Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

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
 

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

ChabonMGMoonglow, according to Chabon, was inspired by his 1987 visit to his dying grandfather. During that visit, his grandfather revealed secrets of his life to the twenty-four-year-old author. The book is a dream-like distillation of what may or may not have been spoken. To quote the New York Times Book Review:

Moonglow [...] wanders where it will, framing a series of chronologically disordered episodes from the past with conversations involving the narrator (who never tries to persuade us that he is anyone other than Michael Chabon) and various kinfolk, principally his mother and grandfather. This isn’t to say that the book lacks structure, but rather that its structure is determined by the logic of memory, and that the author has resisted the urge to do too much tidying and streamlining. The action zigzags across time and geography—from Germany in the last days of World War II through a grab bag of American locations in the decades after—with blithe indifference to the usual rules of linearity or narrative economy" (Scott, A.O. "Michael Chabon Returns With a Searching Family Saga." The New York Times. 18 Nov. 2016.).

The grandfather serves as military intelligence trying to hunt down Wernher von Braun in Germany. Von Braun was the brilliant Nazi rocket builder whom the United States later enlisted into its space program. His grandmother was a Holocaust survivor, raised by nuns. Her full story is only alluded to, but her experiences have left her prone to hallucinations and psychotic episodes. She has a mystical persona, unlike the practical grandfather, and entertains her grandson with tarot cards and scary stories.

Chabon writes lyrically and captures the essence of war. But the book is not without humor. While in a retirement community at the end of his life, Michael’s grandfather goes on a Quixotic quest for a pet-eating python. He does this with the same zeal and planning he used when hunting Nazi rocket scientists. The scenes reveal as much about the grandfather’s sense of honor as they do about the struggle for meaning in old age.

Sara Picks  Historical Fiction  Historical  Family Drama  Contemporary  21st Century

01/04/17
 

Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer

JSFoerAquiFoer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, as well as Everything is Illuminated, again has written an edgy, thought-provoking book. Here I Am explores identity –as a writer, a father, a husband, and an American Jew—in a profoundly personal way.

The title forms a major theme that permeates every character’s life. In Genesis, Abraham is called upon by God to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. When God calls Abraham, he answers, “Here I am.” Similarly, when an angel calls to Abraham as he is about to put the knife to his son’s neck, he responds, “Here I am.” Those words, Hineni in Hebrew, are uttered by a man fully present to God and to the angel. Abraham is everything that the narrator, Jacob, is not.

Jacob is a nebbish who, to escape unpleasantness, listens to NPR science podcasts. He is a financially successful writer of an HBO program. He believes he has squandered his talents and secretly crafts a program about his multi-generational family. He hides this project in a drawer. Worse, still, is something else he writes. Hidden in another drawer is a phone with sexts to a colleague. These sexts are cleverly scattered throughout the first part of the book and seem to appear out of nowhere. Julia, his wife of 15 years, discovers the phone and their marriage unravels. The book is the story of that unraveling.

Juxtaposed against this family drama is a crisis in Israel—one of such magnitude that its very existence is threatened. A terrible earthquake has struck the region. The prime minister has asked that Jews throughout the Diaspora come to Israel to help. Jacob decides to go, despite Julia’s objections, further straining their relationship.

Sara Picks  Jewish Literature  Family Drama  Contemporary

12/09/16
 

The Motion of Puppets by Keith Donohue

DonohuePuppets“Never enter a toyshop after moonlight.” Such is the advice of the main character in The Motion of Puppets. Having read and enjoyed this strange and fascinating book, I will heed that advice from now on!

Main character Kay Harper, a gymnast, has the opportunity of a lifetime – a gig as an acrobat with the Cirque in Quebec for the summer – what fun! Her lovely newlywed husband, Theo, a translator of French to English, is with her, and he often walks Kay safely home after her show gets out late at night. But when Kay walks home alone, she usually stops to gaze into the puppet-filled window of a toy shop. Puppets of all kinds--marionettes, stick puppets, finger puppets, old, new, and remade--fascinate her. One in particular, a little puppet man who’s under a dome of glass, holds particular interest, and she wishes he could come alive and talk to her.

One night, after a circus performance, and a night out with the cast, Kay disappears. She fails to return to the apartment she and Theo share, and she fails to report to work the next day.  Where could this young wife have gone? Theo thinks it has something to do with her fascination with the puppets – but how could that be? When the puppets disappear and the toy shop closes, he is convinced there is cause and effect – but how can he find the puppets, and presumably, his wife Kay.

Be prepared to suspend belief as you read this well-written book, and allow yourself to join Theo as he searches for his lost wife.  There are elements of fantasy in this book, which reminded me very much of fairy tales I read as a child. I don’t normally read anything remotely resembling fantasy, but have to say that I enjoyed this book very much, and am still thinking about it. I’ll never think of puppets the same way again, and nor will you after reading The Motion of Puppets

Nancy Picks  Mystery  Magical Realism  Horror  Fantasy

 

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