Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

Quiet Until the Thaw by Alexandra Fuller

FullerQuietFuller, born in Britain, and raised in Zimbabwe, has previously written several very well-received memoirs about living in Africa; among them are Leaving Before the Rains Came and Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.

After the author moved to Wyoming, she attended the annual commemoration of the 1877 murder of Crazy Horse on a nearby reservation. As Fuller said in an interview, she arrived to participate in the commemorative ride of 400 men and women mounted on horseback. She felt instantly at home on the reservation, and she stayed for three months. She lived with the Lakota Indians and participated in all aspects of their daily life, including tribal ceremonies.

Quiet Until the Thaw, her first fiction novel, is set on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the southwest corner of South Dakota, home to the Lakota Oglala Sioux Nation. Fuller’s story spans generations and geography, writing frankly about the effect of the federal government’s continuous interference in Indian affairs. Two main characters, cousins Rick Overlooking Horse, and You Choose Watson, born within a month of each other, serve as the reader’s window into tribal divisions and infighting. The men could not be more different. Rick, a seriously injured Vietnam War veteran, chooses a peaceful l existence at the edge of the desert. He refuses government disability and military pension payments, instead living off the land, selling herbal medicines, breaking horses, and becoming a wise man. You Choose Watson takes a completely different path, becoming a thoroughly corrupt tribal business leader.

Fuller’s story telling is nothing short of fabulous, entrancing me as I read about a subject I didn’t know I would be interested in. The chapters are short, only one or two pages each, and every word needs to be read carefully.

Westerns  Nancy Picks  Historical Fiction  Contemporary

 

The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman

WaxmanGardenJust in time for summer reading, this paperback was published May 2, 2017

An uplifting story about a garden; planted, nourished, and enjoyed by a broad cast of varied, likeable, realistic quirky characters. Young widow Lilian, an illustrator, has been asked to take a 6 week gardening class at The Los Angeles Botanic Garden, in preparation for illustrating a series of boutique vegetable guides for the venerable Bloem Garden Company. Not a gardener, Lilian reluctantly arrives at the first Saturday morning session class with her two daughters, and Lilian’s very supportive sister Rachel in tow. Also in the class are some of the most enjoyable characters I’ve read about in a long time. At the head of the garden project is attractive in every way Edward Bloem, head of his family garden supply company, and commissioner of Lilian’s illustrations.

At the heart of the book is the theme of change, and each of the gardeners experience change in their own way. The new beginnings of the title refer not only to newly planted and growing vegetables, but change that comes over everyone in the group, and new directions that their lives will take.

Each chapter begins with a short and interesting little tutorial on how to plant the fruits or vegetables for the week’s project (disclaimer: I am not a gardener, and enjoyed these lessons!). The author writes with such quirky dry humor, that I really did laugh out loud reading this book.

Nancy Picks  Humor  Contemporary

 

The Purple Swamp and Other Stories by Penelope Lively

LivelyBooker Prize winner Lively gives us yet another book with keen observations of human nature and told with empathy and humor.

The title story takes place in the garden of Quintus Pompeius in ancient Pompei. Located in what is now Naples, Italy, Pompei was a Roman city destroyed in 79 A.D. by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The narrator is a purple swamphen, a bird native to swampy marsh areas and now an endangered species. In the lush garden of Quintus Pompeius, as in other gardens of wealthy Romans, this beautiful bird was kept for ornamental purposes.

The story highlights the debauched life of the upper class Romans, especially that of the ruler Pompeius. This particular garden “hosted fornication, incest, rape, child abuse, grievous bodily harm” (p2). Pompeius’s children took pleasure in pulling the wings off butterflies and the feathers off the birds. A bond develops between the 14-year-old slave girl (herself abused) and the purple swamphen.

Lively anthropomorphizes the bird-narrator to lend an amusing detachment to her observations of humans-“a forensic interest in the practices of this curious species”—a species that drinks and eats to excess, enslaves others, and practices all manner of abuse. The reader cheers when the volcano erupts and the innocent creatures—the birds and the slave girl--escape nature’s onslaught.

Short Story  Sara Picks  Historical Fiction

05/26/17
 

The Chilbury Ladies Choir by Jennifer Ryan

RyanChilburyI am frequently asked to suggest a book that’s “light but good,” and here is my latest recommendation: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. Written by a first-time author, the novel is a good, escapist read.

The story is set in the small English town of Chilbury, over a few months in 1940. As the men have left to fight in World War II, the church’s Vicar declares that the church choir must be abandoned – lacking male voices, it can’t exist. The ladies of the town, who had taken on many of the absent men’s responsibilities, respectfully disagree. “Just because the men have gone off to war, why do we have to close the choir? And precisely when we need it most!” they ask. The Vicar reluctantly agrees to let them try, although he is quite sure that a ladies’ chorus would be lacking. 

Organized by Professor Primrose Trent, of London, the women in town band together to “carry on singing.” The all-female choir becomes a new family. Working together, they create beautiful music for christenings, funerals, and other events. They even win a choral competition. They share their joys and losses, finding the music and companionship important parts of their lives.

The author tells the tale through a series of journal entries and also letters shared among five main characters. It’s a very effective device for story-telling (the book does remind me of the very popular The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society!). The story, inspired by the author’s grandmother, contains elements of romance and domestic issues, as well as themes of drama and intrigue, espionage and trickery, life and death. A young refugee girl from Czechoslovakia adds an especially humanizing element to the war story.

World War II  War  Nancy Picks  Historical Fiction  Epistolary  British History  British Fiction

 

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline

KlinePieceI really enjoyed this novel, as I did Kline’s last book, the wildly popular Orphan Train. As she did with Orphan Train, the author pays meticulous attention to historic detail, and she writes in an engaging writing style that makes her new book hard to put down.

The book focuses on the famous Andrew Wyeth painting, Christina’s World, one of the best known works of the 20th century and part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The inspiration for the painting was Christina Olson, who was born in 1893. She was Wyeth’s neighbor, and she was his muse. In fact, he claimed an upstairs room in her family’s farmhouse to do sketches for the painting, completing most of the final work there. In the painting, Christina’s face is turned away, inviting the viewer to wonder who she was.

Olson grew up on her family’s farm in the remote coastal town of Cushing, Maine. It was a bleak existence; the land had been in the family since 1743, and adjoining acreage had been sold off over the years as family fortunes dwindled. At the age of 3, Christina developed a high fever that left her legs damaged. A brilliant student, she was asked to continue her education so that she could take over as the school’s head teacher, but her father refused to let her. He forced his daughter to stay on the farm and do arduous farm chores despite her physical limitations. As a young woman, Christina was courted by a college man who ultimately broke her heart. But she fought her way through life, refusing to be a victim of her circumstances.

Nancy Picks  Historical Fiction  Artwork  Art

 

Reputations by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

VasquezReputationsJuan Gabriel Vasquez is an award-winning Colombian writer, whose 2013 book, Las Reputaciones, was translated into English last year. Whereas his other books have focused on how public life affects private, Reputations is centered on how the private--with its traumas, fears, and shortcomings-- affects aspects the public personae.

The main character is Javier Mallarino, a 65-year-old political cartoonist of great renown. We meet him as he is about to be honored for his 40 years of journalistic excellence. Like many public heroes, fame has come at a price. Well into his marriage with the love of his life, an anonymous threat shatters the harmony that was once theirs. For the first time Magdalena had asked him the question that he, silently, asked himself every day: ‘Was it worth it? Were the fear and the risk and the antagonism and the threat worth it?’ (P. 69)

The novel that unfolds switches from present to past and crystallizes around one defining moment. It happens at a party Mallarino throws in his new home in the mountains. He and Magdalena have recently separated and it is the first time his 7-year-old daughter Beatriz, visits. She invites a friend, Samanta Leal, to the party.

That night, an uninvited guest—a politician Mallarino has satirized in a cartoon-- is discovered upstairs, and there is an implication that he molested Samanta. Twenty-eight years later, Samanta comes to Mallarino and asks him to revisit the incident. She wants to know what happened to her—what caused her family to move away, allowing her to create another identity. Mallarino begins to question the certainty of his assumption and the allusion he published in a cartoon that cost the politician everything.

Sara Picks  Politics  Literary Fiction  Contemporary

04/10/17
 

The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler

ButlerHeartsNickolas Butler, author of the very popular Shotgun Lovesongs, sets this tale at Camp Chippewa, a Boy Scout camp in northern Wisconsin.

Nelson, the bugler, is the first boy we meet. He is a small, studious nerd, working hard to attain the rank of Eagle Scout. He is also the object of teasing and ridicule by the other boys. Each morning he arises in his single tent, polishes his bugle, shines his shoes, sharpens the crease in his uniform, and sounds “Reveille”, awakening a camp full of Scouts. Despite the Scout Oath to remain physically strong and mentally awake, often many of the boys are hung over, as is Nelson’s own father who serves as one of the camp’s chaperones. Scoutmaster Wilbur, who runs Chippewa, befriends Nelson, and acts as father figure in place of Nelson’s own ineffective dad. An older, popular boy named Jonathan is Nelson’s only friend at camp, and sticks up for him when he’s taunted by crueler boys. Jonathan and Nelson remain life-long friends in this epic story that spans three generations from the years 1962 to 2022.

After Nelson’s father dies, the boy is sent to military school, then West Point. Ultimately he serves in the elite forces in Vietnam, where he sees horrible things. When he returns home, he finds it hard to find and hold down a job. Eventually he becomes became the Scout Master and Camp Director at Camp Chippewa, and enjoys the solace of living in the remote wilderness year round. However, Scouting and the camp both have changed by this point. There is no longer a bugler to play “Reveille”, so the song is prerecorded. Boys seem glued to their electronic devices, texting each other across the tent. Such traditional badges as orienteering, radio, and stamp collecting are obsolete. But it is still a place where Scouting values are promoted, and it is where Jonathan’s grandson Thomas goes to camp one summer.

The author excels at storytelling, and imbues his writing with North Woods atmosphere and charm. Butler conveys so much emotion on each page; once I started The Hearts of Men, I couldn’t put it down. I recommend this book to both men and women, but perhaps not to young Scouts. There are very mature themes in this novel. I enjoyed The Hearts of Men so much, and I can’t wait to read it again when I prepare it for book discussion.

Nancy Picks  Literary Fiction  Historical Fiction  Contemporary  Coming of Age  Boy Scouts of America  American History

 

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

StroutAnythingStrout’s new book combines the best of two of her previous novels, last year’s very popular My Name is Lucy Barton, and 2008’s Olive Kitteridge. Anything Is Possible, to be published April 25, follows the novel-in-stories format of Olive Kitteridge, but the new book is about the characters from Lucy Barton. Sounds great, doesn’t it? I think so.

In case you haven’t read My Name is Lucy Barton, that book’s title character is an author who is hospitalized in New York with a mysterious illness. Her mother, from whom she has been estranged, has taken her first plane trip from tiny Amgash, Illinois, to be by her daughter’s side. For five days, the women tell each other stories; mostly gossip about the interesting, eccentric people they have known over the years from their tiny hometown. The truths of their own lives are not fully addressed.

In Anything Is Possible, Strout writes about Lucy’s childhood neighbors as “characters who deserved their own stories.” The Barton family is seen through the eyes of the locals, and not favorably. Her “hellish childhood”, which is alluded to but not discussed in her namesake book, is illuminated through multiple points of view in the new novel. Lucy herself only makes one appearance, as a famous author who has written a memoir explaining the mysterious backstory of her childhood. She is regarded with disdain, as someone who turned her back on her people and is too fancy for her own good. The Bartons are not the only family in town with secrets, and as the small town neighbors tell their stories, the reader understands the depth of poverty and dysfunction that pervades Amgash.

I know you will wonder if you should read My Name is Lucy Barton to enjoy this sequel, and I recommend that you do. Anything is Possible could easily stand alone, but it is a richer reading experience when you have already read about the characters within.

Short Story  Nancy Picks  Literary Fiction  Family Drama  Contemporary

 

Trajectory: Stories by Richard Russo

RussoTrajectoryRusso—novelist, screenwriter, short story writer, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction—has written a new stellar collection. Best known for his accurate depiction of working class people, Russo here paints equally sympathetic portraits of educated, middle class men and women struggling with their own sense of failure.

In “Voice,” a semi-retired professor, Nate, seeks validation of his career by projecting talent on a student who may, or may not, have any. This student, suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome, is unable to speak and always sits at the periphery of the classroom. Her lack of a voice allows a kind of transference to take place.

Only much later, during a trip to Venice, does Nate understand the consequences of his own vanity.

…A man doesn’t have to be a monster, or even a bad man, to harm others, or to be a profound disappointment to himself. Better—not to mention braver—to tell Bernard about Opal, what he’d done and why, about her removal from the campus to a mental facility where her worsening condition could be treated and monitored, her college days over…He will tell Bernard all this, not because the story refutes his conviction that in the end human beings don’t amount to much, but rather because, as Nate has belatedly come to understand, life is, seemingly by design, a botched job (Trajectories, p. 131).

Short Story  Sara Picks  Contemporary

03/24/17
 

Lisa See's The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

SeeHummLaneSee is the author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005), Peony in Love (2007), Shanghai Girls (2009), and other noted works of historical fiction. She has an amazing family history, with Chinese relatives on her father’s side numbering 400. And that is in Los Angeles alone! Her mother was the noted American author, Carolyn See.

Lisa See always has been fascinated with her Chinese family lineage and her writing substantiates this. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane (publication date: 21 March 2017) explores one of the 44 ethnic minorities in China—the Akha. The Akha of the Yunnan province are a mountain tribe whose sustenance comes from growing tea. They live in remote areas of China, and for centuries, were removed from the major social changes that the country had seen. They believe strongly in a spirit world and this figures prominently in the story.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane highlights the relationship of three strong women over the course of 20+ years. The book examines the meaning of mother-love as it explores the lives of a mother and daughter (Li-Yan and Haley), who are separated at the daughter’s birth and live worlds apart.

The history and methods of tea growing are explored extensively and provide some of the most fascinating passages in the book. See doesn’t hesitate tackling big issues such as global warming and its effects on the forests of China. And, through the character of Haley, the author highlights the effects of international adoption on the adoptees, their birth mothers and the families that adopt them.

Sara Picks  Historical Fiction  Cultural Fiction  China

01/30/17
 

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