Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Other Language by Francesca Marciano

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

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

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

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

Other stories in this stellar collection focus on the effects of time on relationships. In" Big Island, Small Island," a woman discovers a former lover living as a Muslim leader on a remote African island. She seems unable, until the end, to reconcile the new image of him with the picture in her mind.

In "An Indian Soiree," a marriage of many years is undone within hours. The husband and wife, locked in a malaise by their own fears about aging, reveal truths that cannot be unsaid. Marciano, in an interview on NPR, reflects: "Maybe it would have been better not to ever say those things and continue...You know, how many people are in a relationship and it could go either way?" (Rachel Martin, Weekend Edition Sunday, April 19, 2014).

In "The Italian System," a young woman who leaves Rome to become an author in New York finds she has idealized her place of birth. The book she will come to publish, comparing the Italian and American ways of life, is pure fiction. What remains unchanged is not Rome, but the author's vision of it.

Another story - "The Club" - takes place in Mombasa, Kenya and explores the class system and subtle racism that permeates society. But it is far more than that. It is also about the loneliness of growing old in a place whose culture is so different from one's native land. And it is about the price of false optimism and living life by denying the truth.

The Other Language is a thought-provoking book with characters both resilient and empathetic. Like the wonderful story collections of Jhumpa Lahiri, it explores what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land.

Check Our Catalog

Friday, April 25, 2014

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

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

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

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

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

Aaliya's life is one of deprivation from the time she was two years old. It was then that she lost the one person who loved her - her father. Her mother became almost hostile to her once she remarried and had sons. Later, Aaliya was married off to a man who never loved her and who was, in fact, impotent. When her husband divorced her and left behind their shared apartment, her family attempted to take it away from her.

But Aaliya is resilient. She is not likable but the reader has profound respect for her. She never sinks into self-pity. Quoting the author Javier Marias, Aaliya compares his writings with her fate:

In one of his essays, she recalls, Marias suggests that his work deals as much with what didn't happen as with what happened. In other words, most of us believe we are who we are because of the decisions we've made, because of events that shaped us, because of the choices of those around us. We rarely consider that we're also formed by the decisions we didn't make, by events that could have happened but didn't, or by our lack of choices, for that matter.  (p. 22)

The title may get its name from the story of the artist and writer Bruno Schulz. Schulz was a Polish Jew whose erotic art was tinged with sado-masochism. When Schulz was relocated to the guetto, the Gestapo officer in charge of the Jewish labor force, Felix Landau, decided that Bruno was "a necessary Jew." He made this decision because he fancied himself a lover of art. Schulz lived for a time as Landau's personal painter, creating murals of fairy tales in his son's bedroom. He ultimately was shot by a rival Gestapo officer, Karl Gunther, in retaliation for the dentist Landau shot - "a necessary dentist, one presumes." (p. 183)

Alameddine's novel is filled with reflections such as this one. While not political, its narrator exposes the reader to the atrocities of war and the allure of extremism on youth. An Unnecessary Woman is a uniquely written novel that is rich in literary allusions from the greatest of writers - Dostoevsky, Calvino, Hemingway, Faulkner, Tolstoy, Nabokov, Saramago, and Conrad.

If you are a lover of literature and enjoy books about the Mideast, An Unnecessary Woman offers a view from another perspective.

Check Our Catalog

The Lost Girls of Rome by Donato Carrisi

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

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

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

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

Check our catalog

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

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

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

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

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

Good Night!

Check our catalog

Friday, April 18, 2014

My Mistake by Daniel Menaker

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

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

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

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

Check our catalog

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Last Animal by Abby Geni

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

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

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

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

"Captivity" employs humor as well as sadness. When an administrator remarks that Falco is becoming aggressive, that he almost bit someone, Lucy defends him.

They bite their prey, she says. I've never been bitten. I don't know of any divers who've been bitten.
They're poisonous, the manager remarks. I had the feeling she'd just learned this. She had degrees in marine biology, and I had field experience, so friendship was impossible between us. This discrepancy was common among the members of the administration and staff at the aquarium. The managers grouped together at lunch, no doubt grumbling about our stubbornness and absence of hard data, while we, the aquarists and underlings, bonded after hours at the dolphin pool to complain about our bosses' lack of common sense. (p. 88)

All ten stories capture the experiences of growing up, of loving people and of losing them. Each story substantiates how redemption is often found in nature - in caring for animals (domestic or wild) or in creating and tending a  garden. Ultimately, our relationship to the natural world defines our essential humanity.

The Last Animal is packed with emotionally charged and evocative stories. You need not be an animal lover to be captivated by them.

Check Our Catalog

Friday, April 11, 2014

Mr. Selden's Map of China by Timothy Brook

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

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

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

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

The map is truly unexplained. Although Brooks takes  the reader through an examination of the map, its history, the world history of the time and Selden's life, the bottom line is that this map is a mystery. A fascinating one as this book so carefully explains.

I love old maps. They show the world at a time unbelievably different than current times. The history of the Selden map gives the reader insight into a time and place that we can only imagine.

Check our catalog

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Identical, by Scott Turow

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

Check our catalog

Friday, April 4, 2014

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

A Circle of Wives by Alice LaPlante

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

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

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

Check our catalog

Shotgun Lovesongs by Nicolas Butler

This debut novel is a treat for those of us who want to read a really good story with good writing, a compelling plot and great characters, but don’t want to read about anything that will give us nightmares.

Shotgun Lovesongs is set in fictional Little Wing, Wisconsin, a small town of 1,500 without a stoplight outside of Eau Claire. The main characters, guys, have been friends since childhood; attended the same school and church, sang in the same choirs, dated the same girls. As teens, they dream of getting out – to a big city like Minneapolis or Madison or even…Chicago. But those who do leave - the rodeo rider, the rock star, the commodities trader - all come back, to reunite with their friends, recharge, and find their bearings again. At the center of the book is Henry, one of the original group of guys who has stayed in town to farm the family land, marry his sweetheart Beth, and father two children. Henry and Beth are happy, stable, and serve as the touchpoint for the rest of the group.

The author, a graduate of The University of Wisconsin and The Iowa Writers Workshop, is a skilled story teller who excels at characterization. Men and women have enjoyed reading Shotgun Lovesongs, and I plan to use it for book discussions. Highly recommended.

Check our catalog

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin

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

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

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

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

A powerful sensation of revulsion rose up in me. Who were these bizarre, complacent people, these obstinate monomaniacs fixated on the patently absurd" Amid all this natural beauty, what most enlivened them was their conviction that death was not momentous, that life, as they put it, was continuous. The spirits they peddled had no mystery; they were ghosts stripped of their otherness. In their cosmography, the dead were just like us and they were everywhere, waiting to give us yet more unsolicited advice. That and the news that they were happy being dead, that life as they now lived it was better than it had been when they walked the green earth disporting themselves in flesh and blood. (p. 167)

Valerie Martin's depiction of these two women, Phoebe and Hannah - both of whom share an outsider status in society - substantiates central themes of the book. Martin explores the role of women in Victorian society as well as the place of faith vs. science, reason vs. superstition. To paraphrase Christobel Kent of The Guardian in his eloquent review: At a time when the spector of death was everywhere and Tennyson's depiction of grief and mourning in his poem, In Memorium, becomes the apogee of the era, Martin "evokes a world suspended between faith and reason, in which 'the other side' is quite real--and always beckoning."

Check Our Catalog
Download the ebook