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2009 Staff Picks

December 2009

Book Cover for The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein Ackroyd, Peter
The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein

Fiction
Peter Ackroyd's latest is a retelling of the unforgettable legend of Frankenstein. This time the story, which takes place mostly in England, offers a unique twist, and contains characters both fictional and actual. The Casebook opens with a still callow Victor Frankenstein (fictional) enrolling at Oxford University where he meets the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (actual), who helps Victor select his first class, "Anatomical Experimentation in order to Reanimate the Dead."* Shelley hopes his new pal will do for science what he hopes to do for politics and literature, i.e. "liberate it." While Shelley woos his first wife Harriet (actual), Victor builds a laboratory in an old pottery barn and begins to purchase corpses from a grave robbing band known as the "sack-em-up-men." He then stitches the cadavers together and jolts them with electricity, thus attempting to create a new kind of being. After much failure comes great success and The Monster (fictional) comes alive. However, he soon goes berserk, bumping off Londoners left & right, including Shelley's wife Harriet. An innocent man is executed for the crimes leaving Victor distraught and in need of a vacation. Young Frankenstein, along with a grieving Shelley, head for the Continent where they hook up with Lord Byron (actual) and the soon to be second Mrs. Shelley, Mary Godwin (whom readers will recall as the actual creator of both Victor and The Monster). Unfortunately, poor Victor can run but he can't hide. The Monster follows him and dead people begin to turn up in Austria as well. Victor heads back to England in order to devise a way to destroy what he has created. * see CMU Spring Schedule
Recommended by John, December 2009

 
Book Cover for The Anthologist Baker, Nicholson
The Anthologist

Fiction
A poet who can't quite complete the introduction to his poetry anthology, writes instead to the reader of this novel. Brimming with charming digression, he muses on his own semi-successful career as poet, the lives of famous and obscure poets, history of rhythm and rhyme—ultimately reminding us why we read poetry.
Recommended by Julie, December 2009

 
Book Cover for Fatally Flaky Davidson, Diane Mott
Fatally Flaky

Mystery
Goldy Schulz is back with another tantalizing mystery, including tantalizing recipes, in Davidson’s newest series installment. This time, caterer extraordinaire Goldy is preparing for the wedding of Bridezilla Billie Attenborough. Billie's changed plans again—at the last minute adding 50 more guests and changing the venue to a spa. Goldy has it covered. But the day before the big wedding, Doc Finn, a beloved, retired family doctor, is found dead at the bottom of a ravine. Was it a car accident or was it murder? Goldy puts on her best face and goes forward with the wedding despite the tragedy, but disaster can’t begin to describe what happens next! This book will make you laugh out loud as well as keep you guessing, and you'll crave a quadruple espresso and cream (or at least a full-fat smoothie).
Recommended by Terry, December 2009

 
Book Cover for Wishful Drinking Fisher, Carrie
Wishful Drinking

Nonfiction
Have you ever had lunch or drinks with a friend who tells great stories, but doesn't necessarily tell them in chronological order? Stories that are funny, revealing, a little disjointed, eminently entertaining. That is what this book reminds me of. I felt like I was having a personal conversation with Carrie Fisher as she told me about her life in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way. I enjoyed insights about her famous parents. Her tales of the making of the Star Wars movies are priceless. She talks about all of the failed relationships she has witnessed and in which she has participated. But her willingness to discuss her addiction and mental health problems is what moved me the most. Plus, she provides a list of other famous people who have had similar issues. It always softens the blow when you can see that others have walked the same path before you. This is a quick, entertaining read.
Recommended by Melissa, December 2009

 
Book Cover for Ball Peen Hammer Rapp, Adam
Ball Peen Hammer

Graphic Novel
Adam Rapp’s graphic novel is as dark as his plays. Its muted colors and grimy subterranean setting match the gruesome violence of the storyline, while the panels and dialogue match the rapid-fire wit and excellent timing of Rapp’s drama. Ball Peen Hammer explores a post-apocalyptic, disease-ridden, food-starved society whose ethics are subverted, with horrifying results for the humanity of every character.
Recommended by Renée, December 2009

 

November 2009

Book Cover for Confessions of a Closet Master Baker Bullock-Prado, Gesine
Confections of a Closet Master Baker

Nonfiction
This light, satisfying read reminds me of a good pastry. It has multiple layers, comforts and delights you, and leaves you wanting just a little bit more. Through an hour by hour account of her day as master baker and owner of a patisserie in Montpelier, you learn about the author’s past and present -- connections between her childhood and family, experiences in soulless LA, and the formation of her sweet treats. At the end of each chapter is a recipe so you can recreate one of her decadent pastries. I read four chapters before I figured out the author’s sister, Sandy, was that Sandra. Bullock, that is. Part anti-Hollywood exposé, part diary of a Vermont baker and shopkeeper, and part cookbook, I thoroughly enjoyed it all.
Recommended by Melissa, November 2009

 
Book Cover for Pop Gun War Dalrymple, Farel
Pop Gun War

Graphic Novel
Pop Gun War is a perfect blend of gritty urban imagery and fantastic elements. The story focuses on Sinclair, a young boy who finds a pair of wings in a trash can. When he straps them on, they work. The characters include a floating fish and his best friend whose size undergoes sudden drastic changes; a sinister silent monk; Sinclair’s very young rock star sister, Emily; the obligatory bully; and, of course, the original owner of the wings. While that cast could make for a wildly surreal tale, Farel Dalrymple grounds the story in the moving emotional connections among the characters. Sinclair’s longing for his sister and the subtle hints of back story are especially poignant. Solid shapes, sketchy lines, splatters and detail create the perfect texture for the outcast characters’ lonely habitat of alleyways, bars, and sparsely-furnished bedrooms.
Recommended by Renée, November 2009

 
Book Cover for My Lobotomy: A Memoir Dully, Howard
My Lobotomy: A Memoir

Nonfiction
Howard Dully is a family man. He works a full-time job as a shuttle-bus driver for special needs children. He is a contributing citizen and a nice guy. He is a recovering alcoholic and drug abuser. A good deal of Howard’s young adult years were spent bouncing between mental wards, juvenile detention centers, and institutions for troubled youth. Howard Dully is a survivor of a barbaric transorbital lobotomy performed on him when he was only 12 years old. The procedure was done by the infamous Dr. Walter Freeman at the request of his cruel and abusive step-mother. It was wholly unnecessary. There was nothing wrong with Howard. This book is the story of how Howard overcame the assumptions of trauma and a culture of victimhood. It is sincere and horrifying, and you won’t be able to put it down.
Recommended by Connie, November 2009

 
Book Cover for The Red Tree Kiernan, Caitlin
The Red Tree

Horror
Don’t judge this book by its cheesy cover: The Red Tree is one of the best pieces of supernatural suspense horror you’ll ever read. Its premise is classically Lovecraftian. Girl moves into creepy old house in New England; girl finds crumbling manuscript that describes something fantastically evil; girl faces the evil and slowly loses her mind. Despite the modern setting in which the story takes place, Kiernan does a perfect job of channeling the timeless terrors evoked by the old school elite of horror writing. Nightmares that are more ethereal than in-your-face haunt the pages of The Red Tree in dark, cavernous basements and haunted forests, and ultimately it’s the horror of the unknown that gives the book its power to scare. Fans of H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, and Arthur Machen should not hesitate to give The Red Tree a try.
Recommended by Wes, November 2009

 
Book Cover for The Professional Parker, Robert
The Professional

Mystery
Robert Parker’s The Professional certainly isn’t the best Spenser novel I've read (Early Autumn wins that vote). However, it is definitely an improvement over many of the recent offerings from Parker. In The Professional, Spenser is asked to take on an unusual case: four young women married to wealthy older men are being blackmailed because of their extramarital relations. As an added twist, the blackmailer is actually the charming man with whom all four were romantically involved. As Spenser begins to investigate this crime, a more serious matter — murder — soon unfolds as part of the drama. Supported by series regulars Hawk and Susan, Spenser uncovers the truth while maintaining his signature moral code and conduct. While a quick read — the book has big print and extraneous blank spaces on the pages — The Professional is an exciting and intelligent 38th addition to Parker’s popular series.
Recommended by Karen G., November 2009

 
Book Cover for The Shack Young, William P.
The Shack

Fiction (Inspirational)
A fictional account of a man, Mack, whose daughter disappears at a campsite. The initial hunt turns up only her red dress in a shack in the woods, and "The Great Sadness" descends upon him. When he receives a note, signed simply "Papa," inviting him to meet at the shack, he doesn't know whether to think it's a horrible joke or his last hope to find his daughter. What he finds there are three people, unlike any people he's ever met before, and they proceed to offer him a thorough picture of his relationship with God, one that had deteriorated in the face of his sorrow. What is most compelling about the story, aside from the fascinating and unusual way God is presented, is the time spent looking at suffering through spiritual eyes. Just when you think Mack has opened up to God more than anyone possibly could, Young gives you even more, and it is beautiful. To think of God as wanting, craving really, a direct and intimate relationship with each of us, is exhilarating and very moving. Highly recommended.
Recommended by Kaarin, November 2009

 
Book Cover for The Shack Young, William P.
The Shack

Fiction (Inspirational)
Part mystery, part fantasy, part philosophical discussion, the key to enjoying The Shack is keeping an open mind. When a man's daughter is abducted from their campsite and later presumed dead, he is overwhelmed by a depression that curdles everything in his life. A mysterious note left in his mailbox compels him to return to the place where the last evidence of his beloved child was found. Though dreading what he might find there, he makes the trip. What the bereaved father encounters tests his faith, helps him turn his life around and move on as he tries to make sense of what has befallen his family. The scenery and characters are well-wrought and memorable. My favorite is a fractal garden described as a controlled chaos of color. It is easy to appreciate The Shack if you think of the characters as representing different schools of thought, each trying to understand and relate to the others. Some of your own beliefs will be validated even if you don't agree with them all.
Recommended by Geo, November 2009

 

October 2009

Book Cover for The 19th Wife Ebershoff, David
The 19th Wife

Fiction
The 19th Wife contains chapters that alternate between the historical story of Ann Eliza Young, one of Brigham Young's many wives, and a young man, Jordan Scott, who was kicked out of his fundamentalist sect in present-day Utah. Ann Eliza left her powerful husband and then gave many notable speeches against the practice of polygamy in the late 1800’s. Her chapters trace her childhood, marriage, subsequent "divorce," which was hotly contested, and her mysterious later life. The chapters on Jordan constitute a modern-day murder mystery and center around his efforts to vindicate his mother, the nineteenth wife of a polygamist, who is accused of killing her husband. If you’re interested in the private lives of those who practice plural marriage, this book will not disappoint.
Recommended by Melissa, October 2009

 
Book Cover for The Outlander Gabaldon, Diana
The Outlander

Fiction
It’s long but boy, is it worth it! Claire and her husband Frank accidently observe a ritual at an ancient rock formation while on vacation in Scotland. When she returns to explore the area, Claire somehow slips through the rocks and through time. She is transported to the 1740s and finds herself among rival clansmen and English soldiers. Claire is taken to Castle Leoch, where her “suspicious” manners are questioned and she is thought to be an English spy. Although the MacKenzie clan can’t figure out who she really is, they come to accept her, and her knowledge of medicinal plants temporarily secures her place with them. After the initial shock of her circumstances and concern for the husband she left behind, she begins to adapt to a new life in the Scottish Highlands while trying to figure out a way back to the rocks and the 20th century. But an arranged marriage to the somewhat mysterious Jamie soon changes all of that. The story of Claire and Jamie is both interesting as a historical novel and enticing as a love story. I didn’t want it to end. Luckily there’s a sequel, Dragonfly in Amber.
Recommended by Joanne, October 2009

 
Book Cover for The Dog of the Marriage: Stories Hempel, Amy
The Dog of the Marriage: Stories

Short Stories
Amy Hempel’s first-person narrators have the tone of a recent acquaintance candidly revealing details of her tangled personal life: they’re a little startling, but somehow very familiar. Hempel’s prose is poetic and concise. Sentences expertly shift between wry self-deprecation and poetic observations. “The Uninvited,” the highlight of the collection, expertly weaves several narratives, including the narrator’s work as hotline operator, watching the movie The Uninvited, and seeking paranormal experiences. The character’s quirks are imaginative and surprising. One woman drives endlessly to clear her mind of a bad relationship, stopping at rest stops to write cryptic postcards and listening to the same cassette repeatedly. Another writes a letter to the parking authority contesting her ticket. These characters love dogs and get divorces and think more than they say.
Recommended by Renée, October 2009

 
Book Cover for The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs Page, Karen and Andrew Dornenburg
The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs

Nonfiction (Cookbook)
This delightful book is a reference for anyone who likes to make up recipes as they go along and wants a starter for their creative juices. Organized alphabetically by ingredient, each item has a list of complementary flavors. Each list contains items in bold and in all capital letters, indicating the highest popularity of the pairing among chefs. For example, rosemary goes well with apricots, mackerel, and risotto (among many, many other things); combines particularly well with eggplant and roasted meats; its best friends include pork and potatoes; and both lamb and garlic are its perfect match. Quotes by well-known chefs about flavors and names of popular dishes are shared throughout the book, and with two introductory chapters, they are both inspiring and pleasurable to read. Whether you love to cook or love to read about food, this book is highly recommended.
Recommended by Kaarin, October 2009

 
Book Cover for Livability: stories Raymond, Jon
Livability: stories

Short Stories
Gaining wider recognition after two of the nine stories were adapted into films (Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy), Jon Raymond paints a literary landscape of the Pacific Northwest as lushly green, isolating and yet peacefully captivating. Although markedly different, each set of characters share the same unsettled ending. Nothing of magnitude happens but a similar sense of uncertainly pervades. A young man seeks the whereabouts of his former friend at the request of his dying father. Two teenagers are trapped in a mall while they sort out truth and adolescent misbehavior. The conflicting distinction of language versus object ends a relationship between an artist and an art critic. Some characters are economically prosperous (“The Suckling Pig”) and others hopelessly desperate (“Train Choir”), yet each story features restless personalities eager to test the boundaries of social and personal accountability, with an ambivalence that comes across as uniquely American.
Recommended by Lisa, October 2009

 
Book Cover for Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult Tamm, Jayanti
Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult

Nonfiction Memoir
There is a huge difference between people who decide to follow a questionable spiritual leader, and those who are born into a cult and brainwashed from birth. Jayanti Tamm’s parents were among the first disciples of Sri Chinmoy, a self-proclaimed “God-realized” guru. Despite a strict celibacy policy for members, the Guru proclaimed the arrival of Jayanti a blessed event. She was his own chosen soul come from heaven to be the model follower of his principles. Her early childhood is dominated by constant submission and total dedication to Guru. School is not a priority, friendships in the ouside world are forbidden, and worldly activities that do not benefit Guru are reason for expulsion. However, as the cult grows globally, Jayanti becomes a young adult with sparks of independence and intelligence. Her internal struggle nearly destroys her. This memoir of her early life is sincere and well-written, and portrays both hilarious and heartbreaking moments.
Recommended by Connie, October 2009

 
Book Cover for Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human Wrangham, Richard
Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

Nonfiction
In a concise 207 pages, biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham tells a story of human history centered on food modified by flame. Wrangham’s idea that cooking made us human departs radically from previous evolutionary theory. Before Wrangham, the evolutionary change credited with development of the large human brain was the addition of meat to a strictly vegetable diet. Darwin thought fire was irrelevant to how humans evolved. Even a century after Darwin, anthropologists regarded cooking as unnecessary to human development, though they understood that cooking is one defining activity that separates us from other animals. Wrangham writes that cooking increased our food’s value. It affected the way we walk, the size of our brains, how we spend time, and helped define our social lives. Highly recommended.
Recommended by Julie, October 2009

 

September 2009

Book Cover for Happens Every Day Gillies, Isabel
Happens Every Day

Nonfiction Memoir
A man leaves his wife and children to be with another woman. As the author of this memoir reminds us, it “happens every day.” However, Gillies bypasses tired clichés with a rich retelling of her failed marriage. Skillfully weaving stories of her childhood with present day happenings, she gives the reader a real sense of what she felt and experienced during her husband’s infidelity. This candid look at the end of a marriage manages to be both heartbreaking and humorous.
Recommended by Karen G., September 2009

 
Book Cover for Wild Harmonies: A Life of Music and Wolves Grimaud, Hélène
Wild Harmonies: A Life of Music and Wolves

Nonfiction Memoir
As you might expect from a world-renowned classical pianist who lives with wolves on the side, Hélène Grimaud’s life makes for a fascinating book. In her memoir, she recounts the experiences and music that inspired her on her unique journey. Most of the book focuses on her childhood as an overly energetic and defiant young woman who found an outlet and calling in playing piano. She details her passionate encounters with encouraging (and not-so-encouraging) instructors, mentors, and institutes, and she writes eloquently about her mystical experiences discovering and playing the works of her favorite composers. Interspersed among the brief, loosely-linear chapters are segments describing folkloric and historical information about wolves. While Grimaud doesn’t discuss her personal experiences creating a wolf preservation center until the very end of the book, her account of her first relationship with a wolf and her zeal for the animal are moving and vivid. Grimaud’s unapologetic, zealous appetite for her singular experiences comes through in her forceful, idiosyncratic prose.
Recommended by Renée, September 2009

 
Book Cover for Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea Handler, Chelsea
Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea

Nonfiction
If you watch E! late at night, you'll be familiar with the author of this collection of personal essays. Chelsea Handler is the star of Chelsea Lately, Girls Behaving Badly on the Oxygen network, and is an accomplished stand-up comedian. If you've seen Chelsea’s shows or routines you won't be shocked by her subject matter (her own life), and the language she uses. After reading these essays, you won’t be surprised that Chelsea became a comedian. With her penchant for spinning outrageous lies, it was either that or become a criminal. None of her family members or friends escape her sharp tongue and sarcastic view of life’s events. You'll likely recognize someone from your own past or present in her colorful collection of characters. And no doubt you'll laugh out loud. If you're looking for a quick read to pass an amusing afternoon, Are You There, Vodka? is a good contender.
Recommended by Melissa, September 2009

 
Book Cover for America’s Best Zoos: A Travel Guide for Fans and Families Nyhuis, Allen W.
America’s Best Zoos: A Travel Guide for Fans and Families

Nonfiction
As a serious fan of a well-run zoo, or any cause that supports the conservation of endangered species, I recommend this fun travel guide for folks who also enjoy gardens filled with ferocious and delicate creatures. Organized by regions of the country, with ample cross-referencing capability, America’s Best Zoos includes helpful maps and black and white photos of some of the most exciting animals. Every time I travel, I make a point to visit the public library and the local zoo. Sometimes I travel specifically for the local zoo. For example, who knew that the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden has one of the best cat collections in the US, with 15 different species of small cats alone? Right in our backyard, the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium features one of the best exhibits of aquatic fish and mammal life. A lot of people know how cool the San Diego Zoo is, but perhaps they haven’t heard of the equally awesome San Diego Wild Animal Park, which features safari-style bus tours through large natural habitats. Even if I can’t make it to all of these places in person, this guide is a “gotta have” in my collection.
Recommended by Connie, September 2009

 
Book Cover for Free-Range Knitter : The Yarn Harlot Writes Again Pearl-McPhee, Stephanie
Free-Range Knitter : The Yarn Harlot Writes Again

Nonfiction
"Never in a million years would I become one of those people who reads books about knitting." I guess I'll have to eat those words. Meet Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, a fantastic knitter, brilliant woman, and great writer. The world seen through her eyes is full of interesting characters, a lesson is learned around every corner and the mundane turns into adventure. You won't get very far into this book before you forget it's about knitting or knitters. Two favorite chapters are "Glory Days," about a competition called The Furnace Wars, and "Things Crappy Yarn Taught Me," which offers insights far beyond judging yarn quality. Start with those if you're sceptical. I know you'll want more. If you do, try Drunk, Divorced, and Covered in Cat Hair: The True-Life Misadventures of a 30-Something Who Learned to Knit after He Split by Laurie Beasley Perry, recommended for knitters and nonknitters alike. This reading experience was so good I'm thinking of branching out into books about fishing, or perhaps even a golf memoir.
Recommended by Geo, September 2009

 

August 2009

Book Cover for Black and White and Dead All Over Darnton, John
Black and White and Dead All Over

Mystery
The New York Globe is a fictional big city newspaper struggling with the real problem of how a print daily can retain its place in the changing world of journalism. This is the setting for a few extremely creepy murders. When the paper’s assistant managing editor is murdered in a deliciously macabre manner, the list of suspects is long and keeps growing longer. Young and ambitious reporter Jude Hurley is covering the story for the Globe and sets out to unravel the mystery with the help of an energetic and eye-catching NYPD detective. Darnton creates a thinly veiled cast of newsroom characters (Nat Dreck, snarky internet columnist, for example), and part of the fun is trying to figure out the famous people he’s hidden on the Globe’s staff and on the ever-expanding list of suspects. Even if you can’t decipher all the characters, this whodunit is a good one.
Recommended by Jane, August 2009

 
Book Cover for Omega: The Unknown Lethem, Jonathan
Omega: The Unknown

Graphic Novel
Novelist Jonathan Lethem’s first foray into graphic novels is an engaging blend of science fiction, mystery, coming-of-age, parody, and homage to the original 1976 Omega the Unknown comic books. Storylines intersect and overlap with characters’ mysterious pasts and motivations, including a silent superhero, his cheesy corporate foil, an overachieving high school student, and a talking (and singing) statue. The plot’s dizzying turns keep the reader guessing exactly from whom and what the world needs saving, but the sincerity of the characters and their friendships keep it grounded and emotionally-engaging. Farel Dalrymple’s varied panels direct and manage the pace. His artwork, strewn with ephemeral details, forms the ideal visual counterpart for the story’s depth. Paul Hornschemeier’s muted, lush colors conjure the mood and urban setting perfectly. Omega includes several silent pages, panning over the cast’s simultaneous actions, a comic-within-a-comic (complete with contrasting artwork), cleverly foreshadowing dream sequences, and an array of other tricks that add to the book’s irresistibility.
Recommended by Renée, August 2009

 
Book Cover for American Rust Meyer, Philipp
American Rust

Fiction
Set in a small town in Fayette County, American Rust follows the lives of Isaac English and Billy Poe, two young men opposite in temperament, but friends none the less. Isaac and Poe both graduated from high school and passed up their golden opportunities to get out of the dying steel town where they live. As Isaac is about to leave for good, to start life again in California, a violent encounter with a group of men alters the course of both boys’ lives. Don’t be turned off by what seems like a depressing premise in a depressed setting. Meyer’s description of the land is beautiful, and in the end, the characters maintain a glimmer of hope. Chapters of the book are narrated alternately by Isaac, Poe, Poe’s mother, Isaac’s sister, Isaac’s father, and the chief of police. I liked discovering them not only through what they tell about themselves, but also by how other people see them. It’s hard to believe that Meyer did not live in Western Pennsylvania, his insights seem so true to form. I highly recommend this book.
Recommended by Joanne, August 2009

 
Book Cover for The Survivor’s Club: The Secrets and Science That Could Save Your Life Sherwood, Ben
The Survivor’s Club: The Secrets and Science That Could Save Your Life

Nonfiction
The premise of The Survivor’s Club is that too many people die in disasters who shouldn’t. Studies done to find out why some people survive when others do not reveal surprising insights that could save your life. From the first anecdote involving a misstep and a knitting needle, you will be riveted. You might recognize some stories from the news, but Sherwood supplies clarifying information and answers the question, "What happened to these people?" One example is Dr. Phil. I didn't know he had a sister and certainly wasn't aware of the tragedy that befell her. Hers is just one of the incredible stories in this book, stories that will haunt you long after you've read the final page. You will learn from this book and, as incredible as this may sound, be uplifted as well.
Recommended by Geo, August 2009

 
Book Cover for Culinary Boot Camp: Five Days of Basic Training at the Culinary Institute of America Shulman, Martha Rose and The Culinary Institute of America
Culinary Boot Camp: Five Days of Basic Training at the Culinary Institute of America

Nonfiction
If you’ve ever dreamed of going to culinary school, but reality got in the way, one answer might be to attend a CIA Boot Camp. These sessions introduce food enthusiasts to basic cooking techniques, combined with fine dining at award-winning campus restaurants. Part cookbook, part memoir, part campus restaurant review, Culinary Boot Camp is the result of the author’s attendance at two such camps. I enjoyed reading about the personalities and quirks of the chef instructors, as well as their sometimes contrasting procedures for creating the same dish. Recipes for most of the menus created in the author’s camps are included. But the real heart of this book is the explanation and understanding of primary cooking methods: simmering, braising, poaching, roasting, frying, searing, etc. Each technique is covered fully, in language familiar to non-chefs – no exclusive techie terms here. The lesson is that good food doesn’t have to be fancy, even when coming from one of the premier cooking schools in the world. Inspired by a short paragraph on how the author’s group prepared scallop appetizer, using the same simple technique, I pan fried scallops in butter for only minutes on either side. They were, in my husband’s opinion, the best scallops he'd ever had. You can never beat easy and delicious!
Recommended by Melissa, August 2009

 
Book Cover for The Daily Coyote Stockton, Shreve
The Daily Coyote

Nonfiction
Shreve Stockton drove through Wyoming on her Vespa as she traveled cross-country, and loved it so much she moved there. Before long she became friends with a cowboy who worked protecting farmers’ livestock by shooting coyotes. But something came over him one day and he scooped up a newly orphaned coyote pup and took it to Shreve. Thus began the tale of how Shreve nursed a newborn in the seclusion of her cabin. Soon the pup called Charlie, though too young to survive on his own in the wild, was old enough to go outside, hidden in the confines of Shreve's yard so that no one would shoot him. Shreve, a photographer by trade, began to email daily photos of Charlie to friends and family. This turned into a blog, which became her source of revenue. In the blog, which she is still publishing at http://www.dailycoyote.net, Shreve’s photographs can be savored. The book itself is moving—Shreve is an animal lover, living alone with Charlie and her cat Eli (who, not surprisingly, refused to come home for several days upon Charlie’s arrival). At first, she doesn’t fret much that her boyfriend continues to shoot coyotes every day while she raises one. She seems at home in a farming and hunting community, at peace with man’s domination over animals. What is emotional about the story is Shreve’s love and loyalty for this coyote, and her fear of how her relationship with him may change as he grows older. She acknowledges that keeping a coyote is of questionable judgment. She knows Charlie has wild genes. Because she doesn’t want to confine him, she gives him as much freedom as she can, taking him on long walks through the isolated land her boyfriend owns. Charlie begins to snap at her, and Shreve starts to doubt whether the two of them have a future. With beautiful images of Wyoming landscape, this tale of love and sacrifice will hold your interest until the very end.
Recommended by Terry, August 2009

 
Wrekk, Alex
Brainscan 21: Irreconcilable Differences

Adult Zine Collection (Nonfiction)
It can be an extremely difficult process to admit one's partner is abusive. The author writes a detailed description of her experience with emotional abuse. Wrekk shares in great detail how she came to define abuse for herself. This zine is highly recommended for anyone grappling with similar issues. And...
Anonymous
Prescription for Change: Community Response to Substance Use

Adult Zine Collection (Nonfiction)
Prescription for Change is an incredibly insightful and helpful look at substance use and abuse. Includes critique of 12 step programs and straight-edge moralism; overview of the idea of harm reduction and its applications, not just to chemical addiction but to other acts; and suggestions for community efforts to reduce judgment and isolation of conventionally-defined addicts and raise awareness of abusive behavior by anyone moving at any point on the addiction spectrum. Finally, it's a call to stay connected and safe as a community. A powerful zine.
Recommended by Jude, August 2009

 

July 2009

Book Cover for Go Fug Yourself Presents The Fug Awards Cocks, Heather and Jessica Morgan
Go Fug Yourself Presents The Fug Awards

Nonfiction
Being barely aware of the website www.gofugyourself.com didn't stop me from picking this up and reading it from cover to cover in one sitting. The Fug Awards features photos of known, unknown to me, and unknown-and-could-happily-have-stayed-that-way celebrities, in various states of dress, undress, overdress, underdress, and what the ? dress. A lot of the time I actually loved what the authors hated, but the commentary is amusing whether you agree with them or not. Glossy photos, funny commentary and perhaps even a few fashion do's and don'ts, and what's not to love?
Recommended by Geo, July 2009

 
Book Cover for The Walking Dead Kirkman, Robert
The Walking Dead

Graphic Novel
As a long-time fan of zombie horror, it’s strange that I’ve only just begun to read the amazing zombie-filled graphic novel series, The Walking Dead. Each book in the series is a collected volume of previously published comic books that began their run in 2003. Up to the ninth volume with a tenth on the way, the series, like the monsters it portrays, keeps on coming with no end in sight. This is fine by me. I’ve read the first three volumes, and it just keeps getting better. Kirkman’s series is true George Romero style zombie survival horror. In similar fashion to Romero’s famous films, the living dead stalking the human survivors are a constant threat, but the real horror and drama come from the survivors’ all-too-human relationships. As alliances break down and bodies pile up, one begins to realize that “the walking dead” are less the zombies than they are the zombies’ inevitable victims. For fans of zombie horror, I can’t recommend this series enough. Don’t make the mistake I did by putting this one off – start reading it now!
Recommended by Wes, July 2009

 
Book Cover for Finer Points Of Sausage Dogs McCall Smith, Alexander
The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs

Fiction
In his hilarious follow-up to Portuguese Irregular Verbs, the delightful McCall Smith does it again. In this latest installment, hapless German philologist and world-renowned expert in abstruse Portuguese grammar, Professor Dr von Igelfeld gets mistaken for a veterinarian with a particular expertise in sausage dogs. In an attempt to live up to the expectations of his American audience, he declares in a speech, “If a dog has short legs, we have found that the body is almost invariably close to the ground. Yet this does not prevent the sausage dog from making its way about its business with considerable despatch.” He supervises a veterinary student’s amputation of a sausage dog’s leg, then interferes, leaving the dog with only one leg. “He can roll. He will be able to get around by rolling.” Read this little novel when you need a good laugh and aren’t in the mood for something too heavy or profound.
Recommended by Bonnie, July 2009

 
Book Cover for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society Shaffer, Mary Ann and Annie Barrows
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Fiction
Thank you Joey, Koula and Gwen for recommending this book -- I loved it! It’s a story told entirely in letters, which at first was a little off-putting for me. However, because of all the positive comments, I plunged forward. The story is set in post-WWII England and focuses on the correspondence between a young London writer and a group of people who live on the formerly German-occupied Guernsey Island. Through the entertaining and enlightening letters, the characters truly come to life. I enjoyed learning about what life was like for the residents of the island during this difficult time in history.
Recommended by Karen G., July 2009

 
Book Cover for Olive Kitteridge Strout, Elizabeth
Olive Kitteridge

Fiction
Olive Kitteridge is a grouchy former teacher who keeps those around her feeling intimidated, put off, or antsy. She snaps at her husband, dominates her son's life, and exudes an air of unfriendliness. So why in the world do I like her? Because Elizabeth Strout has brilliantly given us a 360 degree external view of this iceberg while matching it with Olive's own straightforward view of life. The novel is told in a series of 13 chapters, each from the viewpoint of a different character. In some, Olive merely appears as a brief memory or as a seemingly insignificant passerby, but each shows us a subtle but telling piece of the puzzle that forms Olive. Many times I read a passage, just a blip of observation on a character's life, and later found myself pondering its poignancy, and admiring Strout's acute precision in looking at the mundane moments that make up our lives. Olive Kitteridge won the 2009 Pulitzer for fiction. I'm only disappointed that they got to the recommendation before I did.
Recommended by Sheila , July 2009

 
Book Cover for A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table Wizenberg, Molly
A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table

Nonfiction
An anecdote accompanies each recipe in this memoir/cookbook written by a popular food blogger. The entries (blog length, aimed at those of us with sustained attention challenges) range from how the writer met her husband to what she cooked her father for breakfast as he suffered with terminal cancer. Wizenberg writes primarily in an informal, intimate blog voice. Reflections on her father's life and death carry the weight of a more literary effort, and made the book worth reading. Recipes focus on local, fresh ingredients.
Recommended by Julie, July 2009

 

June 2009

Clarkson, Ewan
In the Shadow of the Falcon

Fiction
Pittsburgh is home to two families of endangered peregrine falcons, and live video of the nests on the Gulf Tower and the Cathedral of Learning broadcast online. Watching these feeds and witnessing the wordless rhythms of the falcons’ daily lives is a moving experience. The novel In the Shadow of the Falcon imagines the life cycle of several Welsh peregrine falcons from their perspective. The author manages to convey the drama, difficulty and elegance of animal life without overly anthropomorphizing the falcons. Instead, the precise language of natural descriptions and poetic imagery of the birds flying, hunting, nesting, feeding and rearing their young characterize them enough to elicit powerful emotional reactions to the victories and trials they face. Some of the most compelling passages in the book relate environmental hazards peregrines and other birds encounter as a result of poaching, pollution, pesticides and other human-caused dangers. While the novel was published in 1973, the environmental cautions and concerns are eerily resonant today.
Recommended by Renée, June 2009

 
Book Cover for Hemingses of Monticello Gordon-Reed, Annette
The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

Nonfiction
This year’s Pulitzer Prize for History was awarded to this scholarly investigation of eighteenth and early nineteenth century American life through the filter of American slavery. While the life of the Hemings family is certainly bonded to the life of Thomas Jefferson, it is the story of the African-American side of this tangled family tree that is the centerpiece here. Beginning with the “unnamed African woman” who became the grandmother of Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s “concubine,” in the language of the newspapers of the day, other members of this family are given historical importance. In addition to the Hemings family story, Gordon-Reed gives a vivid and carefully researched vision of daily life for both the elite and the enslaved in early America. You won’t forget her graphic description of the first crude–yet amazingly successful–attempts at smallpox inoculations.
Recommended by Jane, June 2009

 
Book Cover for Life Sentences Lippman, Laura
Life Sentences

Mystery
After reading three great reviews for Life Sentences by Laura Lippman, I decided to give it a try. The novel centers on Cassandra Fallows, a Baltimore writer whose memoirs have been wildly popular. After an unsuccessful foray into fiction, she searches her past for more writing material, ultimately deciding on the story of a former classmate who was imprisoned for refusing to tell the whereabouts of her child. As Cassandra interviews other classmates, she learns that her perception of events might not be quite accurate. Be forewarned: If you like all the loose ends tied up neatly by the conclusion of the book, you may be disappointed. After finishing the book, I searched through it to see if I missed something. Despite this, the book features vivid characters, and the story is unique and compelling. I would definitely read another book by this author.
Recommended by Karen G., June 2009

 
Book Cover for Game of Thrones Martin, George R. R.
A Game of Thrones

Science Fiction
If you are the least bit interested in the fantasy genre but have yet to read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, stop reading this review right now, grab a copy of the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones, and start reading. For those who don’t usually dabble in fantasy, I still say give it a shot, as Martin’s saga doesn’t rely on the stereotypical swords and sorcery plot that might turn off the fantasy neophyte. While A Game of Thrones does introduce the reader to a medieval world populated with knights, kings and queens, and yes, dragons, it emphasizes plot-twisting political intrigue and not the banal good vs. evil imagery of your standard fantasy tale. Martin’s characters are also written in this vein – the real strength of the series – and so are not easily categorized. Thus, a “bad guy” character that you hate in A Game of Thrones may become one of your favorites later on, though you shouldn’t expect Martin to keep many of the characters alive for very long! In this regard it’s easy to compare A Song of Ice and Fire to HBO’s television series The Wire, and in fact HBO is planning a televised version of Martin’s entire saga, slated to begin with a pilot episode based on A Game of Thrones. But don’t wait for the television version, read this now!
Recommended by Wes, June 2009

 
Book Cover for A.L.I.E.E.E.N. Trondheim, Lewis
A.L.I.E.E.E.N.: Archives of Lost Issues and Earthly Editions of Extraterrestrial Novelties

Graphic Novel
This is not the sweet and happy story the blissful characters on the cover would have you assume it is. Purportedly “found” by the artist while vacationing with his family, this tale tracks the activities of several alien creatures haphazardly making their way through life. Dark and terrible things happen to all of the aliens. Eyes are poked out, beatings are given, friends are eaten. And it is all wickedly funny. Maybe it's the charming colorful cartoon images. Or perhaps it's all the alien language “dialogue.” Personally, I just can’t get over the expressions on their faces.
Recommended by Connie, June 2009

 
 

May 2009

Book Cover for The Lace Reader Barry, Brunonia
The Lace Reader

Fiction
"My name is Towner Whitney. No, that's not exactly true. My real first name is Sophya. Never believe me. I lie all the time." Don't you love a completely unreliable narrator? So begins The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry. Towner's disclaimer faded from my mind as I was introduced to the inhabitants of her hometown, Salem, Massachusetts. Some of these characters are endearing and some utterly despicable. Towner and the other women in her family have the ability to read lace in order to see the future, although this mystical ability feels more like a curse than a gift to Towner. After many years trying to live an independent life across the country, Towner returns to Salem to deal with an imposing family matter, and she is forced to confront her past and the loss of her beloved twin sister. You'll call your friends and insist that they read this novel, because you'll want to discuss it, dissect it, and wonder at it.
Recommended by Sheila, May 2009

 
Book Cover for Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating with More Than 75 Recipes Bittman, Mark
Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating with More Than 75 Recipes

Nonfiction
Food Matters, by the cookbook author and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, doesn't contain new information, though it offers a refreshingly concise history of the influence government, big business, and science have had on current dietary problems. Bittman turns Michael Pollan's catchy mantra from In Defense of Food, "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants," into the less snappy but more specific, "Eat more plants, fewer animals, and as little processed food as possible." This approach to eating is practical, focused on cooking at home using familiar ingredients. Recipes are more like guidelines than strict lists of ingredients and instructions. Bittman calls himself a foodie, but he's not a snob, and he aims to help readers learn how to enjoy everyday food in ways that will help their bodies as well as the environment.
Recommended by Julie, May 2009

 
Book Cover for Parable of the Talents Butler, Octavia
Parable of the Talents

Science Fiction
Parable of the Talents is the second in a two-part series of novels by Octavia Butler. She published Parable of the Sower in 1993 (see March Staff Picks), and Parable of the Talents five years later. Parable of the Sower focuses on teenager Lauren Olamina, who is trying to survive life in dystopian California in the 2020s, while founding the religion she created called Earthseed. Parable of the Talents begins in this religious community and chronicles Lauren and her fellow community members’ brutal encounters with Christian Fundamentalists who have taken over the country and federal government in the 2030s. Unlike Talents, Sower gets repetitive in the second half. Nonetheless, like Sower it offers important commentary on current issues by vividly portraying the consequences of environmental destruction and the violence that can stem from religious dogmatism.
Recommended by Jude, May 2009

 
Book Cover for This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War Faust, Drew Gilpin
This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

Nonfiction
Until the latter half of the 19th century, most Americans were born, married, and died in the same town or city, and sometimes even in the same house. In fact, families rarely traveled more than a few miles from the homestead or the town center. The Civil War changed all that, and for the first time American families were denied the ritual of spending last days and moments with their loved ones, and even more traumatic, sometimes never learned where their family members had died, how they died, or where they were buried. Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University and a Civil War scholar, has written an absorbing examination of how the slaughter and death during our American Civil War forever altered how we view the process of dying, and even changed our conception of life after death. Desperate to know whether their sons and husbands died a Victorian “good death” – a death marked by some sort of religious blessing at the moment of passage – survivors began long, frustrating, and often unsuccessful journeys to find the remains of their family members and provide a family burial. Bodies were often buried in mass graves at the site of the battles, and it was the mission of grieving family members to find a way to identity and return these bodies to family cemeteries. The Civil War also saw the beginnings of the embalming industry, military cemeteries, and charlatans who preyed on the grief of family members by claiming to be able to reach their loved ones through séances – for a price, of course. Before the Civil War, most Christians defined life-after-death as the presence of God in some sort of heavenly bliss. Following the trauma of the Civil War, this definition was expanded to include the reuniting of family members after death, and the promise of heaven embraced the face-to-face reconstruction of the family. Praised by The New York Times as one of the Ten Best Books of 2008, this fascinating history adds an interesting dimension to our expanding knowledge of 19th century American life.
Recommended by Jane, May 2009

 
Book Cover for Black Seconds Fossum, Karin
Black Seconds

Mystery
Black Seconds, an Inspector Sejer mystery penned by Norway's "Queen of Crime," displays a curiously civilized and sedate tone. Although I was certain I'd figured out the mystery long before the end (in spite of purposely trying to be dense), Inspector Sejer's need to understand the suspects and their motives kept me enthralled. Black Seconds may sacrifice the fun of guessing the "who" of the crime, yet it contains emotional and psychological depth that is thoroughly satisfying, and surpasses most mysteries in character development. Add to this the subtle attractions of a Norwegian locale and few will be disappointed. Fossum has been compared to Ruth Rendell, who is another author I've enjoyed and you may too.
Recommended by Geo, May 2009

 
Book Cover for Slow Storm Novgorodoff, Danica
Slow Storm

Graphic Novel
Danica Novgorodoff crafts a darkly haunting story illustrated with lush watercolor and ink illustrations. As a tornado spirals at the edges of their Kentucky town, the lives of a troubled firefighter and an illegal Mexican immigrant intersect. Well-paced panels vary in size and oscillate from foreboding, stormy grays to flaring oranges to serene, eerie blues. While the story seems simple at first, subtle scenes, background characters and frequent silent panels develop enough subtext to warrant a rich second reading. Supernatural elements weave into the tale, which contrast with the hard work and rough natures and jobs of the firefighters and townsfolk. Novgorodoff handles the various accents in intriguing but natural ways, and her juxtaposition of the difference between characters’ speech and suggested or illustrated thoughts create moments that range from contemplative to heartbreaking. Slow Storm is a gorgeously drawn graphic novel whose narrative incorporates cultural, familial and social themes without departing from the characters at its focus.
Recommended by Renée, May 2009

 
Book Cover for Look Again Scottoline, Lisa
Look Again

Fiction
Journalist Ellen Gleeson happens to glance at a “Have you seen this child?” postcard as she gathers her mail — and notices the striking resemblance to her adopted 3-year-old son. So begins this rollercoaster suspense story that had me hooked from the start. Ellen grapples with issues of personal responsibility and the true meaning of motherhood while she struggles to do the right thing for her son. Kirkus Review, Publishers Weekly and Library Journal all gave this book a starred review, and I wholeheartedly agree.
Recommended by Karen G., May 2009

 
Book Cover for Walking Through Walls Smith, Philip
Walking Through Walls

Non-fiction, Memoir
An affectionate memoir of the author’s father, Lew Smith, renowned interior designer turned spiritual guru. In 1950s Miami, Florida, Philip Smith watched his father transform from a typical white-collar family man into an aura reader, medium, psychic, exorcist and metaphysical healer. For no charge, the senior Smith would cure all manner of ailments, physical and spiritual. Frustrated by his father's ability to know more about him than he revealed, Philip was often at odds with his father’s work. He rebelled with drugs, an anti-macrobiotic diet, and Scientology. Whether or not you believe in the stories of healing and spirits, the magical relationship between father and son is touching. Sometimes even hilarious.
Recommended by Connie, May 2009

 
Book Cover for Very Valentine Trigiani, Adriana
Very Valentine

Fiction
Another Italian delight from Trigiani. Valentine goes on a quest to save her family’s Greenwich Village shoemaking business from disappearing among better known names like Prada. Along the way, she falls in love with Roman Falconi. But Valentine and Roman are so caught up in their respective businesses (he owns an Italian restaurant), that she starts to question their relationship. Throw in a month-long trip to Italy to buy fine leathers and fabrics for shoemaking, and a new possible love interest born on Italian soil, and you have all the necessary requirements for a compelling read. Trigiani describes things so successfully, from the embellishments on a fancy shoe to the gardens of the Italian landscape, that I didn’t want to put this one down.
Recommended by Terry, May 2009

 
Book Cover for Tammy Pierce is Unlovable Watson, Esther Pearl
Tammy Pierce is Unlovable

Graphic Novel nonfiction
Originally published in Bust magazine, Esther Pearl Watson’s serialized comic is loosely based on the late 1980s diary of a teenage girl found in the women’s restroom of a Vegas gas station. Tammy Pierce is a Texan high school sophomore who is completely boy crazy, exchanges cheese fries for friends, and attracts every opportunity for humiliation. She's a totally lovable character who can’t help being unintentionally funny. Inside the blue glitter cover, Watson fills the pages with both awkward and tender moments that are poignantly clever.
Recommended by Lisa, May 2009

 
 

April 2009

Book Cover for The Complete Stories of Truman Capote Capote, Truman
The Complete Stories of Truman Capote

Short Stories
The recent death of John Updike reminds me that there was a time in American life when some of the most famous and admired persons in American culture weren’t movie stars or singers or vapid heiresses (although we did have Zsa Zsa Gabor, didn’t we?). Writers were our rock stars, and no American writer of the 20th century embraced and squandered his talent and popularity more than Truman Capote (1924-1984). If you only know his name from his non-fiction masterpiece In Cold Blood or from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning performance in Capote or from the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, then prepare to be dazzled. The stories in this collection are about many things, some personal, some universal. But it’s Capote’s prose style that is the reason to read and reread these stories. I can’t begin to guess how many books I’ve read during my lifetime, but I can tell you that there are only a handful that make me read just to savor the poetry of the language. The poignancy of his unhappy life and early death lends an eerie quality to the prose. It's the dissonance that makes the reading so bittersweet – to know that his luscious writing style and heartbreaking observations came from such a sad, troubled soul. Fellow Capote lovers (and there are many of us here at CLP) have their favorite Capote stories. My favorite is “A Christmas Memory,” a childhood remembrance of baking fruitcakes with an elderly cousin in the backwoods of Louisiana, and it is included in this collection. To learn more about Capote, Gerald Clarke’s Capote: A Biography, is regarded as the best history of the author. Used as source material for the film Capote, it is diligently researched and beautifully written. Enjoy.
Recommended by Jane, April 2009

 
Book Cover for The Gargoyle Davidson, Andrew
The Gargoyle

Fiction
I was taken from the first by this edgy story with its unlikely mix of historical flashbacks. The novel begins when our narrator, a slightly unlikable man with a morally questionable lifestyle, rockets his car off a cliff while incredibly intoxicated. He survives to face an agonizing recuperation in a hospital burn unit where he dreams up an intricate plan to commit suicide once he is discharged. His all-consuming desire to die begins to melt away when he meets Marianne Engel, a presumed schizophrenic who is convinced that they were lovers in 14th-century Germany. Marianne, a sculptress of gargoyles, weaves intimate tales of love throughout the ages, from plague-infested Italy to the Vikings of ancient Scandinavia. While our narrator listens to the marvelous tale of their centuries-old bond, he gradually acclimates to his post-burn reality, and falls in love with Marianne. Like the narrator, we have the pleasure of deciding if these tales are mere fabrications of her altered mind or (if we're willing to take a faith-filled step) if they are exciting, intangible possibilities. The Gargoyle would appeal to those who liked Life of Pi. This unique, intelligent, and humorous novel was one of my favorite books from the past year.
Recommended by Sheila, April 2009

 
Book Cover for The Marriage of True Minds Evans, Stephen
The Marriage of True Minds

Fiction
Lena and Nick were once married and ran a law firm together in Minneapolis. When Nick asked for a dog, Lena got him a puppet dog named Sancho instead. From then on it became apparent that something was wrong with Nick—he thinks Sancho is real. While still having feelings for Nick, Lena divorces him and takes over the business. After all, how could she stay married to someone living in an altered reality? Despite the divorce, she somehow always finds herself responsible for supervising him; one outrageous stunt after another finds him now on the wrong side of the law. Lena questions her decision to leave him, as she remembers how much fun they had. In addition to Lena and Nick, we meet Oscar, Nick’s attendant at the psychiatric ward who works kids parties blowing up balloons on the side, and Ralph and Alice, the couple who run the animal shelter where Nick is sentenced to community service. This story is both comedic and tender, and all of Nick’s companions learn that maybe his insanity is not an illness, but a unique way of looking at life.
Recommended by Terry, April 2009

 
Book Cover for Mrs. Kimble Haigh, Jennifer
Mrs. Kimble

Fiction
The title of this book suggests one person but actually stands for three different women who married the same man consecutively. The weight of the story subtly shifts from the wives’ individual experiences to the bigger picture of who or what their husband is. Always mysterious and chameleonic, Mr. Kimble gradually comes into focus in the wake of devastation he leaves behind. Haigh’s book, The Condition, was a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette “Best Books of 2008” pick.
Recommended by Geo, April 2009

 
Book Cover for Night Voices, Night Journeys edited by Ken, Asamatsu
Lairs of the Hidden Gods

Horror
The tentacled horrors of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos extend their slimy reach to the minds of people all over the world, as demonstrated by an intriguing new four-volume series, Lairs of the Hidden Gods. Each volume of Lairs is an anthology of Lovecraft-inspired short stories written by Japanese authors. The first, Night Voices, Night Journeys, is the only volume I’ve read thus far, but the quality bodes well for the rest of the series. There’s a mix of scenarios for everyone here: prohibition-era Chicago gangster noir with an occult twist; seemingly delicious sea cucumbers with bat wings in the service of Shub Niggurath; evil daggers used in grotesque ways reminiscent of gory Japanese horror films; and more. Robert Price, a religion scholar steeped in Lovecraft’s mythos, provides an interesting introduction to the book, while editor Asamatsu Ken offers thoughtful commentary on each story. For fans of pulp fiction and H.P. Lovecraft, there’s certainly a lot here to sink your teeth into (though I wouldn’t recommend doing this to the bat-winged sea cucumbers).
Recommended by Wes, April 2009

 
Book Cover for The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God and Other Stories Keret, Etgar
The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God and Other Stories

Short Stories
I came across this book because it includes Keret’s novella “Kneller’s Happy Campers,” which I wanted to read since I loved the movie adaptation, called Wristcutters, which I recognized from the graphic novel version, “Pizzeria Kamikaze.” The rest of the ultra-brief stories in the collection are full of Keret’s straightforward voice and sometimes harsh irony. Most employ first person narratives from varied characters who include an embittered Israeli soldier, a boy emotionally attached to his piggy bank and, of course, the eponymous bus driver. As different as these speakers are, they all share an element of Keret’s cynicism and social criticism. The stories, though often dark, also include whimsical absurdity that makes them both funny and poignant. A convenience store clerk serves souls freed from Hell for a day. A man escapes a planned plane crash. A boy auditions for the circus. Anyone who enjoys equal touches of magic, salt, and the everyday will enjoy these quick, twisted tales.
Recommended by Renée, April 2009

 
Book Cover for Demons in the Spring Meno, Joe
Demons in the Spring

Short Stories
Twenty short stories, all set in the most ordinary places entwined with modern catastrophe and magic realist moments. Illustrated by artists from the fine art, graphic, and comic book realms, with recognizable names such as Charles Burns, Paul Hornschemeier, Anders Nilson, and Archer Prewitt. "An Apple Could Make You Laugh" tells of two office coworkers who are tortured by their unsuccessful flirting. “Stockholm 1973” reveals the strange nature of the human condition when an ex-con holds up a bank and gets his best friend involved in his crime. In “The Unabomber and My Brother,” parallels are drawn between the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, and the narrator’s mentally ill brother, exposing the demise of a onetime happy family. Accessible yet unusually wonderful, Meno creates a touching and almost cinematic work of fiction.
Recommended by Lisa, April 2009

 
Book Cover for Gardening When it Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times Solomon, Steve
Gardening When it Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times

Nonfiction
Steve Solomon is the gardening grandfather I never had, a kind but firm voice offering strong opinions backed up by long experience. Since Mr. Solomon started Territorial Seed Company in 1979 (he sold it in 1985), he has grown about 50% of his family’s annual calories. From this self-described "capital-O Organic gardener with capital-O Opinions," the reader will learn about quality hand tools (you only need 3), how to make a once-a-year compost heap, why gardening centers should be avoided in favor of planting seeds directly in the garden, which seed companies sell the highest quality seed, and how to increase soil fertility by mixing up a batch of COF (complete organic fertilizer – a highly potent, correctly balanced mix made entirely of natural substances) to use throughout the garden. Drawings of each vegetable’s root system illustrate the space required for each plant’s optimal growth. Educated and inspired by Gardening When it Counts, rather than waiting in lines at the nursery this spring, I’ll be preparing beds and planting seeds.
Recommended by Julie, April 2009

 
 

March 2009

Book Cover for Parable of the Sower Butler, Octavia
Parable of the Sower

Science Fiction
Parable of the Sower, published in 1993, is the first in a two-part series of sci-fi novels by Octavia Butler. The story focuses on teenager Lauren Olamina who lives in dystopian California in the 2020s. Society has broken down so severely – economically, socially, environmentally – that people either live in walled-in communities trying to defend themselves, or live on the outside in extremely desperate conditions including drugs, crime, prostitution, new forms of slavery and more. The walls come tumbling down and Lauren, at 18, ends up on the perilous road trying to survive. Lauren is a sort of spiritual prophet. For years she has secretly transcribed verses of a religion she calls Earthseed. On the road she recruits devotees to fulfill Earthseed’s destiny of life on another planet. What makes this book worth reading is a captivating story that’s also a powerful commentary on very important issues of our time including race, gender, the environment, religion, community. It reminds me of the way Star Trek episodes could be such good commentary.
Recommended by Jude, March 2009

 
Book Cover for In The Woods French, Tana
In The Woods

Fiction
In a grim suburb near Dublin, Ireland, three 12-year-old children playing in a local woods do not return for supper. A frantic search locates one of the three cowering beside a tree in a near catatonic state with no memory of what happened. The other two children are never found. Flash twenty years into the future and the lone survivor, now a police detective, and his female partner are assigned to investigate the murder of a young girl in the same wooded area. The story, told through the survivor-detective’s eyes, recounts an intense murder investigation against the background of a complicated relationship with his partner, and his attempts to resolve the fate of his childhood friends and to recover his memory. As the book progresses it becomes clear how much his childhood trauma has damaged him. This is a beautifully written book with interesting, well-drawn characters and a sophisticated, multi-layered plot. Rather like a Dennis Lehane novel, this story will not completely satisfy readers who require happy endings and all questions resolved.
Recommended by Noufissa, March 2009

 
Book Cover for Mrs. Woolf and the Servants Light, Alison
Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury

Nonfiction
The title of one review, “A room of one's own -- and someone to clean it,” aptly describes the era in which Virginia Woolf lived, (1882-1941). In England during the post-Victorian era, upper-class household life changed as former live-in servants took jobs in shops, where shorter work hours and independent living meant autonomy and freedom. Woolf grew up with full-time servants, and employed a live-in cook until she was 53. For Woolf, being home alone meant alone with the servants, and Virginia and her husband Leonard were not actually home alone until their seventeenth year of marriage, when they traded live-in help for a daily housekeeper. This thoroughly researched and insightful book divides its time equally between the lives of Woolf and her domestics, while exploring issues of dependence/independence, and the nature of human intimacy.
Recommended by Julie, March 2009

 
Book Cover for Life of Pi Martel, Yann
Life of Pi

Fiction
Life of Pi is my default book recommendation for someone looking for “something good to read.” It’s the story of an Indian boy named Piscine, or Pi for short, who’s moving from India to Canada with his parents and the family zoo. That’s right, zoo – Pi’s family owns a large zoo in India, but for political reasons decide to move themselves and the zoo to Canada. To do so they must pack the zoo onto a huge ocean liner, which sinks. Pi survives but is stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat. And he’s not alone: some zoo animals survive the shipwreck and hop aboard Pi’s lifeboat, including a fearsome Bengal tiger. Most of the story centers around Pi’s adventure on the open sea with his unwanted companion, and it’s a truly page-turning ordeal. But there are other interesting elements in the story too, such as its underlying religious theme. The novel’s prologue presents Pi’s adventure as true, and claims it as a “story that will make you believe in God.” This little detail is easily forgotten until the conclusion, when an incredible twist brings it back to the fore in a “whoa” kind of moment. Life of Pi is crosslisted under adult and young adult fiction, and it’s a survival adventure classic with a philosophical edge that I will recommend to people of all ages for many years to come.
Recommended by Wes, March 2009

 
Book Cover for The Book of Murder Martinez, Guillermo
The Book of Murder

Fiction
A woman approaches a man she worked for briefly ten years before with a fantastic story. She believes that another of her previous employers is murdering everyone close to her. The alleged murderer is now a profoundly successful and famous author who is apparently murdering her loved ones in ingeniously contrived “accidents.” Not just a murder mystery, Martinez attempts to analyze life itself. Is life just a series of random events or coincidences that the human mind needs to organize in an attempt to make meaningful? Or is all this philosophizing just a smoke screen to discredit the victim and hide the truth? Guillermo Martinez also wrote The Oxford Murders, another psychological and philosophical mystery.
Recommended by Geo, March 2009

 
Book Cover for Monologues for the Coming Plaguer Nilsen, Anders.
Monologues for the Coming Plague

Graphic Novel
The simple manner in which Anders Nilsen presents his comics, using panel-less, scribbled line drawings free of background detail, and freehand, sometimes scratched-out text, belies the subtle humor, complex philosophies and pure wickedness behind them. Some of the most hilarious moments occur in the sardonic exchanges between a pigeon and a woman feeding it, during one of which the pigeon quips, “None for me, thanks. I’m on a hunger strike.” In another motif, two people having a surreal discussion about semiotics and career selection travel to Pittsburgh. Also, there’s a dinosaur.
Recommended by Renée, March 2009

 
Book Cover for The Time of Our Singing Powers, Richard
The Time of Our Singing

Fiction
This hefty book is not for the casual reader. The story follows the Strom family -- mother Delia, an African American singer, and father David, a German Jewish physics professor, and their three children -- as they face issues of race, identity, and family dynamics from the late 1930s through the Civil Rights movement. The oldest brother Jonah is a gifted singer who transcends racial boundaries through his music. Joseph, also a musician, struggles with his own identity beyond serving as his brother’s accompanist and keeper, while their sister Ruth embraces her African American heritage in a fight for equality. Filled with detailed descriptions of both music and physics, the novel contains as much history as fiction. The New York Times reviewer Judith Shulevitz said of Powers’ work “ . . . if Powers’ novels are sometimes unfun to read, they are never uninteresting to think about.”
Recommended by Joanne, March 2009

 
 

February 2009

Book Cover for The March Doctorow, E. L.
The March

Fiction
E.L. Doctorow is an accomplished master story teller and he does it again with The March. It is 1863, and General Sherman is marching through the Southern Confederate states. Doctorow weaves together an epic story line that includes Sherman, several other generals from both the North and South, and the ongoing travels of the newly emancipated slaves who follow the troops. We also meet a German surgeon who operates on wounded Union soldiers, a Southern woman who becomes his aide, and two AWOL confederate soldiers. The writing is spellbinding. The way Doctorow meshes all of these stories together is masterful. Building to the climax, we even get to meet Lincoln. There is an assassination attempt, though it’s not the one you might suppose.
Recommended by Noufissa, February 2009

 
Book Cover for The History of Love Krauss, Nicole
The History of Love

Fiction
The History of Love is divided into four tales told by four narrators whose stories gradually merge. The History of Love is also the title of a book one of the characters has written. These facts alone spell “postmodern novel.” But don’t dismiss this gem because of the labyrinthine narrative. The History of Love’s poetic prose offers the reader startling rewards. Krauss draws fully formed characters who live lives of undying faith and love, and who embody the power of creativity, especially the written word. Life and literature intertwine in a beautiful story of patient faith in love.
Recommended by Julie, February 2009

 
Book Cover for Martin Eden London, Jack
Martin Eden

Fiction
Jack London, known predominantly as the author of The Call of the Wild and the short story "To Build a Fire," is often pigeonholed for his “dog” and “man-against-nature” books. But he actually wrote on other subjects, including a memoir of his struggles with alcoholism, John Barleycorn. Considered too shocking to be published in his day, today it would rest on a crowded shelf. Martin Eden is not about dogs or nature but is an adventure story of another kind. Imbued with philosophy and the difficulties faced by anyone who tries to circumvent society’s predilection for squelching individualism and nurturance of mediocrity, the peril of our hero, while not physical, is real. Attempting to become worthy of a woman far above his class, autodidact extraordinaire Martin Eden manages to outstrip all his contemporaries only to find that it is, indeed, lonely at the top. Throughout Martin’s quest, London gives glowing examples of public libraries and librarians and the self-empowerment they facilitate. I felt as if I’d been thanked. Thank you, Jack.
Recommended by Geo, February 2009

 
Book Cover for Rhett Butler’s People McCaig, Donald
Rhett Butler’s People

Fiction
As many times as I’ve watched Gone with the Wind, there’s a part of me that always hopes Rhett Butler will change his mind, put down his bag, and sweep Scarlett O’Hara back up that staircase. McCaig’s story doesn’t change the outcome of Margaret Mitchell’s book, but it does fill in the back-story of Butler’s misspent youth in Charleston, highlights his troubled relationship with his father, and follows the circuitous path that leads him back to Tara. While GWTW purists may balk at the irreverent suggestion of a happy ending for these two characters, McCaig makes a convincing argument that they do, indeed, deserve each other. Filled with rich historical details, the question is, frankly, will you give a damn? I think so.
Recommended by Jane, February 2009

 
Book Cover for Jessica Farm Simmons, Josh
Jessica Farm

Graphic Novel
Both Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud acknowledged the symbolism of houses in dreams and ascribed rooms and floors different aspects of the psyche. Both psychologists would have a field day with Josh Simmons’ graphic novel Jessica Farm, which navigates a plot filled with dream logic that darts between dread and joy. Jessica wanders from room to room, meeting different “house friends” at every turn. Some are happy, welcoming creatures, while others are nightmarish, but all fit in perfectly with the strange geography of the whimsically shifting house. Much has been said about Simmons’ unique writing process. Beginning in January 2000, he drew a page a month until he had created 96 pages. He plans to continue until 2050, releasing a volume every eight years. The art and story line stand up to the curiosity of Simmons’ unique method. Simmons combines lines and cross hatching to convey a wealth of information in each deceptively simple drawing. Panels range from nearly solid black squares, as when Jessica passes through a dark hallway, to intricate scenes that reveal new details with every look, as when she awakens to a phenomenal sunrise and utters “Zowie.” The images are carefully arranged to fluidly glide between tension, suspense, humor and relief as Jessica moves through various situations. By the end of the book, I was shaken, amused and enchanted, and counting down the days until the next volume comes out in 2016.
Recommended by Renée, February 2009

 
Vinge, Vernor
A Fire Upon the Deep

Science Fiction
There’s science fiction, and then there’s SCIENCE FICTION. Vernor Vinge’s Hugo Award winning A Fire Upon the Deep is definitely the latter. A Fire Upon the Deep takes the reader thousands of years into the future to a point in time when Earth, or “Old Earth” as it is referred to, is just a legend. This distant vision of the future imagines a Milky Way Galaxy populated with thousands of alien species living in various “zones of thought.” These zones of thought influence the developmental capacity of civilizations and technologies. At the very bottom of the zones is the Slowness, where most civilizations have barely surpassed the stage of feudalism. Old Earth, for instance, resides somewhere in the Slowness. Many species, including humans, have escaped the Slowness and have founded civilizations in the Low, Middle, and High Beyond, where powerful technology allows for complex trade networking. (Vinge’s description of the networking is clearly strongly inspired by computer networking, which makes sense because Vinge is a former computer scientist.) Above the Slowness and the Beyond is the Transcend, where some individuals, called Powers, have achieved godlike technological abilities that have a significant impact on those in the lower levels. With all of that now explained, A Fire Upon the Deep is about a malevolent Power that is accidentally created and begins wreaking havoc on the civilizations within the Beyond. A human spaceship carrying the secret to destroying the Power escapes the devastation and becomes stranded on a planet in the Low Beyond populated by a wolf-like species that communicates with a group mind. Two child survivors from the ship, a brother and sister, become separated and enmeshed in a bloody war between rival factions of the wolf-like creatures. In the High Beyond, a rescue group of four individuals, two human and two tree-like aliens that ride in automated carts, set off for the Low Beyond to save the children and retrieve the secret of the ship, but face their own challenges as they attempt to traverse thousands of light years of space while being stalked by the malevolent Power. And this summary just scratches the surface. A Fire Upon the Deep is truly SCIENCE FICTION.
Recommended by Wes, February 2009

 
 

January 2009

Book Cover for Daughter of Fortune Allende, Isabel
Daughter of Fortune

Fiction
I’ve loved Isabel Allende's writing since The House of the Spirits, and her mixture of South American history, romance, adventure, and fantasy continues here. Set in Chile and San Francisco, the daughter of the title is Eliza Sommers, abandoned on a doorstep and then adopted by a brother and sister in nineteenth century Valparaiso. Eliza travels from Chile to America as a stowaway to find her lover who has abandoned her and her unborn child. Along the way, she rekindles a friendship with Tao Chi’en, a Chinese doctor whose devotion and love take her on another sort of unexpected journey. Allende mixes the temporal and the sensual with the fantastic and we often wonder where the narrative ends and the fantasy begins. No matter, really – what‘s important here is the tale and it’s a lovely one.
Recommended by Jane, January 2009

 
Book Cover for Modern Love: 50 True and Extraordinary Tales of Desire, Deceit and Devotion edited by Jones, Daniel
Modern Love: 50 True and Extraordinary Tales of Desire, Deceit and Devotion

Nonfiction
The more things change the more they stay the same – a phrase that couldn’t be more perfect when considering the intricacies and challenges of modern love. The language of love got a lot more difficult when text messaging and the internet were added to the mix of an already mystifying and complicated subject. Taken straight from the New York Times weekly “Modern Love” column, 50 intrepid authors bare their souls in illuminating essays about love in the twenty-first century. A voyeuristic approach to love and a superb collection for anyone who has loved, lost, or googled her date’s name.
Recommended by Lisa, January 2009

 
Keyes, Ralph
The Courage to Write

Nonfiction
Keyes separates this highly approachable and entertaining book into two sections. The first, "The Elements of Courage," examines the many sources of fear for writers and ways fear can manifest itself in the writing process. Causes range from the well-known fears of revealing family secrets, receiving terrible reviews or accidentally publishing mistakes. Some of these fears and their expressions are more surprising, though. For instance, the constant procrastination so many writers experience might not result from a lack of discipline, but a hesitance to confront the raw emotions and self-examination that writing demands. Even that dreaded beast, writer’s block, has some of its roots in fear. These examinations are infinitely helpful in identifying the ways fear causes a writer to avoid writing or writing honestly, so she can recognize the cause of her counterproductive patterns and change them. In the second section, "Coming to Terms with Fear," Keyes details methods for writing that go beyond the common (and useless) assurances like “Just start writing and you’ll feel better” or “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” Instead, Keyes acknowledges the actual importance of fear to the writing process, stating that fear and courage travel in tandem. He offers helpful suggestions, such as designing a writing schedule around your most productive, least defensive time of day, or sharing work at variously public levels. Most encouraging, Keyes includes myriad anecdotes and quotes from well-known writers regarding their own negotiations with the fear to write. Without pep talks or gimmicks, Keyes acknowledges the many ways fear presents itself in different stages of writing, and ultimately recognizes it as a tool and an essential element of writing.
Recommended by Renée, January 2009

 
Book Cover for On Chesil Beach McEwan, Ian
On Chesil Beach

Fiction
It is July 1962 in England. Florence is a talented musician who dreams of a career on the concert stage and of the perfect life she will create with Edward, an earnest young history student. Their courtship has been both cerebral and platonic. Newly married, Edward and Florence honeymoon at a Dorset hotel on the English coast, on Chesil Beach. At dinner in their room, they are anxious about the wedding night. Edward harbors a private fear of failure, while Florence's anxieties are overcome by sheer disgust at the idea of physical contact. All goes badly. In spite of their deep love and affection for each other, what might have been a marriage of great compatibility comes to a halt. Their lives go forward in different directions. You feel compassion for both Edward and Florence as they struggle with their lack of ability to communicate with each other. On Chesil Beach is another solid novel from British writer Ian McEwan. This is a story of lives changed forever by the gesture that wasn’t made and the words that weren’t said.
Recommended by Noufissa, January 2009

 
Ridley, Matt
The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation

Nonfiction
What are the origins of human morality? If your first answer is religion, think again. While it cannot be denied that the moral systems of the world’s great monotheistic religions have a strong influence on us today, these moral systems have only existed for several thousand years. For millions of years prior, humans and our hominid ancestors lived in social groups that required moral behavior without the mediation of powerful religious institutions. Hence, contemporary research in human evolutionary studies is asking what evolutionary pressures led humans to behave morally. Matt Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue is a brilliant delineation of the developments in this field of research. Limited space prevents me from discussing every excellent detail of the book, but its basic conclusion is this: human morality is the result of the evolutionary pressures of group living. In other words, the features of morality that we take for granted, such as empathy for others, cooperation, sharing, and a sense of justice, are the hardwired products of millions of years of biological evolution that emerged as our hominid ancestors turned to sociality for survival purposes. The fascinating implication of this is that mandated morality by governments or religious institutions is unnecessary, and usually does more harm than good. With that said, besides being a tour de force of contemporary science writing, The Origins of Virtue is also a compelling argument for the libertarian political tradition.
Recommended by Wes, January 2009

 
Book Cover for Lady Killer Scottoline, Lisa
Lady Killer

Mystery
A co-worker suggested that I try a Lisa Scottoline book, and I’m sure glad I did! Scottoline writes stand alone novels as well as a series about a group of female lawyers in Philadelphia. I have read four of the latter, of which my favorite is Lady Killer. This story focuses on Mary DiNunzio, one of the associates in the law firm. She gets an urgent visit from her high school nemesis, Trish, who pleads for protection from an abusive boyfriend. When the boyfriend is murdered, Mary’s investigations lead her back to her past, and the memories and people who remain there. Mary’s traditional Italian Catholic family lends some lighter moments to this legal mystery that will keep the reader guessing until the end.
Recommended by Karen G., January 2009