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Staff Picks: Books

As chimney sweepers come to dust: a Flavia de Luce novel

I was delighted to hear that author Alan Bradley had a new book. As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust: a Flavia de Luce Novel features twelve year old Flavia’s adventures in Canada in the 1950’s, where she has been sent to boarding school. It is a gloomy and mysterious place, and almost immediately, Flavia discovers a mummified body in the chimney of her room.

If you have not made Flavia’s acquaintance before, she is definitely worth discovering. She has been compared to a cross between Harriet the Spy and Sherlock Holmes, and that is an apt description. If you are new to the series, it’s probably best to begin with The Sweetness at the bottom of the Pie, which is the first of Flavia’s adventures.


American Romantic

I have liked all of the many books by Ward Just I have read. His most recent, American Romantic, centers on Harry Sanders, who grew up in a family of Connecticut liberals and is now a promising young foreign service officer in Vietnam just before troops arrive en masse.

Henry is asked to undertake a not-quite-official mission. He becomes stranded in the jungle, injured, and “damaged goods”, but is owed a lifetime of State Dept postings in return.

This is a well-written story of a young, naïve foreign service officer and the two women who love him, beginning at a restless time in our history.

Another satisfying book from Ward Just.


Don't Write In Library Books

Ander Monson is the most bizarre, versatile, prize-winningest writer who hails from Michigan that you have never heard about. He won the John C. Zacharis First Book Award for Other Electricities, the Tupelo Press Editor’s Prize for his poetry collection Vacationland, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for his book of criticism called Vanishing Point. If not for that last one, I would have had to add that the prizes he has won are just as unheard of as he is. 

 
I read Other Electricities several years ago which left me with a vivid impression of the mix of tenacious survivalism and self-destructiveness of the residents of the Upper Peninsula and the image of snowmobiles jumping snow banks out on to frozen Lake Superior; occasionally breaking through the ice and disappearing. 

 
His newest book, a collection of essays titled Letter to a Future Lover: Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries, comes out on February 3rd. Check it out and see what you think of Ander Monson and if you can resist writing in a library book about people writing in library books.


Cat on a Hot Tin Roof...Well, Not Exactly

C. Roger Mader has done it again! He’s the author of Lost Cat, a children’s picture book I had previously blogged about. Supposedly, this newest work Tiptop Cat is based on reality as it mimics the adventures of his niece’s cat living in Paris ...“who roamed the rooftops of her neighborhood and survived a six story fall”. Yikes! 

 

As the story and pictures describe, a young girl gets a black and white cat for her birthday, who becomes her most favorite gift. Although the cat enjoys his indoor life, he also especially likes the outside balcony. This cat is no slouch – so he roams and jumps from one rooftop to another and then another, and then one more until he finally reaches “Le Grand Prix”; a prime sitting spot on a chimney that happens to have the best view of the Eiffel Tower in all of Paris.

 

However, one day he submits to his baser animal instincts and pounces upon a pigeon intruding on his balcony domain. Unfortunately, it’s a misjudged jump. As a consequence, he falls many floors down, right through a café canopy and into the arms of a man who just happens to be in the right spot, at the right time!  Luckily, the cat doesn’t break anything except maybe his spirit for hunting. For a while, he shies away from the balcony and rooftops until one day he once more spots someone landing on his domain; this time an irritating crow. And then he can’t help but give chase.  

 

The author states that he himself lives in the Normandy countryside of France with his wife and a petite cat named Pete, who is not allowed to hop on rooftops in search of excitement. That’s very good to know. Because you should never, ever let your cat wander over balconies, rooftops or anything else located high off the ground! The depth perception of domestic cats is not as keen as their agility, so accidents happen much more often than is commonly known. And in the end, the danger of losing your feline friend for a lifetime is just not worth their temporary happiness.

 

A wonderfully spirited book with many bright, evocative illustrations. Just remember one thing: Unless you’re a stunt cat, don’t try this at home!

 

 


Recommended in the strongest possible terms

Julie Schumacher’s funny and inventive novel Dear Committee Members hysterically skewers the world of academia from a perspective that feels intimately familiar with the absurdity of the world it depicts. Structured entirely in a series of satirical recommendation letters from Jason Fitger, a beleaguered, immensely egotistical, and more than a little unhinged professor in the English department of a small Midwestern liberal arts college, written to a variety of colleagues (including multiple to his ex-wife), HR departments, academic muckety-mucks, etc. The letters which drip with sarcasm and aggressiveness, both passive and not so much, work to slowly illuminate the very sad state of Fitger’s life and position. Dear Committee Member is laugh-out-loud funny, insightful, touching at times, and has a mischievousness about it that I found a joy to read.


Mom Ran Away With Bigfoot

Are you tired of vampires and zombies, but still want some fantastical realism? How about Bigfoot, lake monsters, half-human puppies and bird-women? You will find all of these in Sharma Shields’ debut novel The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac.

After Eli Roebuck’s mom runs off with a sasquatch when he is nine years old, he spends the rest of his life in pursuit of the creature. Could this book possibly be compared to Moby-Dick? Yes, and not just once.

Booklist says, “Eli's quest is not unlike Ahab's, and Shields writes with piercing insight about the monsters that keep us from connecting with one another in this funny and wise first novel.”

A reviewer in Kirkus wrote, “ Imagine a mashup of Moby-Dick and Kakfa's Metamorphosis (with a hearty dash of Twin Peaks thrown in), and you'll begin to get an idea of what Shields' ambitious tale of disenchantment sets out to do.”

It comes out January 27th, but we have already ordered it so you can place a hold right now.


Top 10 Books of 2014

I always look forward to the New York Times Book Review that reveals their editors’ picks for the top 10 books of the year. I have rarely read any of them, because I have spent that year trying to catch up on the best books from previous years. So I add some more to my list. 

For 2014, I had read one of them – On Immunity by Eula Biss. That one caught my eye early because I loved her book Notes From No Man’s Land about race in America.

One of them, The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, was considered as a possible Reading Together selection for 2015.

Here’s the list:

Fiction
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
Euphoria by Lily King
Family Life by Akhil Sharma
Redeployment by Phil Klay


Nonfiction
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
On Immunity by Eula Biss
Penelope Fitzgerald: a Life by Hermione Lee
The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright


May your reading lists prove fruitful in 2015.


Happy New Year!


An Unplanned Reading Emphasis

As I look back over the list of books I read in 2014, I am surprised how many of them have a European, World War I or II setting both fiction and nonfiction. That was not intentional. Many of the books I read are relatively new so I can only assume there has been many books with this setting and time published in the last year or so.

Fiction favorites include:

The Wind is Not a River by Brian Payton

Lovers at the Chameleon Club 1932 by Francine Prose

The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure

Love and Treasure by Ayelet Waldman

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

My nonfiction favorites of this setting and time include:

The Hotel on Place Vendôme by Tilar J. Mazzeo

The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance that Changed the World by Greg King

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel Brown

The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit and An Epic Quest to Arm an American at War by Albert J. Baime (Not a European setting but WW II)

Do you have any of this time and setting to recommend to me? Contact me


A Southern Page-Turner

Natchez Burning is not my usual kind of book, but once I started reading, I couldn’t put down. 

The story is centered in Natchez, Mississippi, and shifts between the 1960’s and the present. The respected town doctor is accused of murdering his former nurse, an African-American woman who returned to Natchez after many years of living up north.

As one reviewer has written, there are racial politics, family secrets, corruption, racism, almost unbelievable brutality, and fear, much centering on a fringe KKK sect.

In spite of its length, it is a real page-turner. I have seen it listed on several “best of the year” lists. Although it won’t make my best-of list, it is good read, a book in which a reader can get totally lost.

 


Some Luck

Jane Smiley’s new novel, Some Luck, follows the Langdon family of Denby, Iowa, for thirty years. Each year is a chapter: 1920 – 1953. The family endures the depression, trading the horses for a tractor, a son in World War II, the cold war, births and deaths.

Much of the focus is on first born, Frank, who was “born with an eye for opportunity,” but all family members are developed. Luck is never to be relied on, but it plays a role.

Smiley plans a trilogy that will follow the Langdon family well into the 21st century. Their story is off to a strong start.

This is likely to be one of my favorite books of the year, although there are still two months of good reading left.