Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco Dimitri

The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco Dimitri

     The Book of Hidden Things is a Bildungsroman, fantasy, detective story, and psychological thriller. It explores the meaning of friendship, the strength of familial bonds, and the impact of the past on the present. Dimitri, a noted fantasy writer in his native Italy, has written a stunning book of realistic fiction interwoven with the supernatural.

The story centers on four childhood friends and the pact they made, 17 years ago, to meet every year on the same date in their hometown in Southern Italy.  All four have idealized their boyhood days as a time of great promise and adventure. Tony, a successful surgeon and the most grounded of the group, is an outsider because he is gay. Mauro, who married the beautiful Anna and has two daughters, is a discontented lawyer who regrets missed opportunities. Fabio, whom the others think is a famous photographer, is barely solvent. Finally, there is Art, a Pan-like drug dealer who may or may not be delusional.

When Art fails to come to their most recent reunion, memories of another time are reawakened. When the boys were 14 and in an olive grove one night, Art wandered off and was not seen for seven days. Tony, Mauro, and Fabio were too frightened to go into the woods to look for him. He comes back visibly the same but emotionally altered. He said he ran away from home. But is this true? And if not, where was he? What happened to him during that time and who is responsible?

Sara Picks  detective  bildungsroman

10/12/18
 

Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Operation of a Lifetime, by Ron Stallworth

Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth

        In the summer of 1978, Ron Stallworth was an undercover detective working with the narcotics division of the Colorado Springs police department when he came across a Ku Klux Klan recruitment ad in a local newspaper. Part of his job was to collect intelligence concerning possible criminal activity, and the Klan were known to terrorize communities and incite violence, so he responded to the ad with a letter, posing as a fellow racist. A few days later, he received a call from a local Klan organizer eager to recruit him. Stallworth immediately recognized that this was a unique opportunity to collect intelligence on the Klan from the inside and agreed to an in-person meeting. There was just one problem – Stallworth is African-American, and in his haste to seize the moment, he had used his real name instead of an alias.

        What followed was an unorthodox investigation into the heart of one of America’s most notorious hate groups. Stallworth describes the careful process by which he managed to gain access to the Klan’s inner circle through phone conversations and in-person meetings (at which a white colleague wearing a wire posed as “Ron Stallworth”). His actions, decisions, and even missteps and close calls during the case are all discussed with the gravitas and candor of a seasoned police officer.

        This is not to say that Stallworth’s account is dry or impersonal – in fact, quite the opposite. Integral to the story is not just what Stallworth did, but who he was. He takes special care to discuss his background growing up during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Despite never coming across as boastful or vindictive, he deftly expresses the schadenfreude of peeking under the hood of terrorism and finding that the person under it is demonstratively ignorant and clueless – “…as if Dennis the Menace were running a hate group.”      

true crime  race relations  nonfiction  Justin Picks

 

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

“In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” Thus begins the novel, Warlight, by the Booker Prize winning author of The English Patient. Set during and after World War II, Warlight captures the lasting impact of war on those individuals who worked behind the scenes in British intelligence. Ondaatje focuses on the effect of secrecy on the children of those operatives living double lives.

The narrator of the book is Nathaniel--first introduced as a 14-year-old boy, and later, as a 29-year-old man.  Seen through his eyes, the first 180 pages introduce us to unfamiliar people and places and seem to lead nowhere. Ondaatje brilliantly mirrors the sense of confusion that Nathaniel and his sister Ruth feel after their parents disappear.

 All I knew, Nathaniel reflects, was that the political maps of [my father’s] era were vast and coastal and I would never know if he was close to us or disappeared into one of those distances forever, a person who, as the line went, would live in many places and die everywhere. (p. 180)

Sara Picks  Historical Fiction  Fiction

 

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber

In 2013, London School of Economics professor David Graeber wrote an editorial for an obscure leftist online magazine entitled “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.” In it, Graeber hypothesized that huge swaths of employment are bullshit. Even though we’re obligated to pretend otherwise, these jobs don’t provide any discernible benefit to society, and there would be no difference if they simply vanished. If all nurses or trash collectors disappeared overnight, the effects would be dire and dramatic, but could we really say the same of telemarketers or middle managers? The article went viral, crashed the website, and was translated into at least a dozen languages. Hundreds of readers, some angry and others empathetic, replied. The article inspired polling agencies to conduct studies, which found that around 40% of workers responding believed they had bullshit jobs. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory expands on Graeber’s initial article, and aims to draw attention to what he considers “the biggest problem in the world that nobody is talking about.”

What are some examples of bullshit jobs? (In the section that will make you laugh to keep from crying, Graeber uses the testimonies from the hundreds of working stiffs who wrote him following his initial essay to create a taxonomy of bullshit jobs. The taxonomy includes “flunkies,” who exist to make other people seem more important, and “duct tapers,” who fix superficial problems rather than treat underlying causes.) Aren’t these types of jobs not supposed to exist in a capitalist society? Why do people who work bullshit jobs report feelings of misery, even when conditions are cushy and the compensation is generous? How did bullshit jobs proliferate, and why do we, as a society, not object to the proliferation? And finally, what (if anything) can be done about the situation? Graeber draws on economic, political, social, moral, and psychological theories to explore these questions.

Anyone who works (or has worked) a bullshit job should read this book. Anyone who thinks the invisible hand of the market can do no wrong should read this book. Anyone who is looking for alternatives to doing things the way they’re done because “we’ve always done it that way” should read this book. Graeber’s vision of employment is dim, but there may be light at the end of the tunnel of drudgery.

nonfiction  Jake Picks  economics

 

Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin

Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin

Rice Moore is the caretaker on a private nature preserve in the Virginia panhandle. Moore is the sole human inhabitant in this pristine 7,000 acre wilderness. One sweltering summer day, he discovers a mutilated bear carcass on his property. He sets out to find the lowlifes who did this and put a stop to them. It’s going to be dangerous work that puts him square in the sights of disgruntled hillbillies, vicious motorcycle gangs, and ex-military poachers. He’ll have to be extra careful, because any scrape with law enforcement could ping his location to the deadly cartel mobsters he’s been hiding out from (these bad hombres are a big part of the reason he took the job in the first place). Rice’s skills will take him only so far; he’ll have to become a force of nature if he wants to come out in one piece.

Bearskin would be good enough if it were a typical tough-guy potboiler, but a few things make it stand out from a crowded pack. First, it’s surprisingly ecologically-minded. Rice deeply cares about all creatures great and small on his preserve, and the reader will learn much about the ecosystem of old-growth Appalachian forests. These forests also make a unique setting for this kind of story. We’re accustomed to seeing hardboiled anti-heroes carry out investigations in big cities, and it’s refreshing to see the story beats play out in depressed rural areas. Finally, McLaughlin is a first time author. It’s exciting to see a new talent debut so strongly, and I’ll be looking forward to what he does next.

Readers of thrillers, Southern Gothic, and rural noir will find much to like about Bearskin. Hikers, campers, and other outdoorsy types will appreciate it as well. I think it also may appeal to fans of more literary genres, as long as those readers can handle occasional bursts of bone-crunching violence. At any rate, I think it’ll be one of this summer’s hottest reads with lots of cross-genre appeal. 

Thriller  Nature  Jake Picks  Fiction

 

The Most Dangerous Man in America, by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis

The Most Dangerous Man in America by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis

Based on official documents, journal entries, interviews, recordings, and news coverage, Minutaglio and Davis present a rollicking, outrageous caper that reads like a gonzo version of Candide. Narrated in a fast-paced present tense, Most Dangerous Man takes place in the tumultuous early 1970s. Widespread outcry against the Vietnam War and the political status quo has erupted into violence. Once-peaceful protests are now being met with brutal crackdowns, and parts of the counterculture movement have traded in “flower power” for dynamite.


Amid dismal approval ratings, first-term president Richard Nixon is growing increasingly desperate to prove that he is the strong leader America needs. He needs a symbol of crime and moral decay he can triumph over, and he chooses a man – Timothy Leary, former Harvard psychologist, LSD evangelist and countercultural guru. Imprisoned in California on trumped-up drug charges and facing additional ones that could keep him behind bars for the rest of his life, Leary decides to escape from prison and live his life as a fugitive. Aided by radical leftists, Leary embarks on a globe-trotting, substance-fueled odyssey as he tries to survive beyond Nixon’s grasp.


The Most Dangerous Man paints Leary as a complex and unlikely (but not unlikeable) protagonist, and the authors do an outstanding job of contrasting his intellect and charisma with his flaws and poor decisions. What keeps the perpetually stoned Leary relatable, however, is his frequent haplessness and his juxtaposition with less sympathetic figures. Nixon, the main antagonist, is portrayed as mentally unstable, vindictive, and surrounded by cronies who frequently indulge his most sinister tendencies. Meanwhile, Leary's supposed allies prove just as problematic for him, as he time and time again gets shaken down by (literally) bomb-throwing Weathermen and Black Panthers, a loose network of drug trafficking hippies, shady lawyers, and a real-life Bond villain. What emerges is a portrait of a man who thought he had only his chains to lose, but learns quickly how wrong he was, and whose initial fecklessness ends up costing him dearly.

Justin Picks  History

 

We Own the Sky by Luke Allnutt

We Own the Sky by Luke Allnutt

I am absolutely surprised by how much I liked this debut novel. Surprised because We Own the Sky is about a child who dies, and whose father who drowns his sorrows in alcohol. Not my usual cup of tea, but I literally could not put this book down, can’t stop thinking about it, and would be glad to read it again.

The setting is contemporary London, and the main characters are Rob Coates, his wife Anna, and their son Jack. Rob is a talented computer programmer who has sold his business to a large company, and he no longer has to work very much. He met his wife Anna, an accountant, when they were at Cambridge together. After a great deal of difficulty, they have a son, Jack, who is the light of their lives. When Jack is just five years old, he begins having health problems, and tragically he is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Surgery only offers a temporary respite to his symptoms, and when problems return, Jack and Anna are told that there is nothing else that can be done for Jack.

Rob turns to an on line support forum called “Hope’s Place” to learn more from other families in similar situations. On the site, parents gather to talk about their children’s illnesses and their frustration at ineffective treatments. Through Hope’s Place, Rob reads about a controversial clinic in Prague that might offer a cure. Anna, the rational, data driven accountant, is dead set against anything that has not been proven, researched, and documented.

Nancy Picks  Fiction

 

Eternal Life by Dara Horn

Eternal Life by Dara Horn

Horn is a contemporary writer of note and author of five novels. She wrote her first novel, In the Image, while studying Hebrew literature at Cambridge University. Her second, The World to Come, was published in 2006--the same year that she completed her Harvard Ph.D. in comparative literature. She is also the mother of four young children.

Horn’s scholarly background, as well as her experience as a mother, play a large role in her most recent book, Eternal Life. When we first meet the main protagonist, Rachel, she is a 16-year-old girl in ancient Israel. The book recounts her life—and the lives of the Jewish people—during the next 2000 years.

Horn, in an interview for Publishers Weekly, notes:

Sara Picks  Fiction

04/19/18
 

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

 

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday (Sara’s Picks)

Halliday’s debut novel is comprised of three seemingly unconnected stories.

Sara Picks  Fiction

04/05/18
 

Tangerine by Christine Mangan

 

Tangerine by Christine Mangan

The location is Tangiers, Morocco, and the time period is the early 1950’s. Our two main characters, Lucy Mason and Alice Shipley, met as roommates at prestigious Bennington College in Vermont. They were very close, living together all four years.  Alice came from a long line of blue bloods, and always had lovely clothes and jewelry. In contrast, Lucy was a scholarship girl, from the wrong side of the tracks, had there been tracks in the tiny town where she grew up. Really the only thing they had in common was that they were both orphans.  

Their senior year, a tragic accident occurred in a car in which Alice was riding. Alice and Lucy barely spoke after that.

Nancy Picks  Historical Fiction  Fiction

 

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