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Joanne's Picks

Book Cover for All the Light We Cannot See Doerr, Anthony
All the Light We Cannot See

Lives that seem worlds apart intersect in various ways and culminate during the WWII bombing of Saint-Malo, France. Marie-Laure and her father live near the Museum of Natural History in Paris, where her father works as a locksmith. Marie-Laure has been blind since age 6 but learns to navigate through sound, smell, touch, and memory. When the Nazis arrive in Paris, Marie-Laure and her father go to live with his uncle in Saint-Malo, a walled city in Brittany. Her uncle, a recluse, has a special interest in a room in his house full of radios and transmitters, something that becomes outlawed once the Nazis occupy France. Werner is a young German boy living in an orphan’s home with his sister Jutta. Werner and Jutta are fascinated with an old radio they find, and Werner sees his way out of the grueling work in the coal mines that killed his father. He has a special aptitude for fixing radios, a talent soon discovered and groomed by the Nazis at a Hitler Youth academy. Werner becomes part of a team tracking resistance efforts in the war and eventually in Saint Milo. Throughout the story, we meet characters both young and old who are touched by war, but, more importantly, also by kindness. There is, of course, some violence, but it is not the overriding tone. Through the book, we catch a glimpse of how people live through war and what they do to help each other out. I really liked Doerr’s vivid descriptions of places and things, particularly when he’s describing how Marie-Laure experiences the world. I tend to like WWII books, but this one, in particular, is a wonderful story.
Recommended January 2015

Book Cover for Call the Midwife Worth, Jennifer
Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times

Worth’s story is a recollection of her time living in a convent and working as a nurse and midwife in the poorest section of postwar London. Home births were the norm for women in the East End slums and Docklands area, and the Sisters of St. Raymond Nonnatus were well known and respected in the community for providing midwife and nursing care. While you’ll read about deliveries and complications of birth, what’s truly fascinating are the stories that illustrate the lives and conditions of the various women you encounter. What happens to the young pregnant prostitute? Or a woman who gives birth to a mixed race baby? The happiest family in the book seems to be a husband and wife with 24 kids. (Spoiler alert – the husband only speaks English and the wife only speaks Spanish!) And there’s the heartbreaking story of Mrs. Jenkins and the London workhouses. You meet the nuns: Sister Monica Joan whose temperament may or may not be a result of her old age, Sister Evangelina who seems unlikable except to the Cockney residents she serves, and the other midwives, such as Chummy, a clunky, large woman and good-hearted soul who is determined to ride a bike. You’ll find issues of acceptance, poverty, marriage, and family in all variations.
Recommended July 2013

Book Cover for The Shoemaker’s Wife Trigiani, Andriana
The Shoemaker’s Wife

A combination immigrant tale, love story, and family saga, The Shoemaker’s Wife is the story of Enza Ravanelli and Ciro Lazzari, both from the same region of the Italian Alps. Enza’s family runs a carriage service while Ciro and his brother live and work at a convent where their destitute mother left them after their father died. Enza and Ciro's paths cross during a monumental event in Enza’s life, and just as their relationship begins, they are separated when misfortune forces Ciro to leave his village and move to New York City. Enza eventually moves to the U.S. with her father, hoping to earn money to send back to Italy for their struggling family. The second part of the book focuses on Enza's and Ciro’s individual lives as they forge their way in America, he as a shoemaker’s apprentice in Little Italy, and she as a seamstress with the Metropolitian Opera. While their paths continue to cross, it’s not until Ciro returns from WWI that he and Enza marry. The final part of the book entails their move to Minnesota, where they embrace the promise of a new life together, and follows their family story to Italy and back, and into the next generation with their son. The book is based on the story of the author's own grandparents.
Recommended March 2013

Book Cover for The Paris Wife McLain, Paula
The Paris Wife

What was it like to be the first wife of Ernest Hemingway? Hadley Richardson married Ernest Hemingway when he was a journalist struggling to get his fiction career going. She's the one who saw him through the tough times and supported him while he worked on such classics as The Sun Also Rises. This historical fiction account tells the story of the Hemingways in 1920s Paris: the expatriate crowd and Left Bank artists (Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, the Fitzgeralds, James Joyce), the excessive drinking, the literary discussions, and the support they lent each other, along with the personal life of the Hemingways, including the birth of their son, the introduction of Pauline (Hemingway's eventual second wife), and the end to his marriage to Hadley. A friend who read the book asked what's the purpose of taking a real person's life and making a fictionalized account. The author on her web page explains: "I'm hoping my novel will work to illuminate not just the facts of Ernest and Hadley's years in Paris, but the essence of that time and of their profound connection by weaving both the fully imagined and undeniably real. When I began to research my book, beginning with biographies of Hemingway and Hadley, and with their delicious correspondence, I knew the actual story of the Hemingways' marriage was near perfect; it was a ready-made novel, ripe for the picking. I didn't have to invent a plot for them, nor did I want to. My work would be to use the framework of historical documentation to push into these characters' hearts and minds, discovering their motivations, their deepest wishes." There are similarities here with Loving Frank by Nancy Horan -- the artist genius at work and the woman who supported him at whatever cost. Interesting reading and much to discuss.
Recommended July 2012

Book Cover for Emeril's There's a Chef in My World! Lagasse, Emeril
Emeril's There's a Chef in My World!: Recipes That Take You Places

Emeril's goal is to show kids how to prepare favorite ethnic dishes, and to introduce them to new foods. My son found the book at the library and wanted to try some of the recipes. Simple recipes are easy to follow, with specific directions and lists of ingredients and tools required. Though geared toward kids, the results can be enjoyed by all ages. The book is divided into sections: Breakfast; Snacks, Salads, and Starters; Soups and Sandwiches; Main Meals; Sides; Breads; and Sweets. Each section features from 6 to 16 recipes, with information that includes the country of origin and cultural facts. We've made Fruit Gallette (France) many times—it's become a favorite. Recently we tried Portuguese Rice, and it was a big hit too. Next on the list are Hot Cross Buns (England) and Mexican Tortilla Soup.
Recommended December 2011

Book Cover for Tails of Wonder and Imagination Datlow, Ellen (editor)
Tails of Wonder and Imagination

Short Stories
A great pick by my colleague for an October Halloween display led me to Tails of Wonder and Imagination. Cat lovers, here’s a book for you. 40 stories featuring cats range from science fiction and fantasy to mystery and horror, with a mainstream fiction story or two mixed in. All have previously been published in anthologies, collections or magazines, by popular authors such as Joyce Carol Oates, Laurence Block, and Neil Gaiman, and lesser known but accomplished authors like Nebula winner Mary Turzillo, a local writer from just across the Ohio border in Trumbull County. In her story “Pride,” a cuddly laboratory experiment comes to life as a frightening saber tooth tiger. In my favorite piece, “The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard, Esteban, a jaguar hunter by trade, has grown up believing the black jaguar with its magic powers is the one jaguar not to be hunted. But an unfortunate circumstance finds him in the jungle trying to kill the animal. The work by Shepard is said to be based on a story told to the author “in a bar in Telas, Honduras by an old and very drunk man.” At the start of each piece, the reader finds such tidbits of information that illuminate the story and give a brief background of the author. Pick it up, and see what captures your imagination.
Recommended November 2011

Book Cover for The Complete Guide to Backyard Recreation Projects Smith, Eric W.
The Complete Guide to Backyard Recreation Projects

How cool will you be when you have the only zip line in your neighborhood? If that doesn’t bring all your kids’ friends running to your yard, try an ice rink or your very own putting green. My son went straight to the directions for the skateboard ramp and then looked for a ride to Home Depot to get the necessary equipment. This book has a great assortment of backyard projects, from building the familiar play set to installing a pool, constructing a bocce court, and setting up a tetherball. Backyard entertaining is also covered. The projects range from small in scope – a fire pit or a beanbag toss – to pretty complex – an outdoor kitchen or tree house. Each section lists the tools and materials you will need and gives clear step-by-step instructions complete with color photographs so you can see what you should be doing. It also includes safety issues and special tips for your projects. Pick your favorite project and get started.
Recommended July 2011

Book Cover for The Distant Hours Morton, Kate
The Distant Hours

When a letter arrives at the Burchill home more than 40 years after it was mailed, Meredith is overcome with emotion but refuses to acknowledge to her grown daughter that it is significant. The letter has something to do with Meredith’s wartime evacuation as a young girl to Milderhurst Castle, but why won’t she talk to daughter Edie about it? On her way home from a business trip, Edie stumbles upon Milderhurst and realizes she has been there before. She can’t resist the place, with its many stories. What does her mother have to do with the mysteries surrounding the castle? And what about The True History of the Mud Man, the famed novel written by father Raymond Blythe? The story moves back and forth in time, primarily between the 1940s British Kent countryside and 1990s London. In the end, when all the secrets and details are revealed, only the reader knows the entire story. I listened to the outstanding audio version read by Caroline Lee. The story pulled me in and I could not stop listening.
Recommended June 2011

Book Cover for Family Dinner Fix Richard, Sandi
The Family Dinner Fix: Cooking for the Rushed

According to Sandi Richard, anyone can make a family dinner, even after work. The Family Dinner Fix emphasizes the importance of sharing a family meal and provides time-saving tips to help you put together a good meal in a relatively short time. What I like most is that the recipes are tasty, and at the same time, feature foods my kids will actually eat. While the book categorizes recipes by length of time from start to table, you would have to be moving pretty quickly to get them done in the amount of time listed, at least on the first try. However, the time element does give you a means of comparing recipes. The book includes weekly menus and shopping lists. Highly recommended.
Recommended February 2011

Book Cover for Spies of the Balkans Furst, Alan
Spies of the Balkans

Set in Greece on the brink of the Second World War, Spies of the Balkans begins with the death of an unidentified man under suspicious circumstances in a warehouse. Costa Zannis, a senior police official in the northern port city of Salonika, investigates and tries to determine who the man is and why he was there. Things are not what they seem, a theme that continues throughout the novel. Who is the woman who owns the dance school that Zannis is involved with? What’s the story with the British travel writer? The Hungarian gangsters? In addition to political maneuvering and spying, Zanni helps German Jews find escape routes to Turkey. Much of the action takes place while the characters contend with Greece’s impending entry into WWII.
Recommended February 2011

Book Cover for This is Where I Leave You Tropper, Jonathan
This is Where I Leave You

Combine Ann Tyler’s dysfunctional families with David Sedaris’s humor and you’ve got This is Where I Leave You, a book both laugh-out-loud funny and serious. Following the death of the Foxman patriarch, the four Foxman siblings and their mother honor his wish to sit shivah, a Jewish tradition requiring the family members (some of whom have not spent time together in years) to live in the same house for one week. As neighbors and friends come to pay their respects, people and events from the siblings' childhood and adolescent years blend with their current lives. Phillip’s past flings meet his current older finacee; Judd copes with a pending divorce and a rekindled interest in his high school best friend; Wendy is frazzled by her young children and absent-but-wealthy husband; Paul and Alice try desperately to start a family while confronting their pasts with Judd. Finally, their mother, a noted parenting expert, reveals a startling secret that shocks her children. Definitely recommended.
Recommended December 2010

Book Cover for The Housekeeper and the Professor Ogawa, Yoko
The Housekeeper and the Professor

A mathematics professor loses his short term memory following a car accident and can only recall what has transpired in the past 80 minutes. Given these circumstances, how can he develop a caring relationship with his new housekeeper and her 11-year-old son? Ogawa has created a beautiful story of the satisfying daily life these characters develop. Root, the nickname given to the boy by the mathematician (because his flat head resembles the square root symbol), grows to love the professor. The boy and old man share a common interest in baseball (with its statistics and numbers), and Root treasures their time together from his childhood until he is a young man in his twenties. Although the professor’s short term memory fails him, his long-term memory is intact, so that he remembers people and events prior to 1975. In a particularly poignant section, the housekeeper and son try to shield the professor from discovering that his favorite baseball player has long since retired. Ogawa makes you think about relationships and memories while illustrating the poetic nature of numbers, which play a key role is this short thoughtful read. Great book group pick.
Recommended June 2010

Book Cover for The Outlander Gabaldon, Diana
The Outlander

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 October 2009

Book Cover for American Rust Meyer, Philipp
American Rust

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 August 2009

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

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 March 2009

Book Cover for Live from Jordan: Letters Home from My Journey Through the Middle East Orbach, Benjamin
Live from Jordan: Letters Home from My Journey Through the Middle East

A fellow Pittsburgher, Benjamin Orbach was a graduate student living in Jordan following 9/11 and prior to the Iraqi war. In this book of letters and emails home to his family and friends, we see real life in the Middle East through the friendships and conversations he has with everyday people – barbers, college students, cooks, roommates, drivers, and teachers. As he tries to serve as an unofficial ambassador for the American people, shedding light on American culture and sometimes policies, he learns to view the Middle East from new perspectives. A Jewish American, he speaks Hebrew and has studied in Israel. Now he finds himself learning Arabic and living among Palestinian people. His insightful look at Jordan as well as Syria, Israel, and Egypt goes a long way toward helping us understand life, culture, and thought in the Middle East.
Recommended November 2008

Book Cover for The Book of Air and Shadows Gruber, Michael
The Book of Air and Shadows

Mystery meets literature in this thriller surrounding the possible existence of an unknown Shakespeare manuscript. The story begins with a wealthy intellectual property lawyer hiding out on a lake in upstate New York while he awaits the arrival of the thugs who are after him and the manuscript. Is the manuscript real? Where is it? Who owns it? Who wants it? Who’s after it? Who’s on whose side? Along the way, we learn the story of the Bracegridle letters, ciphered seventeenth-century letters which give the details of a conspiracy involving Richard Bracegridle and William Shakespeare, a play about Elizabeth I, and the whereabouts of this hidden manuscript. But details are not always what they seem in this story that includes a cast of characters including the daughter of a Nazi officer married to a Jewish businessman, a criminal turned priest, an aspiring young filmmaker and his family in Queens, a mysterious young woman with a sketchy background, several Shakespeare scholars, Israel gangsters and Russian mobsters, and our lawyer friend. Great fun for summer reading.
Recommended by Joanne, June 2008

Book Cover for The Saffron Kitchen Crowther, Yasmin
The Saffron Kitchen

A young Iranian woman, Maryam Mazar, doesn’t want the married life expected of someone from a wealthy family like her own. Her head-strong ways eventually lead to trouble, and her father forces her to leave her home following an incident with Ali, a close friend and confidante of Maryam’s who works for the family. Once she is sent away, Maryam becomes a nurse, moves to England, marries, and has her own family. When her nephew comes to live with her, Maryam's long-forgotten feelings about Iran and what happened to her so many years earlier are shaken up. Maryam is compelled to return to her Iranian village to face the unresolved issues of her past, leaving her family in England in the dark as to why she left and when she would return. Maryam eventually convinces her daughter, Sara, to join her in Iran where Sara learns what her mother endured, what she sacrificed and what she gained along the way. An interesting cast of main characters shows what life is like for the women, servants and outsiders in different cultures and settings who are virtually powerless.
Recommended by Joanne, April 2008

Book Cover for Inheritance of Exile Darraj, Susan Muaddi
The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly

Short Stories
These intertwining stories follow the lives of four girlfriends who are now women and their parents-- primarily their mothers. The daughters are all Arab-Americans, while their parents are primarily Palestinian immigrants living in Philadelphia. The stories highlight the family relationships and experiences of growing up with or adapting to two cultures. The conflicts in culture for these first generation Americans at times find the young women in a limbo of sorts, not belonging to the world of their parents but not being completely accepted by their American peers. The stories also explore universal issues such as finding one’s place in the world and understanding a time and place that is not our own.
Recommended by Joanne, November 2007

Book Cover for Luncheon of the Boating Party Vreeland, Susan
Luncheon of the Boating Party

A fascinating fictional account of the story behind Renoir’s painting of the same name. Vreeland’s latest novel uses historic records and biographies of the famous impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir to compose the story of how and why this painting came to be. A look at life in France during the late 1800s shows the importance of Renoir’s depiction of “la vie moderne” to the time. Meet the models, among them another French impressionist painter, an aspiring writer and adventurer, an actress, an Italian journalist, and the woman who eventually becomes Renoir’s wife. Vreeland has expertise in art and art history, which also is apparent in her previous works – Girl in Hyacinth Blue and The Passion of Artemisia – both recommended as well.
Recommended by Joanne, October 2007

Book Cover for The Highest Tide Lynch, Jim
The Highest Tide

Thirteen-year-old Miles O’Malley loves the natural life of the Washington bay where he lives. During this particularly incredible summer in his life, he discovers things in the bay that are unusual, drawing the media’s attention and quickly spiraling into a frenzy of more discoveries and more attention. Complete with the college-age girl next door, the old woman who’s his friend, a popular teenage business partner, and his somewhat absent parents, the story finds Miles growing in more ways than one. Lynch is right on the mark in showing the way in which a young boy would understand and react to the situations at hand, and the results are sometimes quite humorous. Recommend.
Recommended by Joanne, April 2007

Book Cover Laila Lalami
Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits

The hope of a better life spawns two Moroccan men and two women to attempt the dangerous trip across the Strait of Gibraltar to illegally enter Spain. This story begins with that harrowing crossing and both looks back on the characters’ lives leading up to their leaving and forward to what becomes of their efforts. An apt title for a book filled with despair and hope.
Recommended by Joanne, June 2006

Book Cover Anne Perry
Face of a Stranger

When Monk wakes up one day in a hospital, he's not sure where he is or who he is. While quietly struggling to figure out the details of his life, he returns to his job with the London police, where he's assigned to the brutal murder of Joscelin Grey, the youngest and favorite son of Lady Shelburne and a well-liked figure by many. Could his murderer be a complete stranger as feared? A business associate? A jealous brother or even Monk himself? As Monk's memory returns, he begins to piece together the story of Joscelin Grey. A fine Victorian mystery by a master in the craft as well as an examination of human nature and relationships.
Recommended by Joanne, February 2006

Book Cover Ray Bradbury
Fahrenheit 451

Imagine a world in which owning a book is illegal. It's a world in which few people care to have books anyway- they just cause people to think and have unpleasant feelings. But for those who do have books, their discovery means having your house along with the offending items burnt to the ground. Guy Montag is a fireman whose job it is to set such fires. His feelings of dissatisfaction and emptiness lead him to want to read the books he is destroying, and this decision to pursue knowledge changes his life forever.
Recommended by Joanne, January 2006

Book Cover Robert Whitaker
The Mapmaker's Wife: A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon

An extraordinary true story that has all the makings of a good adventure novel. A group of mapmakers from France travel to Peru in the 1700s to study latitude and longitude in an attempt to determine the shape of the Earth, the hot scientific topic of the day. The extent of the work to be done and the dedication of the scientists results in a ten-year stay. Jean Godin, one of the assistants, marries a Peruvian woman, Isabel Grameson. Their plans to move to France go awry, and the couple is separated for 20 years. Isabel makes a daring and horrifying trip through the Andes and along the Amazon to reunite with her husband in French Guiana.
Recommended by Joanne, January 2006

Book Cover Frank, Mitch
Understanding the Holy Land: Answering Questions about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Note: I decided to use the teen nonfiction genre as an opportunity to learn about a subject that I should know more about than I do. I knew there was a lot more to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than I understood and saw this book as a great way to get the facts.
Mitch Frank does an outstanding job of presenting both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and remaining impartial. He presents the issues in an easy-to-follow format-short sections with titles such as What Is the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?, Why is there a conflict?, and Why is the Rest of the World Involved? The details are not as fleshed out as they would be in a more extensive book (as would be expected). For instance, when I read the paragraph about the Holocaust, I realized the author was intentionally giving basic facts without too much of the horrifying details. This holds true for the rest of the book although he does make the reality of the situation clear. I found it to be an interesting read and very informative book. Highly recommended.
Recommended by Joanne, October 2005

Book Cover Chandler, Raymond (adapted by Michael Lark)
The Little Sister

Graphic Novel
This is the graphic novel version of the mystery by a master in the field. When Orfamay Quest shows up in private investigator Philip Marlowe's office asking for help in finding her brother Orrin, Marlowe knows she's not telling him the whole story. Orrin has suddenly stopped writing home, quit his job, and moved. But what she doesn't mention is that he might be hiding and that it might have something to do with their sister, a Cleveland gangster, and several ice pick murders. Classic 1940s-style who-done-it.
Recommended by Joanne, August 2005

Book Cover Gross, Terry
All I Did Was Ask

Terry Gross is the host of NPR's Fresh Air and as such has interviewed thousands of people over the course of 29 years. In this book, she highlights 39 interviews with writers, actors, musicians, and artists. I found the interviews with Nicholas Cage, Mickey Spillane, Paul Schrader, Joyce Johnson, Chuck Close, Dustin Hoffman, Isabella Rossellini, and Carol Shields to be the most interesting, with revealing details about their lives, their work, and their inner thoughts. A few interviews are confrontational like that with Gene Simmons, which leaves you wondering whether he's truly an ignoramus or if it's all just part of his stage persona.
Recommended by Joanne, August 2005

Byatt, A.S.

Possession is subtitled A Romance, but this is not your typical romance novel. Two current day scholars - Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey - are driven to discover the truth behind an affair between two nineteenth century writers - Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. The search to unravel the mystery begins when Roland find letters written by Ash to an unnamed woman. As he and Maud piece together the facts of the unknown liaison between Ash and LaMotte, Mitchell and Bailey begin a romance of their own. The hidden life of Ash and LaMotte is intriguing and its implications far reaching for the scholars. The theme of possession is touched on in the relationships between numerous people. Byatt writes a highly intellectual romance filled with literary references mixing myths, poetry, and letters. At times not an easy read, but worth it in the end.
Recommended by Joanne, March 2005