Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

This continuation of Wolf Hall picks up with Henry VIII married to Anne Boleyn but Katherine of Arragon is still alive and that is causing trouble.  Anne has given birth to a daughter, Elizabeth.  But Henry is still hoping for a son. 

The book starts with a cast of characters, which is very helpful.  There are many people at court  and some people are known by more than one name.  There is also a genealogical chart which is even more helpful. At the start, Cromwell is still in favor and fixing things for Henry's capricious whims.  What ever Henry wants, the common born Cromwell will make happen.  Cromwell has a vested interest in keeping Henry happy, it keeps him (Cromwell) alive.  While Cromwell is alive, Henry Moore, who was Henry VIII conscience is now dead.  Martyred say his supporters.  Katherine has been divorced and is under house arrest as is her daughter, Mary.  The Boleyn's are climbing at court because of Anne.  But Jane Seymour has caught Henry's eye.  He is becoming more and more dissatisfied with Anne and the lack of sons and is looking for a new wife.
This book is chocked full of historical details.  Cromwell is the narrator and this gives a different perspective to the story.  Mantel is deft at showing Cromwell's personality, especially during the interrogation sequence of Henry Norris.  "He needs quality men.  So he has found men who are guilty.  Though perhaps not as guilty as charged."  (page 330)  This single passage shows the convoluted logic that was present at the time.

The title of the book comes from an order given to the jailer at the Tower of London to bring those being held to court for trial.  And bodies there are.  Everyone pays for Henry's wishes in this book.  Well written and interesting, this book captures the spirit and horror of the time.

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Top of the Rock

Remember the days of NBC's "Must See TV", when you'd be sure to get in front of the television to watch Seinfeld or ER so that you could join in on the conversation at work the next day? Top of the Rock, an oral history of NBC's 15 year stellar run of programming that began in 1982, will make you reminisce for the days when you could find quality programming on non-cable tv channels. The book is credited to Warren Littlefield, former NBC President of Entertainment, and while he provides a basic structure to the book most of it is dedicated to anecdotes from the various behind-the-scenes and in front of the camera players. Among the members of the all-star oral history cast are Jerry Seinfeld, Jack Welch, Debra Messing, Kelsey Grammar and Megan Mullally.

In the early 1980s NBC had fallen behind its two main rivals (Fox did not exist yet) and the joke was that NBC was the "number four" network. But starting with Cheers and The Cosby Show NBC became determined to claw its way up in the Nielsen ratings. While Cheers was not a ratings hit at first it did set the standard for quality casting and writing and sophisticated comedy at the network. This success led to the "show about nothing" that was Seinfeld which eventually earned the network $1.8 million per 30 second commercial spot.

This book gives the details of the creation, casting, recasting and production of these shows plus other hits like ER, Law & Order, Frasier and Friends. One of the heroes of the book is Jim Burrows, who started out directing shows like Taxi and Mary Tyler Moore and eventually was the steady hand guiding Cheers, Friends, Frasier and more. Of course any book needs a villain and this role is given to Don Ohlmeyer, former president of NBC's West Coast division. His conflicts with Littlefield lead to Littlefield's eventual firing and the end of "Must See TV".

The last chapter of the book sees the various participants speculating about whether NBC can ever become what it once was in these days of reality programming. Much of the quality television seems to have moved over to cable and the hits on cable tend to have a much smaller market share than the "Must See TV" hits had when they were ruling the airwaves. My quibble with the book is that I would have liked to have heard more about the failures during the Littlefield years rather than just the successes. But overall this is a nice read for anyone interested in the ins and outs of the television business.

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Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess

The second book in this series of Blotto and Twinks has the 2 intrepid upperclass British twentysomethings investigating the death of the Dowager Duchess of Melmont.  Not that many are mourning her loss, but investigate they must.  Time setting is just after World War I and the setting is the English countryside, of course.

Blotto and Twinks are the second and third children of The Dowager Duchess of Lyminster and live in their ancestral family home of Tawcester Towers.  Twinks (really the Lady Honoria Lyminster) is the brains of the duo or a "brainbox" as Blotto lovingly refers to her.  She has a photographic memory, great detective skills, knows everyone and speaks 37 languages.  Blotto, on the other hand seems to be just along for the ride.  His skills are mainly physical.  He apparently can best anyone with his cricket bat.

Blotto, Twinks and their mother are invited to a weekend house party at  Snitterings, the home of the Melmonts.  The Melmonts want Blotto to marry their insipid daughter, Laetitia, whose sole aim in life is to snare a husband, notably Blotto.  Blotto hates weekend house parties because someone always gets murdered.  How right he is!!
The duchess is found dead in her garden with a red hand print on her back. Everyone is out hunting so who possibly could have done this?  Twinks decides the red hand print is very important to the case and contacts her friend, Professor Erasmus Holofernes a college professor.  He claims the hand print refers to the "Crimson Hand," a socialist group bent on the destruction of the British aristocracy.  And so the story starts.

The story line is pretty straight forward.  Find the murderer and destroy the Crimson Hand.  Blotto and Twinks have some extraordinary skills, as well as good looks, money and charm.  These are all put to use in solving the crimes they unwittingly become involved in.  The local police barely rate a mention.  The book is filled with lines like, "great slithering sea snakes" and "so snubbins to you, Twinks."  But the book is a lighthearted mystery perfect for a summer read and  from a press called Felony and Mayhem how could it not be?

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On the Run in Siberia

The real title of this book should be "no good deed goes unpunished."

In 1993 Rane Willerslev, a young Danish anthropologist, his brother Uffe and a small group of other researchers are studying the Yukaghir people of Siberia. They also have a film crew with them. The Yukaghirs live in what was once the Russian Republic of Sakha. For generations they have lived off the land and the earnings from the sale of sable pelts. Under communism the government bought the pelts and then sold them on the open market, giving the Soviet Union much needed foreign currency and the Yukaghirs the food and goods (delivered by the local cooperatives) they need to survive. This all fell apart when the centralized communist government failed in the Soviet Union, leaving the hunters near destitute as the local cooperatives took almost 80% of the profits and didn't always deliver the supplies.

Rane and Uffe decided this situation was not a good one for the Yukaghirs and that the hunters could do better with their own cooperative selling on the international market. They set up the Danish-Yakaghir Fur Project after securing some start up money. The Danes and some local hunters start buying up the local pelts, shutting out the old local cooperative. This is where the trouble begins because the regional committee that had been selling the pelts and then pocketing the money doesn't really want to share.

Rane stays in Russia while Uffe goes back to Copenhagen to pick up the furs and sell them at the international fur market. Rane assumes the furs have been shipped as the Danish-Yukaghir Cooperative had secured all the proper permits from the central Russian government. Rane goes off to visit a friend. Ivan, a local who has been helping Rane, tells Rane that the police are coming to arrest him. Rane wants to stay and finish his field work, because there are always rumors about imminent arrests. When the rumors persist Rane and Ivan flee into the wilderness and a remote hunting cabin with enough provisions for several days, 5 dogs and 2 guns. Meanwhile another member of the cooperative has actually been arrested and all the furs confiscated. And a third man involved in the cooperative is assumed missing and drowned, but his body is never recovered. Rane spends months in the wilderness before he decides it's safe enough to come back.

This book was translated from Danish and the language is somewhat stilted. The book has a list of characters and what their relationship is to each other and the various fur cooperatives, a glossary of Russian terms, and an appendix with tips on surviving in Siberia. The book also veers off onto some interesting tangents: local folklore of the Yukaghirs, some psychology of the group as well as of the animals and the history of the Yukaghir people and the area they have lived in for centuries.



An Unexpected Guest: A Novel

By Anne Korkeakivi

Clare, an American, is having a very busy day preparing for an important dinner party in her Paris home. Past, present, and possibly future links to terrorism keep interfering with her menu planning, appointments, and efforts to get the house in perfect order for a fabulous evening, the success of which will impact her husband’s career.

The wife of a high-ranking British diplomat, mannered Clare struggles with flashbacks of her secret affair 20 years ago with a young Irishman, now dead, who needed her help in funneling money to the IRA. She even thinks she sees him lurking about the city as she shops for flowers and groceries. She also believes that on her errands, she ran into a Turk who, news reports claim, committed a terrorist act at the very time she saw him. If this weren’t enough to bring down the evening, one of Clare’s two teenage sons has gone AWOL from his boarding school, with his own possible link to terrorism activity.

Like Claire's event-filled day, An Unexpected Guest packs in a lot. It is a politically-charged thriller, a family drama, and a story of lost love, all set against the backdrop of the City of Light.



The Book of Madness and Cures

Venice, Italy in 1590 was an interesting place.  Filled with educated and wealthy people the city was a force unto itself.  One of the things that Venice and few other cities of the time did was educate women as medical doctors.  Gabriella Mondini is one such woman.  Her medical knowledge and training came from her father and  her practice centered on the treatment of women.  Her father has been gone for 10 years.  He left Gabriella and her mother to tour several countries while writing his opus, a book called "The Book of Diseases."  Gabriella was helping her father with the book.  While he has been traveling, her father sent Gabriella letters from the cities and countries he was in.  The letters described various illnesses and the local cures for them.  The letters become less frequent until the day Gabriella receives a letter from her father stating he will never come back to Venice.
Back in Venice, Gabriella is having some troubles of her own.  Without her father to back her, the Venice Guild of Medicine has decided that Gabriella can no longer attend meetings.  Gabriella decides that she must now find her father in order to continue the work on the book and save her medical practice.  She and 2 servants  (Olmina and Lorenzo) set out to find him using the letters as a guide.  She sets out for Padua.  While in Padua her father's friend tells Gabriella of the possible madness of her father.Following the letters Gabriella and her companions travel through Europe and into Scotland, then back south to the northern coast of Africa, all the while learning new things about her father.

The story has an interesting main character, a woman doctor in the 16th century.  The customs of the time and the countries she travels through are detailed throughout the book.  There are also several items dealing with local diseases and their equally local cures.  I found the book very interesting.

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The Flight of Gemma Hardy

All the reviewers indicate that The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey is a modern-day retelling of Jane Eyre or,as the book jacket says, an homage to Charlotte Bronte's story. Reviewers also indicate that the book includes elements of Livesey's life. 

Margot Livesey says: "I made my heroine a little older than myself because I wanted her to
come of age just slightly before the rising tide of feminism—the pill,
equal pay, discrimination—broke over both Britain and the States. The Flight of Gemma Hardy is, in my mind, neither my autobiography nor a retelling of Jane Eyre.
Rather I am writing back to Charlotte Brontë, recasting Jane's journey
to fit my own courageous heroine and the possibilities of her time and
place. And like Brontë I am, of course, stealing from my own life."

Gemma Hardy, orphaned as a small child, is taken from her native Iceland to Scotland where she grows up in varied settings and circumstances - with a kind and loving uncle, with a resentful and abusive aunt, at a private school as a scholarship student, on the Orkney Islands as an au pair, and more. It is set in the 1950's and 1960's, in Iceland and Scotland, with characters in circumstances both rich and poor. Gemma's story is one of passion and of love, a journey of self discovery, a tale of coming of age - all with numerous twists and turns. 

Author Alice Sebold says, "Every novel of Margot Livesey's is, for her readers,
a joyous discovery. Her work radiates with compassion and intelligence
and always, deliciously, mystery."



Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats

Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a great burden.
Attributed to Philo

In Roger Rosenblatt's first memoir, Making Toast
(2010), following the death of his daughter at age 38, he is busy with
the mundane tasks of day to day living  He and his wife, Ginny, have moved
into Amy's home in Bethesda, Maryland to help their son-in-law care for
their three grandchildren--all under seven years of age.  In the summer, he will take the extended family to their summer home in Quogue, New York. He has done this since his own children were toddlers.
, written two and a half years after the publication of Making Toast, is a meditation on loss. 
In it, we find Rosenblatt gliding aimlessly in his kayak over the course of seven and a half
hours. The kayak becomes a metaphor for Rosenblatt's current life,
contained within "parentheses." It is not a stable boat, and righting it
should it begin to capsize requires moving toward the water, much as
turning into a skid when driving on ice. 
...A kayak would not be a kayak if it had an anchor because the kayak wants you
to be responsible for its security, its stability.  An anchor can hold a
ketch to a stop.  A kayak can never stop, unless you employ a technique
with your paddle, and even then it's up to you.  Everything about a
kayak is up to you.  The point of the craft is that there is nothing
beneath it but water.  The creek is the anchor.  You are the anchor. 
Unreliable creek.  Unreliable you.
(p. 32)
death of a loved one, especially a child, underscores one's lack of
control and tests one's faith.  Rosenblatt talks about his rage against
God, his depression, his irritability, his submission  to Grave's Disease
(possibly caused by stress).  But he also talks about Annie Dillard and
her love of creeks.  He quotes great poets and philosophers as his
kayak meanders through the water.  He speaks of Emerson, who also lost a
child, but who dealt with it very differently.  "Grief makes us more of
what we already are," Rosenblatt writes.  And Emerson was, above all, a
Transcendentalist, devoted to the life of the mind and not the

Rosenblatt is very in touch with his emotions and attributes human qualities to the wildlife around him.  He compares the fearless and
nocturnal great horned owl to the one he has seen caged in the Quogue
Wildlife Refuge.  The one in in the cage, to whom white mice are
delivered like room service--does he still feel like a killer?  Or is
his life so changed that he no longer thinks of himself as he once
was--no matter how many people, not to mention the sign on his cage,
assure him that he is indeed the great horned owl.
(p. 52)  Like the
owl, the author has been irrevocably injured, and knows he is not the
same person he was prior to Amy's death. Is the owl, too, aware of its
mortality and diminished position?

Yet, despite his grief, Roger Rosenblatt has written a life affirming
book. We know he deeply cherishes his wife of fifty years and the rich
life the two have shared since his graduate studies in Ireland.  He also
talks about his earlier journalism, when he covered stories in worn-torn
areas around the world.  I remember the beautiful photo-essays he did
for The Newshour on PBS--meaningful stories that captured the humanity in his subjects while underscoring his own empathy and gift for words.
Kayak Morning is a testament to life, to nature, and to the healing powers of writing.

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