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Connie's Picks

Book Cover for How to Be a Victorian Goodman, Ruth
How to Be a Victorian

If you are like you me and you read a lot of historical fiction, you may find yourself distracted at times worrying about how on earth people washed their horribly soiled clothing, or thinking about the time it must have taken them to get dressed in all those layers in the first place. Crinoline and waistcoats and various woolen frocks: someone had to spend hours sewing and assembling these items, laundering them, and fussing about the social implications of each piece. And don't even get me started on daily hygiene and toilet practicalities. Author Goodman has gone the distance in her exhaustive research in this book detailing the morning-to-night rigors of being a Victorian. She has actually tried for herself (very successfully) to live periods of her own life according the the conventions and technologies of that era. The end result is fascinating, and it made me really appreciate plumbing like nothing else.
Recommended November 2015

Book Cover for Without You Kim, Suki
Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite

It is difficult to imagine what life may actually be like in "the world's most unknowable country," but Kim, born in South Korea, put herself through the rigors of disguising herself as an English teacher in order to find out. For several months, Kim experienced the utter mental and physical exhaustion that arises from censoring oneself every waking moment. And she learned that every lesson she taught and every cafeteria conversation she had among students and colleagues brought with it the risk of punishment. She could not easily discuss something as simple as attending professional tennis matches in New York, for example, without unduly “bragging” about the United States. If a student asked her about the concept of national assembly, she had to dodge the perceived political implications or speak only in the most vague terms. For her, the recourse of speaking freely on any topic likely would have meant immediate deportation, but for her students, such a conversation overheard by the wrong parties could have meant execution. This is a devastating memoir of one woman's brief encounter with the modern real-life dystopia that is North Korea.
Recommended October 2015

Book Cover for I Am Forbidden Markovits, Anouk
I Am Forbidden

In her English-language debut, Anouk Markovits paints a compelling multigenerational portrait of a Satmar family. Spanning two continents and six decades, we follow two sisters, Mila and Atara, as their paths diverge. Mila, adopted by the Sterns after her family is murdered by Hitler’s mercenaries, chooses the strict religious life of the insular Hasidic sect. Atara cannot cope with the crippling rigidity of the culture and cuts ties to avoid an arranged marriage and to pursue her education. As per tradition, she is considered dead to the family, and her name is never again uttered. After Mila emigrates to the Jewish section of Williamsburg, New York City, with her husband, Joseph, she finds herself unable to conceive. Faced with the perceived failure of her duty as a Satmar woman, Mila resorts to a series of heartbreaking decisions that have horrific consequences for her family. Reconnecting with her long-lost sister Atara seems her only hope for redemption. The writing is smooth; the prose is poetic. This is a story in which every character, regardless of flaws, is humanized and evokes empathy from the reader.
Recommended July 2012

Book Cover for Dead End Gene Pool Burden, Wendy
Dead End Gene Pool

I will be the first one to admit I have a thing for memoirs of dysfunction. The quirkier, the zanier, the better. Ms. Burden’s recent autobiography is easily in my top five favorites. Starting with a concise enumeration of her Vanderbilt ancestry, she peels back the layers of mental illness, inbreeding, eccentricity, and overindulgence surrounding her wealthy family. After her father’s suicide, six-year-old Wendy and her two brothers are juggled between their ego-maniacal, tanning- and diet-obsessed mother and their paternal grandparents in their posh New York City mansion. There are holidays in Maine and Florida, a stint in London, and trips to Paris. Any material thing they could imagine was theirs. However, none of this fills the void of a lack of attentive and supportive parenting. Even her doting (and chronically flatulent) grandmother cannot make up for the inherent WASP misogyny of her class and generation. Surrounded by drugs and booze, it was inevitable that the Burden siblings should succumb to substance abuse. It is a sad story, but somehow also hilarious. Much like Augusten Burroughs is capable of narrating heartbreaking events with humor as a survival mechanism, Burden has plenty of you-can- either-laugh-or-cry moments.
Recommended June 2012

Book Cover for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Skloot, Rebecca
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

In 1951, an impoverished, African-American mother of five is diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer never seen before. By the time she is treated, her body has been consumed. By the end of the year, she has died, leaving her children in the care of relatives. She is 30 years old. It is a sad story, but Henrietta’s demise isn’t the end. Doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital sampled tissue from the patient, without the consent or knowledge of her family. The cells this tissue produced in culture became the first “immortal” line of human cells that did not eventually die out. They became known as “Hela.” Something was very special about Henrietta’s cells, and they have been used by scientists all over the world to study and treat cancer, polio, AIDS, liver disease, infertility, and many other maladies. Her tissue has been used by space programs and weapons testing. Development of cloning technology and the mapping of the human genome owe a lot to Mrs. Lacks. But, as the author explores, what have been the ethical implications of the removal of these cells from Henrietta? She’s only anonymous Hela to researchers, but she was also a mother, wife, sister, friend, and cousin. Rebecca Skloot is a skilled writer, able to blend science, sociology, biography, and history to present the story of Henrietta Lacks, the human being, and Hela, her legacy.
Recommended March 2012

Book Cover for Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand Simonson, Helen
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

In the charming countryside of Southeast England, lives widower, pensioner Major Ernest Pettigrew. He is a debonair gentleman, looking only to mind his gardens, attend his golf club, and generally do nothing out of the ordinary in a simple, quiet life. Upon the death of his brother, however, the Major’s humble and quiet life is forever altered when he finds an unexpected friend in Jasmina Ali, the Pakistani shopkeeper from the village. But it isn’t so easy to befriend someone regarded as an outsider. The characters in this novel are an interesting assortment of the unpalatable (the Major’s son Roger is a narcissistic, materialistic urbanite) and the utterly heart-warming (Major Pettigrew’s uptight Britishness melts away as he dotes upon Ms. Ali’s great-nephew). The author somehow cleverly tangles up comedy, romance, and serious social commentary into one cohesive story. John Cleese would make an ideal leading man for the film version of the novel.
Recommended February 2012

Book Cover for Silver Sparrow Jones, Tayari
Silver Sparrow

The narrator’s very first line reveals the tipping point for every member of Jones’s well-developed cast. Dana Lynn Yarboro is the daughter of a bigamist. Her mother is the secret wife of middle-class entrepreneur, James Witherspoon. Dana is his secret daughter, who grew up watching her parallel sibling, Chaurisse, receive the finer opportunities and greater affections. Dana’s mother works hard to make up for the financial and emotional debt created by a frequently absent father, but intelligent and resourceful Dana rebels, and crosses the line into her half-sister’s life. What begins as Dana’s thirst for information becomes a genuine friendship, although naďve Chaurisse has no idea the true significance of Dana’s presence in her life. Inevitably, the world eventually crashes down on all of the major players. The characters are nuanced and rich, the story well-paced and smooth. I have high standards for domestic fiction, and this novel far exceeded my expectations.
Recommended January 2012

Book Cover for You Better Not Cry Burroughs, Augusten
You Better Not Cry: Stories for Christmas

The holidays bring out in people the very best and the very worst. Factor in a mentally ill mother, an alcoholic father, and a precocious child with an overactive imagination, and the holidays take on new levels of intensity. Established memoirist Burroughs presents seven Christmastime vignettes, ranging from the outright hysterical (as a young boy, the author had Jesus and Santa entirely reversed), to the wrenchingly tragic (as an adult, he must come to terms with losing his partner to AIDS). While the tone varies from piece to piece, the message remains constant: there’s just something remarkable and transformative about the sheer light of the season. Burroughs explores childish greed and grown-up vices with the caustic humor his audience anticipates and loves.
Recommended December 2011

Book Cover for It Looked Different on the Model Notaro, Laurie
It Looked Different on the Model: Epic Tales of Impending Shame and Infamy

My favorite humanistic cynic returns to writing pithy essays on things that make nearly everyone nuts. My relatives send me “fwd: fwd: fwd:” emails about doomsday, too. I have had an ongoing power struggle with an internet service provider and fanaticized about the ultimate one-up. I also wished for a device to interpret the language of my incomprehensible pet! This book is so much fun! It really validates the nerdy person I am, who has also gotten stuck in a too-small garment in a fitting room. The story about the chocolate on the pillow had me in tears. Watch out for "Ambien Laurie," who will surely sleep-eat all of the junk food in the house.
Recommended November 2011

Book Cover for The Paris Wife O’Farrell, Maggie
The Hand That First Held Mine

In post-war England, Lexie Sinclair runs away from her bucolic family inn for a new life in Soho. In present-day London, Ted and Elina confront the harsh reality of life with a newborn. Lexie moves in with a man who promises her an exciting life among artists and writers and bohemians. Elina experiences wide gaps in her memory as a result of post-partum panic disorder. Ted continually has flashbacks to a childhood he is sure he doesn’t recognize. Lexie finds herself pregnant and alone, yet resilient. Ted and Elina feel like they are falling apart. And then somewhere in between these stories, connections are made. Love exists and persists. O’Farrell deftly weaves these narratives together. The landscape is moody but not desperate. All three protagonists ultimately find satisfaction in the face of despair.
Recommended September 2011

Book Cover for Simple Sewing For Baby Jansdotter, Lotta
Simple Sewing For Baby: 24 Easy Projects For Newborns to Toddlers

First of all, let me be clear: I cannot sew. However, I have always really wanted to sew. The intricacies of machines and devices and implements just boggled me, and I never got off the ground with even the simplest project. Enter my son, who by shear adorableness has inspired me to do a number of silly things. Thanks to this book, I can now sew pants and bibs, and I am currently working on a complete plush alphabet for him to gnaw on as he learns his letters. Patterns and stencils are included. The instructions are clear. The projects are deliciously cute.
Recommended August 2011

Book Cover for Sleepwalk with Me Birbiglia, Mike
Sleepwalk with Me: And Other Painfully True Stories

It is a rare and satisfying thing when a comedian is as funny on paper as he is on stage. Birbiglia has been around for awhile telling stories and doing stand-up. This collection of personal stories, told chronologically, rounds out an interesting memoir. He struggles with the usual childhood things, bullies, parents, teachers, but he puts a humorous spin on it all. As an adult, Birbiglia narrowly escaped death after jumping from the second-story window of a motel during a severe sleep-walking episode. Even in light of such a serious chronic health problem, he finds a way to laugh, which is a terrific coping mechanism. Fans of Justin Halpern’s Sh*t my Dad Says will appreciate Birbiglia’s self-deprecating humor.
Recommended July 2011

Book Cover for The Second Nine Months Glembocki, Vicki
The Second Nine Months: One Woman Tells the Real Truth about Becoming a Mom, Finally

No one tells you how gross it is. They don’t talk about the shock and awe of experiencing your post-pregnancy body—not to mention your post-pregnancy mind. And just what does real sleep deprivation feel like? No one is honest with first-time mothers. Maybe that’s for the best. Unnecessary panic might be unhealthy, after all. However, I am so grateful for this book. I know I am not crazy. Or, at least, now I know I am not unusually crazy. In month-by-month chapters, Glembocki divulges the truth of her postpartum weeks. She talks about the ambivalence, the stress, the endless crushing hours without sleep, and trying to reestablish herself as a human being after becoming a mother. Her encounters with other new parents are priceless. She is hilarious and honest.
Recommended June 2011

Book Cover for It Sucked and Then I Cried Armstrong, Heather
It Sucked and Then I Cried: How I Had a Baby, a Breakdown, and a Much Needed Margarita

This is probably the funniest book about postpartum depression you’ll ever read (Hillbilly Gothic: A Memoir of Madness and Motherhood by Adrienne Martini is a really close second). Armstrong is a professional blogger whose wickedly funny commentary has propelled her to certain levels of notoriety and once caused her to lose a 9-to-5 job. When she got pregnant and gave birth to her first child several years ago, she knew she might face an emotional struggle with depression, a condition that has plagued her for years. The baby would only turn the situation worse as Armstrong changed medications and went to war with her hormones. The contrast between the humor and mental illness is striking. It was ugly and awful. She needed to be medicated and treated in a hospital. However, with the benefit of retrospection, Armstrong tells her story with amazing humor and dignity in a unique and believable way.
Recommended November 2010

Book Cover for Cakewalk: A Memoir Moses, Kate
Cakewalk: A Memoir

There’s nothing like a good book to make you want to read more good books. I don’t usually evaluate the literary quality in memoirs, and if I do, I often don’t find a lot to praise. However, Ms. Moses is clearly a good reader herself, and it is apparent from her first vignette that years of inspired reading and listening inform her style. Her stories narrate the eventual break down of a family supported by utterly mismatched parents. Her mother wants glamour and excitement and a best friend for a daughter. Her rigid father expects high performance, and withers away under the pressures of his own expectations of himself. This conflict is common in memoirs, and many feature miserable families. However, Cakewalk stands out for its fine writing. I must also mention that despite pain and anguish, there is sweetness in the author’s life, as evidenced by the wonderful dessert recipes that conclude nearly every chapter.
Recommended October 2010

Book Cover for Triumph: Life After the Cult Jessop, Carolyn
Triumph: Life After the Cult

Another survivor’s tale to emerge from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. A follow-up to her first narrative, the aptly titled Escape, this new work continues Carolyn’s story as she works to assist authorities conducting the 2009 investigation on the FLDS compound in Texas. With a uniquely valuable perspective as a former sect member, she provides information on the warped psychology of the community. The first section describes in heart-breaking detail the authorities' struggle in identifing the abuse taking palce at the Yearning for Zion Ranch. Ultimately, only a small percentage of those responsible for certain crimes were charged. However, Carolyn and many other victim advocates still hope something can be done for those left on the inside, including her own daughter. In the second half of the book, we are shown piece by piece how a victim of extreme degradation and brain-washing can overcome the horrors of a cult. Carolyn revisits specific incidents in her past that will make you cringe, but that she managed to survive. The fact that this individual can walk through her life without uncontrollable rage at all times blows my mind.
Recommended September 2010

Book Cover for Where’s My Wand? Poole, Eric
Where’s My Wand?: One Boy's Magical Triumph over Alienation and Shag Carpeting

Young Eric Poole sincerely believed in magic. He could secretly conjure ideal outcomes to all of life’s troubles in his basement (think Endora from Bewitched in a chenille bedspread caftan). He could make the new girl in school, who was born with no arms but strong legs, become his best friend and bodyguard. He could end the battle between his obsessive compulsive mother and his visiting grandmother. Even if that meant Grandma would first set fire to her mattress smoking in bed, nearly killing them all, leading to the declaration that she would no longer be welcome in the Pool house. Eric could vanquish enemies and bring justice to the little guys of the world – he simply needed an empty house and the magic blanket. As Eric grows up, though, it seems magic works less and less. Things go wrong. He can’t quite control everything. With sincerity, humor, and charm, this memoir will be immensely satifying to fans of David Sedaris, Laurie Notaro, and Sloane Crosley.
Recommended August 2010

Book Cover for North by Northwestern: A Seafaring Family on Deadly Alaskan Waters Hansen, Sig and Mark Sundeen
North by Northwestern: A Seafaring Family on Deadly Alaskan Waters

For a few years, I just didn’t get the Discovery Channel’s hit documentary series, "Deadliest Catch." The program follows the captains and crews of several crab-fishing ships on the Bering Sea. I am not into adventure, risk-taking, boats, or anything like that. I hate cold, and I get seasick. Why would a program like this appeal to me? However, one weekend I caught the beginning of marathon of reruns, and something changed. I became enraptured. I have no attraction to “reality” television, but this show has me. I now care about Alaskan crab boats and the rough and scraggly guys that run them. When I learned that one of my favorite captains from the show, Sig Hansen, had written a familial memoir, I just had to read it. Again, I didn’t think I would get into it. Nothing about the subject matter on the surface is appealing to me. However, in two days, I read the book cover to cover. I could hardly put it down. Told in the honest and believable voice of Captain Sig, it is the story of three generations of Hansens, their bonds with the sea and each other. The affection and admiration the author shows for his brothers, parents and crew is sincere. Tales of life at sea are not tiresome and technical, but exciting and sometimes hilarious. There is enough historical perspective to provide interesting context for the stories, none of it bogged down in heavy rhetoric. Just like the television series, I had no idea what I was missing until I sat down and found out for myself.
Recommended July 2010

Book Cover for Stitches: A Memoir Small, David
Stitches: A Memoir

Graphic Non-fiction
Award-winning children’s author and artist Small had a fascinating, horrifying, and chilling childhood. He grew up in 1950s middle America with stony cold parents. Their lack of affection and communication goes beyond discomfort, straight to abusive neglect and malevolence. When adolescent David develops a lump on his neck, his parents deny the seriousness of his condition and avoided treatment until an advanced tumor claims half of his vocal chords and his voice. No one tells him it's cancer. And no one mentions that his own father, a physician, is probably responsible for the cancer, a result of radiation treatments he gave David as a child. His mother is a humorless woman loaded with anger, from a family who for generations suppressed frustrations and experienced mental illness. She has no sympathy for her son, only distaste for his sickness and disgust over the expense of treating him. The young man’s life is bleak and cold. His story is told in gray panels with a minimum of text, reflecting the author’s loss of speech and disconnect from the outside world and other people. The images are striking, anguished, and really impressive. I've never seen an artist capture such desperation and desolation in someone’s eyes.
Recommended June 2010

Book Cover for I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth Peterson, Brenda
I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth

I usually gravitate toward the shocking or hilarious when I pick up a new memoir. Rarely am I excited by someone I relate to. However, I make a generous exception for Ms. Peterson because her spiritual autobiography is so refreshing and timely. She harkens back to her conservative Southern Baptist childhood, remembering songs and celebrations about shedding the world around us and leaving this ruined planet for a heavenly reward. But young Brenda has a secret. She's in love with the natural world. She sees the face of god in plants and animals and waterfalls. Her idea of divinity isn't separate from science, nor can she be a biologist who removes spirituality from the earth. Eventually she forges a path that her family can’t relate to, but the strength of their bonds endure. For once, I discovered a memoir written by someone without a tragic or complicated or torturous childhood who finds herself, cultivates happiness and success, and still loves her parents.
Recommended April 2010

Book Cover for Moose: A Memoir of Fat Camp Klein, Stephanie
Moose: A Memoir of Fat Camp

In the late 1980’s, teenager Klein equates everything good in life with thinness. Her parents would love her more. She would be worthy of friendship. She would be smarter, taller, prettier, and funnier. So she agrees to attend a sleep-away summer camp that will focus on nutrition and exercise – a fat camp. Here she encounters other teenagers struggling with their weight, and she experiences a whole new pecking order. There’s inter-cabin drama and forbidden romance with the boys’ side. Somehow, this author has managed to write a memoir about her obesity and health issues without complaining, blaming, or playing any kind of victim card. She’s laugh out loud funny through most of the book. Klein is candid and accessible, qualities most memoirs lack.
Recommended March 2010

Book Cover for Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation Stein, Elissa and Susan Kim
Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation

The authors approach a subject buried so deep in myth and taboo that I nearly hesitated to leave the book at the top of my “to-read” pile. Of course, that was before I actually read it, before I understood that my perspective was impeded by years of misinformation and maladjustment sponsored by the feminine care product industry. In friendly, well-researched narration, Stein and Kim describe the social history of women’s cycles and the impact that fashion, religion, politics, and economics has had on half the world’s population. I don’t consider myself naďve, but I admit I was startled to put all of the marketing and advertising revolving around menstruation into perspective. Read this book. You will learn something. And did I mention that these writers are hilarious? This is a realistic, easy-to-digest, wickedly funny and sometimes alarming work of non-fiction that is worth the time.
Recommended February 2010

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

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 November 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 October 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

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 September 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 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 May 2009

Williams, Tad
Tailchaser’s Song

In the same vein as Watership Down by Richard Adams, Tailchaser’s Song is an adventure story featuring talking animals. Please don’t write it off as just another childish talking animal fantasy. If Tolkien had written about animals instead of people, this would be it. This is the story of Fritti Tailchaser, a young feline approaching his adulthood. Part of a culture that values meditative silence as well as rich storytelling, our hero is yet unsure of where he fits into the world. He knows well the creation story of his clan, as well as the grand mythology that makes up his history. When a sudden, mysterious and ancient evil begins to slaughter and steal, Tailchaser becomes a part of his own heroic epic. Full of poetry and action, this novel easily captivates the imagination. The author went on to write several series of fantasy novels involving human characters, but this early effort begs for a sequel.
Recommended by Connie, August 2008

Book Cover for Birth: the Surprising History of How We are Born Cassidy, Tina
Birth: the Surprising History of How We are Born

To be clear, this is not your mother’s What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Tina Cassidy’s gripping and sometimes stomach-turning exploration of the history of birth is honest, unbiased, and very well-documented. She carefully takes into account many of the physical, anthropological, political, and religious issues that have influenced human birth rituals and customs through recorded history. Hideous and miraculous practices that have governed the lives of women are seldom talked about in such frank terms. From the days of women-only birthing huts, to the ousting of midwives in favor of learned male medical practitioners, to the recent trend to have births scheduled around doctors’ business hours, Cassidy’s dry wit and accessible language make this sometimes harsh topic absolutely fascinating. I would recommend this book to anyone, even those of us who don’t foresee ourselves experiencing childbirth firsthand.
Recommended January 2008

Book Cover for Pride of Baghdad Vaughan, Brian K.
Pride of Baghdad

Graphic Novel
The Iraq War is observed from a unique and unexpected angle. For four lions from the freshly bombed Baghdad Zoo, there is no meaning to the destruction. They are simply freed from their confines, lost and isolated in an environment not suited to large predators, other than human beings. They must find food. They must find clean water. And they also must avoid the hideous barbarism of other creatures also freed during the shelling and fires. The artwork is stunning, both beautiful and brutal, and it elegantly highlights the poignancy of the text. The authors stay true to the nature of the animals; their voices, while using human words, are appropriately spoken from the mouths of lions. It is a heartbreaking story of war and its victims, without useless talk of politics and the typical breast-beating of the media and all those who either support or condemn the war. Art by Niko Henrichon.
Recommended May 2007

Book Cover for Sickened Gregory, Julie
Sickened: the Memoir of a Munchausen by Proxy Childhood

Julie Gregory's book is gut-wrenching memoir at its finest. For anyone unfamiliar with Munchausen by Proxy, it is a type of abuse in which a caregiver feigns or induces an illness in a person under their care, in order to attract attention, sympathy, or to fill other emotional needs. This author was a victim put through unspeakable horror from her own mother. Her mother hauled her to every doctor's office in driving distance to have her tested, and medicated, and even operated on for a phantom heart defect. Under the spell of a seemingly devoted and genuinely concerned parent that fooled the medical professionals, Julie believed that she was meant to die. Julie grew up dying. She lived dying. The epitomes of dysfunction, her parents were brutal abusers, chronic liars, and some-time arsonists. The fact that this woman lived to shed light on her past is remarkable. Read it and weep - literally.
Recommended February 2007

Book Cover for The White Masai Hofmann, Corinne
The White Masai

In the late 1980s, Ms. Hofmann goes on holiday to Kenya with her fiancé. In a matter of days, she falls impossibly in love with a native Masai warrior who caught her eye on a public bus. What happens from there is nothing short of ridiculous. She drops her life as a successful, fully independent, educated woman, to become the wife of a man with whom she does not share a word of common language and to immerse herself in a culture in which tradition does not permit females any semblance of equal rights. This memoir of her first few years living in the bush is absolutely fascinating. However, it is difficult to sympathize with Corinne. It is more likely that the reader will be horrified and alarmed with the malarial episodes she experiences or the very avoidable, very high risk situations she allows not only herself, but her infant daughter, to become subject to. Despite all of this, the narrative drives forward, scene by scene, in a way that makes it a satisfying read, something like a train wreck.
Recommended January 2007

Book Cover for The Road McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Reading The Road made me want to totally curl up into the fetal position. Humankind has descended into an Apocalyptical Hell of global proportions after an unidentified calamity. Our protagonist is never named by the author, and therefore he is never awarded the individual identity taken for granted in a pre-disaster world. Nostalgia and optimism are irrelevant and dangerous in a present that has no use for either past or future tenses. But how to remove the humanity from the man? What can you do with both memories and dreams? All that exists is the now and the road. The man, his son, and the constant fear of death and hunger are the major players. The writing itself is both sparse and elegantly poetic. This is an intense, unrelenting, and beautifully sublime portrait of human emotion and the value of humanity.
Recommended January 2007


Mason, Bobbie Ann
Feather Crowns

In 1900, Christie Wheeler becomes the first recorded American woman to give birth to quintuplets. In the backwoods of rural Kentucky, a family already on the brink of utter poverty is pushed further toward the edge. As the five tiny infants struggle to stay alive, the word of their miraculous birth spreads rapidly. Christie finds herself in the center of a national spectacle as train loads of people literally stream through her home. The Wheeler family is denied every semblance of normalcy and privacy. Tragedy inevitably strikes, and Christie breaks down, calling into question her identity as a mother and the validity of her relationship with her husband and older children. Bobbie Ann Mason has a talent for integrating the grotesque with the sublime. She has painted here a portrait of an American woman from an era when women were not expected to do extraordinary things. Yet, the character of Christie Wheeler transcends expectations, and is neither defined by traditional roles, nor by her grief.
Recommended June 2006