Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes, is an eloquent novella about youth seen from the vantage point of late middle age. It examines one's perceptions of events that took place long ago. The narrator, Tony Webster, is an average man who relishes being ordinary. He is now comfortably retired, has an amicable relationship with his ex-wife, and has a grown daughter and grandchildren. Ennui plagues him. At 60, he does nothing other than volunteer at the local hospital library. "I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and succeeded--and how pitiful that was."

But life was not always this way. As a young man in high school, Tony was one of four close friends. The most unusual of these boys was the shy and gifted Adrian Finn. He was a star student and went on to study philosophy and "moral sciences" at Cambridge. Adrian's life ended mysteriously in suicide while he was doing his post-graduate studies. Well into his later years, Tony believes his friend died a noble philosopher's death.

What really happened to Adrian during those university years, as well as to Veronica, the young woman who dated them both, comprises the essence of this book. When Tony is bequeathed Adrian's diary after the death of Veronica's mother, and subsequently denied access to it, the novella takes on a quest motif. Tony follows Veronica, uncovering not only the secrets of her former life, but that of Adrian. Most important, though, he meets his former self--a narcissist whose actions are redeemed only by his sense of current remorse.

You get towards the end of life--no, not life itself, but of something else: the end of any likelihood of change in that life. You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question: what else have I done wrong? (p. 163)

The Sense of an Ending, winner of the 2011 Booker Award, is a powerful novella with surprising twists. It realistically depicts the callousness of youth and the falseness of our recollections. Julian Barnes presents us with a sympathetic but unreliable narrator who leads himself and the reader to a shocking conclusion.

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American Boy

Larry Watson's new novel deals with a boy's coming of age in the 1960's. The story opens with a revelation by Matt that he has seen a woman's breasts when he was 17. Matthew is a teenager whose father has left and is being raised by his hardworking waitress mother. He has been welcomed into the Dunbar family as far on the opposite social side as could possibly be in their little Minnesota town.

Matthew and Johnny Dunbar are inseparable. Johnny's dad, the town doctor has taken an interest in Matthew as well, almost as a volunteer project. Dr. Dunbar invites the boys into his office to learn something of the medical practice in the hopes that they will develop an interest in medicine. The story starts with a shooting accident on Thanksgiving night. Dr. Dunbar has the patient, a young woman, brought to his office which is attached to his home. The woman, Louisa Lindhal, is living on the outskirts of the town with her boyfriend who has shot her. Johnny and Matt are invited by Dr. Dunbar to view the gunshot wound.

Louisa remains in the Dunbar home after her recovery as Mrs. Dunbar does not want her to have to return to her former living conditions. The boys are smitten. Matt especially fancies himself in love with Louisa. Louisa on the other hand has different plans. Manipulative and opportunistic, Louisa keeps the boys at bay while she works on her plans to improve her life. Matt feels she is leading them on.

As the story develops, Matt and Johnny appear to be in different stages of maturity. Louisa seems to be playing into this. They turn into rivals. Dr. Dunbar begins to have a different view of Matthew. And Matthew's life starts to take a different turn.

Watson is spare with his text, but they story is well written. A poignant story of a boy who thinks of himself as a man and his struggles to get there.

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The Art of Fielding

When you write about a terrific novel that has baseball as one of its central themes, you feel compelled to toss in a phrase like “really hits a homerun.”

Trite as that may be, it applies to Chad Harbach’s debut novel, The Art of Fielding. But the book is about more than just the national past time. It is also about love, death, family, friendship, betrayal, forgiveness, passion, obsession, and Midwest values—with a little bit of Moby Dick on the side.

The book, beautifully written and not without humor, takes place on the campus of Westish College, a fictional private school located near Door County, Wisconsin. Get your pencils and scorecards ready for an all-star roster of unforgettable characters. The 60-year-old college president, Guert Affenlight, is also a Herman Melville scholar. His prodigal daughter Pella has recently left her husband in California with the intention of finally taking a college class or two at Westish. Other students at the school, as well as major characters in the book, are Chicagoan and all-around athlete Mike Schwartz, gay ballplayer Owen Dunne, and gifted shortstop Henry Skrimshander.

Against a literary backdrop, all these characters relate significantly to one another: Mike falls for Pella; Pella loves Mike, but she is jealous of his relationship with Henry, then sleeps with shortstop; Henry admires and rooms with Owen, whose mother is attracted to Guert; Owen becomes Guert’s obsession. Serving almost like an additional major character is a manual for baseball and life called “The Art of Fielding,” written by fictitious Aparicio Rodriguez, a Hall of Famer and St. Louis Cardinals shortstop, who is Henry’s ideal and whose record he is trying to break. Will he do it? Will his friendship with Mike be repaired? Will Pella finally connect with her father? Will her father’s passion for Owen be returned, and will it be discovered by the school administration? Will these characters haunt you? “Yes” to the last question, but enjoy the book to find out the other answers.

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Turn of Mind

Alice LaPlante has written an entire novel told from the point of view of a woman suffering from dementia. The woman is a suspect in the murder of her best friend. Turn of mind, indeed.

Dr. Jennifer White was a well known orthopedic surgeon in the Chicago area when she developed dementia. Her long time friend, Amanda has been found murdered and 4 of her fingers have been surgically removed. Witnesses tell police that Jennifer was arguing with Amanda the day she died. But Jennifer, of course, has no memory of it. And so the story starts.

Jennifer's daughter, Fiona, and her son, Mark are trying to protect her. Mark has problems of his own - which is why he is always trying to get money out of his mother. Jennifer's husband, James has died leaving Mark and Fiona Jennifer's only family. They have some knowledge of what happened to Amanda but they aren't talking to the police either. They hire an attorney and try to have the police banned from the facility where Jennifer has been moved.

The story moves through the twisted mind of Jennifer. Time suddenly shifts. Conversations that occurred in the past become intertwined with present day conversations. The book is at once horrifying and intriguing. Think of it - a woman diagnosed with dementia is the prime suspect in a murder investigation. She is being questioned about events she cannot possibly recall. Even if she did commit the murder and dismemberment could she recall doing it? She is the perfect person to set up for taking the blame.



Rules of Civility

Reading Rules of Civility is like stepping into the world of a 1930s movie--one featuring high society, grand parties, and lots of martinis. In particular, it brings to mind The Thin Man (1934), starring William Powell and Mirna Loy, the screwball comedies of Frank Capra (1934-1941) and the musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (1933-1939). These were representative films of the Depression, when movies were an escape from the harsh realities that constituted the American scene.

In an article posted by the American Studies Department of the University of Virginia, the author writes:

Audiences gloried in spectacular fantasies of high society and easy living that they would never know...For an hour or two, one could pretend to be Katherine Hepburn or Cary Grant.

Another symptom of this fascination was the Society Papers. The lives and goings on of the rich and powerful in the city were considered news...Depression-era Americans were fascinated (not with celebrity, but with wealth). 




Sanctus by Simon Toyne, a first time novelist, is the latest in a long line of church based conspiracy books that began with the Da Vinci Code. Set in Turkey in the present day, the book tells the story of the Citadel, a Vatican like city/state that occupies the ancient city of Ruin. The Citadel is the home of a secret religious sect that guards the "Sacrament." No one knows exactly what the sacrament is because in its more than 1,000 years of existence no one has ever come out of the Citadel. Novitiates enter and become Sancti but no one ever comes out and lives to tell the tale. And once the monks learn the secret of the sacrament, they stay inside until they die.

The story opens on 3 continents. In Ruin, a monk climbs to the top of the mountain the Citadel is built into. He assumes the shape of a cross - standing upright with his arms stretched out at his shoulders. In the U.S. Liv Adamsen, a reporter is transfixed by the acts of the monk, whom she believes might be her relative. In South America, an old man is also interested in the monk, only he believes the monk's behavior portends something momentous.

The story races through the lives of the monk, Adamsen and Kathryn Mann, a foundation worker and daughter of the old man. The three meet up in Ruin, each arriving for their own reasons. Conspiracies abound - with the Citadel on one side seeking to keep the secret of the sacrament safe and on the other side an international brotherhood, just as ancient, determined to let the secret of the sacrament become public.

What makes this book worth reading though is the ending. Yes, the monks are creepy and there are secrets to be discovered but what the monks have been protecting and how it relates to Adamsen and Mann was surprising. This is a good work by a new author and it's the first in a planned trilogy.

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Endgame is a wonderful biography of Bobby Fischer, who became the youngest US chess champion at age 14. He went on to end the Russians' reign of world chess championships and then quickly descended into a sad world of conspiracy theories, and anti-Semitic and anti-U.S. hatred.

Fischer was a mess of contradictions. Born to a Jewish mother, he became one of the world's most infamous anti-Semites. A chess genius, he rarely played competitively after he won the world championship (he was not even 30 years old at the time). There were many attempts to lure him out of retirement but despite living a life of near homelessness he would reject matches with prizes of millions of dollars offered to the contestants.

How did Fischer become such a strong chess player at such a young age? There's no silver bullet - he spent a lot of time on his own with a chessboard and playing older and better players. He also had a head for the game and a great ability to visualize matches, even when there was not a chessboard in front of him. His mother, despite being poor, was strong and supportive and did everything within her means to allow Bobby to compete within New York, and eventually in other worldwide locales. It's interesting to note that Fischer was athletic, interested in sports and despite not having a traditional education, was interested in bettering himself. He could also be quite charming, which is especially apparent in this video from the Dick Cavett show, taken after he won the world championship.

Something appeared to be missing from Fischer's life though. He joined the fringe Worldwide Church of God (and later left it) before he started letting his anti-Semitic views be known in the 1970s. He also dabbled with other religions before settling upon Catholicism during his exile in Iceland. And despite an urge to have a child he was unable to enter a lasting relationship until his later years.