Main character Jason T. Fitger is Professor of Creative Writing and English at Payne University. As such, he is asked hundreds and hundreds of times to write letters of recommendation for students, former students, colleagues, former colleagues, and people he is not sure he has ever met. They're looking for recommendations for jobs, fellowships, academic appointments, and funding.

Fitger is witty, he is acerbic, highly opinionated, and just can't keep those qualities out of his letters of recommendation. Each letter is a page or two, and includes enough information about what is going on in Professor Fitger's life to make you want to know more. 

Highly recommended in the "light but good" category.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird

Robert Ames was a spy. He came from a solid middle class background - steelworker father, homemaker mother - to join the ranks of the CIA.  He was, according to one of his associates, a "spies spy."

Ames was born in 1934. After college he joined the Army where he studied languages on his own time. He was fascinated by the middle east. He became fluent in several languages and thinking he would love to work in the Arabian area he took the foreign service exam.  He failed it and joined the CIA instead. It was a perfect fit. Ames was stationed in the Middle East from the 1960's until his death in 1983. He was married, the father of 6 children and they usually followed him to his station.

Ames was a naturally reserved man. He practiced his craft by getting to know the local people and becoming invested in their lives. His personal affinity for his contacts was a trademark of his craft.  Ames was revered by the foreign nationals he dealt with. They trusted him. He saw first hand what was going on in the area, from misguided and failed policy to the rise of the terrorist organizations. Ames was killed in the Beirut embassy bombing of 1983, removing one of the CIA's most effective intelligence officers in the area.

Kai Bird is a Pulitzer prize winning author who had access to declassified documents and people who were actually with Ames during his tenure. This book is a great background study of the middle east and why it is the way it is today. Compelling and a fascinating study not only of Ames, but of CIA policy.

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Friday, October 24, 2014

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

The British author, Sarah Waters, is no stranger to the Man Booker award. She was first shortlisted for the prize in 2002 for her spell-binding Dickensian masterpiece, Fingersmith. Then came The Night Watch in 2006, followed by the ghost story, The Little Stranger (2009). Both are set in 1940s England and were shortlisted for the Booker.

The amount of historical research done for her latest crime novel, The Paying Guests, is evident from start to finish. Set in 1922 London, it focuses on a mother, aged 55, and daughter, aged 26, reeling from financial and personal losses. Frances Wray has lost both of her brothers in WWI, as well as her father some time later. Now, with barely enough savings to keep their home, Frances and her mother decide to rent out the rooms upstairs.

"The Paying Guests," as the boarders are referred to, are from the lower middle classes - the new "clerk class." Leonard Barber works in an office; his wife, Lilian, lounges about the house in theatrical clothes. The unhappy details of their marriage gradually become known to the reader as Frances ease-drops on their conversations.

The most sympathetic character in the book is Frances. A former suffragette, she once had dreams of a bohemian life. She and her friend, Christine, hoped to make a life together and support themselves by working. This is a new life choice for post-Edwardian women. But loss of her father and brothers, coupled with her mother's sheer helplessness, make this dream impossible. Admirably, Frances never feels sorry for herself. She goes about her days immersing herself in the tasks at hand.

Waters' prose is lyrical as she uses the condition of the newly washed floor as a metaphor for life in general and Frances' life in particular.

How pleasing each glossy tile was. The gloss would fade in about five minutes as the surface dried; but everything faded. The vital thing was to make the most of the moments of brightness. There was no point in dwelling on the scuffs...She had--what did she have?--Little pleasures like this. Little successes in the kitchen. The cigarette at the end of the day. Cinema with her mother on a Wednesday. Regular trips into Town.  (p. 24)

One feels absolutely transported--lulled by the quiet observations of our protagonist. And just when the reader feels secure in the story being told--midway through this 550+ page book--everything changes. A completely new plot unfolds. Frances' attraction to Lillian builds very gradually, as does their mutual passion. And then something shocking happens--a point of no return for Frances and Lillian. Passion is followed by murder. Nail-biting suspense replaces the slow pace of what seemed to be a gentle, domestic drama.

Sarah Waters masterfully analyzes an ethical dilemma and "the corrosive psychology of guilt." To quote Elizabeth Lowry of The Wall Street Journal:

The pressure that remorse and moral responsibility bring to bear on their love affair is unpacked with exquisite pathos, so that whether their relationship will survive at all remains uncertain until the very
last paragraph. It is a finely tweaked conclusion to an unnerving novel in which, in the end, almost everyone pays.

The Wall Street Journal online, September 19, 2014

If you are a fan of period literature, fine prose, or erotic thrillers, The Paying Guests is not to be missed.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

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

If you're a reader of The New Yorker then surely you've come across a brilliant cartoon and thought "I could have written that!". Or maybe you've stared at their famous cartoon caption contest and have been unable to come up with anything worthy to say. Or maybe, like Elaine Benes, you've tried in vain to understand the punchline of a particularly obtusely delivered drawing. Anyone who has spent time enjoying The New Yorker cartoons should look forward to reading How About Never - Is Never Good for You by New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff. Named after Mankoff's most famous caption, How About Never is both a memoir and a look at what it takes to create cartoons for one of the few adult periodicals that still offers them.

A mediocre art school student and psychology school dropout, Mankoff, like many of his cartoonist brethren, accomplished the feat of publishing a cartoon in The New Yorker only after years of rejection, though with many other avenues for cartoon publishing around he was able to get his work to the public in other less distinguished magazines. The New Yorker, with its illustrious history of smart cartooning, was the coup de grace and once within the walls, Mankoff became a regular.

The reality of the limits of space in print publishing means that there are bound to be many more cartoons rejected that accepted, which led to Mankoff's later creation of The Cartoon Bank, which offered cartoons that had not been approved for The New Yorker to the highest bidder. Meanwhile, Mankoff ascended to that most prestigious position of Cartoon Editor, in a position to smash young cartoonists' dreams as previous editors had tried with him. Actually, in all seriousness, he became a mentor to young cartoonists, writing how-to books, crediting The New Yorker's newest staff and offering a guide on what makes New Yorker cartoons funny. He even gives the secret of how to win the famous weekly cartoon caption contest, which Roger Ebert claimed to have entered every week, eventually winning on his 107th try.

How About Never is a fast read, filled with Mankoff's humorous asides and many cartoons drawn by the author and his colleagues and predecessors. Beyond being a memoir and history of The New Yorker's comics, it offers a history of comic drawing that you'll probably learn something from. Mankoff also addresses the question of whether the magazine's cartoons have become dumbed down. I do wish that Mankoff would have addressed the question of how the internet ("where no one knows you're a dog", to quote another famous New Yorker comic) has changed the business of cartoon gatekeeping, but mostly this is a very entertaining read.

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Friday, October 17, 2014

One Plus One by JoJo Moyes

One Plus One is a compelling novel that explores, with compassion, the lives of people at opposite ends of the social strata. Moyes takes the journey motif - in this case, a road trip - and turns it on its ear with her cast of quirky characters.

The heroine of the book is Jess Thomas. She is a single mother who is barely scraping by with two minimum wage jobs. By day, she is a house cleaner; by night she works in a bar. Bad luck stalks her. Her step son, Nicky, is being bullied in his public high school for being a bit Goth and wearing mascara. Nicky is not merely bullied - he is severely beaten by menacing teen brothers. In the poor development where they live, the police seem unhelpful and the neighbors are unwilling to force an eviction.

Adding to Jess's worries is the fact that her daughter, Tanzy, is a ten-year-old math prodigy. Tanzy is a dreamy girl who likes sparkly clothes and finds solace in prime numbers. Her well-meaning teacher suggests she compete in a Math Olympiad. If she scores high, she may win a scholarship to an elite private school. The immediate problem, though, is how to get to Scotland where the test is given.

Enter Ed, the software designer who feels more comfortable behind a screen than in the world at large. He and his best friend have become millionaires and now head up a company. But Ed has committed a grave error. In an attempt to get rid of an unstable woman, he has given her information that leads to his conviction of insider trading. Now Ed is about to lose everything.

Under advice from his attorney, Ed leaves London and heads to his summer home on the southern coast of England - the home that Jess cleans. Caught up in his own mess and drinking much too heavily, Ed sinks deeper into despair.

Jess's story runs parallel to his own. While Ed's trial looms closer, Jess is seen making two mistakes. The first involves the theft of Ed's wallet when she accompanies him home stone drunk; the second occurs when she attempts an ill-advised trip to Scotland in a car that has been sitting idle for years. Jess also has no license to drive.

Predictably, Jess is stopped by the police and Ed just happens to be driving along that stretch of highway. But Ed is hardly the knight on a white horse. Thinking he owes her a favor, he offers to take the Thomas clan - flatulent dog included - to the testing center in Scotland. And so begins a road trip that some reviewers compare to the 2006 film, Little Miss Sunshine.

One of the many strengths of One Plus One is that it gives a human face to the plight of the working poor. It also highlights the growing chasm between the haves and the have nots. Told from different viewpoints, the novel creates characters who are genuine and all too human.

If you are a fan of Jojo Moyes or just someone looking for a good story well told, check out One Plus One. You'll love it!

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta

Jace Wilson is  13 years old and the butt of many jokes and much harassment from a local bully named Wayne Potter. Somehow Jace has to settle a bet by jumping 65 feet down into a quarry lake. Jace is afraid of heights, but he is more afraid of being embarrassed in front of girls. He decides practicing is the only way to make sure he can actually do this. He starts with a 15 foot jump and lands in the water but the jump is not really successful because Jace lands right next to a dead body - a body whose throat has been cut and that has been weighted down. 

Once he can think clearly he realizes he must notify the sheriff. He starts towards his clothing on the other side of the quarry when he hears a car approaching. A man exits the car and to Jace's relief he is wearing a badge. Then more men exit the car pushing someone who has a black hood over his head. Jack watches as they kill the man and throw his body into the water.Then they find Jace's clothes and come after him. He stays hidden in the water on the far side until they leave. He goes home and his nightmare really begins.

Jace is now the main focus of these two killers. Known as the Blackwell brothers they are assassins for hire and they need to remove Jace. Jace has been placed under the protection of a private security firm who has sent him to the mountains for a survival camp and he will need it. Soon everyone is on the run.

Michael Koryta has written another thriller with another creepy character. The Blackwell brothers are right out of a nightmare. Jace is the innocent child caught up in their evil. Fast paced with enough twists and surprises to keep you reading, Koryta has written another great book.

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Friday, October 10, 2014

Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera

Island of A Thousand Mirrors is a really important book by a debut novelist, who has been compared to both Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient) and Jhumpa Lahiri (The Namesake).

I was first struck by the beauty of the writing, sentences that I stopped to read again. Here is an opening paragraph. “My name is Yasodhara Rajasinghe and this is the story of my family. It is also one possible narrative of my island. But we are always interlopers into history, dropped into a story that has been going on far before we are born, and so I must start much earlier than my birth and I must start with the boy who will become my father.” Pulls you in, doesn’t it?

This is a story of Ceylon, of Sri Lanka, of the civil war that took place over decades as rival forces struggle for power. And yes, there is violence, and there is blood. There is also so much beauty in this story that you are drawn through the war by your loyalty to the characters, their story and their land. Two main characters - Tamil and Sinhala - were raised virtually together before the troubles, and appear and reappear as the story moves along. I won’t tell you more because it would spoil it, and you really need to read this book.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors has won the Commonwealth Book Prize for Asia, quite an accomplishment for a first time author. Highly recommended.

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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Funny Once: Stories by Antonya Nelson

Antonya Nelson is an award-winning writer of three novels and four short story collections. Funny Once, like her other collections, deals with life's tragic misfits - people who are victims of the poor choices they made or those they never made at all.

The book gets its name from the title story, "Funny Once." In it, one of the hosts of a dinner party remarks that most of life's events are "only funny once." This phrase becomes the central theme of the book and refers to those embarrassing, often belittling, events that befall everyone over a lifetime. In time, we may laugh about them - but not too heartily and with great humility.

"Funny Once" is about a married couple who are polar opposites. The husband (Ben) is "a professional idealist" and his wife (Phoebe) is a fearful pessimist. "She'd been raised by critics, pessimists; she was genetically predisposed" (p. 169). Self-medicating for depression, she seeks the help of a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist has little to say to her other than telling her to stop drinking and asking her if her husband demands rough sex.

Nelson's word play is reminiscent of the writing of Lorrie Moore; her characters are evocative of the early Anne Tyler. These are people whose dreams - if they had them at all - just never worked out.  Nelson's dark humor allows the reader to see her characters objectively and without pathos. Her writing is crisp and to the point.  As Donna Seaman concludes in her starred review:

Nelson is scandalously funny, her characters are royally screwed up and wildly inept, and their dire predicaments bust down the doors on the most painful of life's cruel jokes, from betrayal to divorce, addiction, and old age. (Booklist, April 1, 2014)

If you are a lover of short fiction with acerbic, perfectly placed one-liners, this is a collection you will not want to miss.

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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok

In Mambo in Chinatown, Jean Kwok writes about topics and situations that she knows well. Kwok was born in Hong Kong and immigrated to Brooklyn as a young girl. She graduated from Harvard and attended the Columbia MFA program. She also worked as a professional ballroom dancer.

Mambo in Chinatown is set in Manhattan's Chinatown and in a world outside Chinatown in a ballroom dance studio uptown in New York. Twenty-two year old Charlie Wong is the main character, an elder sister who lives with her father and her 11 year old sister, Lisa. Lisa is seen by the family as the pretty and talented sister. Charlie struggled in school and works as a dishwasher in the restaurant where their widowed father is a talented noodle cook. The family lives in a tiny apartment and life is not easy for them. Pa's elder brother, Uncle  helps them financially and in return, Lisa works in the office where Uncle practices Eastern medicine.

Gradually, changes develop for the family. Charlie takes a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio. She becomes friends with some of the professional dancers and finds she has a talent for dance, similar to that of her mother who was a ballerina in Hong Kong. Lisa has an opportunity to test for the prestigious Hunter High School. But Lisa also develops a chronic illness. Pa dislikes any change and fears Western medicine and life outside Chinatown, so the family, full of love, is also full of secrets, as the characters struggle to find balance in their lives.

Mambo in Chinatown is well written and full of interesting characters. Details of the life of immigrants in Chinatown, their customs, practices, and foods are contrasted with details of the world of ballroom dance and dancers. Eastern medicine and witchcraft are contrasted with the world of Western medicine. Romance, love, and caring set the tone for this descriptive and sensitive book. 

Kwok's first novel, Girl in Translation, is another story of an immigrant family, a young girl and her mother moving from Hong Kong to New York's Chinatown, and struggling in poverty and through hard work and education to find a better life. I recommend reading Girl in Translation too.

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