Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

Bobcat and Other Stories

The stories in Bobcat, by Rebecca Lee, are ones in which happy endings are rare if at all. At best, compromises are made and people carry on. Take for example, "Slatland."  We first meet its narrator, Margit, when she is a child suffering from depression. Her parents (dad is a geology professor) take her to a "therapist" - a professor of child psychology at the university where her father teaches. In what seems to be a humorous take on therapy, Professor Pine suggests she rise above her situation, literally, allowing her mind to separate from the world around her. "For every situation there is a proper distance. Growing up is just a matter of gaining perspective. Sometimes you just need to jump up for a moment, a foot above the earth. And sometimes you need to jump very far. It is as if there are thin slats, footholds, from here to the sun...Slatland, flatland, mapland."

When Margit asks him when she should return for her next session, Professor Pine says that follow-ups are not necessary; his therapy works the first time. And it does work for her, "as if it were a medication that worked whether you understood it or not."

Twenty years later, as a soil consultant, darkness sometimes descends upon Margit. She uses the Slatland Technique to "step up" and separate herself from the situation. Unfortunately, this technique renders her incapable of seeing her fiance for whom he is - a Romanian liar. Instead, she is attracted to his "otherness," which also includes his narcissism, his tirades against North America and Americans, and his blatant insincerity. Ultimately, though, her ability to see the larger picture, to empathize with the secret wife and children back in Ceausescu's Romania, allows her to make the moral choice.

Infidelity and marital discord play a part in other stories as well.  Both the title story, "Bobcat," as well as the final story, "Settlers," highlights life's subtle and not so subtle disappointments. "Settlers" is the most moving of two. The story is told by an unreliable narrator who has idealized the marriage of her best friends, Lesley and Andy.  On the surface, the couple leads an idyllic life; they are accomplished professionals, own a beautiful house in a perfect neighborhood, and have three sweet little girls. Like Lesley, the narrator is thirty-five. She has a friendship with another mutual friend, David Booth, and is often paired with him when couples gather. The other friend, Berber, is dating a married man she met at a yoga retreat.  Both are now wearing turbans. Once more, Lee uses humor to dispel impending tragedy. "The turban made her look a number of conflicting things--pure and spiritual for sure, but also completely cracked in the head, like she'd had an actual surgical procedure, or maybe an imaginary one."



Wedding Night, by Sophie Kinsella

If you are a
Kinsella fan, then you don't need a review of her latest book to entice you
into reading it. But if you aren't familiar with the work of British author
Madeleine Sophie Wickham, writing under the pen name Sophie Kinsella, and you
need a chick-lit laugh, give Wedding Night a try.

At age 33,
Kinsella's heroine Lottie's modus operandi has always been to meet a guy,
have great sex, and hope it leads to a wedding. But a proposal has consistently
eluded her, so when an old flame named Ben reappears after 15 years and
impulsively suggests that they get married, Lottie says
"yes" if he agrees to wait to have sex until the wedding night.
Continually left not at the altar but before there is even a mention of one, she
figures it's well worth changing her game plan from "great sex with a hope
of marriage" to "marriage with a hope of great sex."

proposal comes on the heels of Lottie's break-up with Richard, her beau of
three years. She had thought he was ready to propose when he took her out to
a restaurant to discuss "something." She told her sister Fliss, as well as a variety
of friends and even a few strangers she met in a ladies room, that her
boyfriend's popping of the question was imminent. Alas, she turned out to be wrong,
heartbroken, and totally embarrassed when she discovered he only wanted to talk
about the use of his free air miles.



The Silver Star

If you have read the harrowing memoir, The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, you will hear many resonant cords in this work of fiction. But in The Silver Star, Jeanette Walls has the liberty of creating her own endings and romanticizing her characters.

The story focuses on two sisters, fifteen-year-old Liz and twelve-year-old "Bean" (short for Jean). (Wall's real-life older sister is named Lori.) When their mother, the artistic Charlotte, abandons them to seek fame and fortune in New York, the girls are left with enough money to last a month. Both products of a home with an unreliable mother - a mother who "found something wrong with every place she ever lived" - they embark on a journey to find their uncle. There quest ends in Byler,  Virginia where they discover their uncle living in a cluttered, dirty mansion. Once this home was the jewel in the crown of a thriving mill town and Uncle Tinsley's family owned the mill. Now the mill is not operational, unemployment is rampant and Uncle Tinsley is merely a lonely widower living as a recluse. He is also a hoarder, as is Wall's real-life mother. But in this story, Uncle Tinsley is both sensible (short of the phobia he attributes to being the family archivist) and caring.

This reader found the decaying mansion reminiscent of that of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Time has stopped for Uncle Tinsley when his wife died the year before. Layers of dust have gathered on everything. There are other Dickensian elements in The Silver Star as well as a references to Alice in Wonderland.

The book's strength lies in imaginative story, believable narrator, and beautiful, descriptive language. Bean is a young girl with a short fuse who fearlessly stands up to injustice. Walls makes it very clear that evil lurks in the world and often it is in the guise of a feckless adult. Like Steven Spielberg, she knows without doubt that children are at the mercy of those adults. Also like Spielberg, she is able to capture what it feels like to be a teen.



Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews

Jason Matthews, a first time novelist, has written a winner in Red Sparrow. Set in Russia, France, the United States and other locales the story line runs through the  career of Nate Nash, a CIA operative posing as an economic aide and his Russian counterpart Dominika Egorova.

Nate Nash has a family full of lawyers. When he decides to pursue a career as a "clandestine officer" he has no idea that he will be equally as successful. Stationed in Moscow as an economic aide, he is meeting the most successful spy ever - Marble. Marble is highly placed in the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service). The meeting is going well until 3 cars show up looking for them. Both escape. But the fall out is that Moscow suspects Nash has a mole in the Russian government.

Nash's supervisor, Gondorf hates him and wants him gone. He decides to end Nash's tour early, a possibly career ending move. But Nash is instead sent to Finland. Meanwhile, Dominika Egorova is related to one of the highest ranking members of the Russian spy community. He decides to train her to become an operative, something at which she will excel. Dominika is a synesthete, which means she can see colors around people allowing her to get an emotional read on them, a very handy trait for a spy. Dominika is sent to seduce the third richest man in Russia. It turns out to be a political hit and Dominika does not take this well. In order to maintain control over her, she is sent to the Sparrow School. The school is a training stop for agents in the art of the "honeypot" scheme. Seduce and then compromise someone to get information.

She is sent to pursue Nash because Moscow thinks he has links to a mole in the Russian government. The  two make contact after Nash is sent to recruit her. And then the games really begin.



Life After Life: A Novel by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson, best known for the Jackson Brody detective series that began with Case Histories, has a wonderful new book out. Life After Life is like none other by this literary writer. It's main protagonist is Ursula Todd and its setting is Great Britain, 1910-1944.

This is a realistic novel whose depictions of life in London during WWI and WWII are made even more realistic by the larger-than-life characters surrounding Ursula. She is born to an upper-class family and spends an idyllic childhood in the beautiful English countryside complete with housekeeper and cook. Their home is surrounded by meadow and stream and numerous foxes running about. Sylvie Todd, Ursula's mother, aptly names the home, "Fox Corner," raising four very different children there. The siblings play major roles in the lives of each other.

Fox Corner takes on almost mythic qualities over the decades.  Helen Brown, in The Telegraph  (April 22, 2013) notes that the very name is a literary nod to A. A. Milne's Pooh Corner and E. M. Forster's Windy Corner. But Atkinson's Fox Corner "is neither a foreign country nor a safe haven...This fox corner is a place where the flesh of the human inhabitants is as vulnerable as that of the chickens destined for Mrs. Glover's pot. The sweet peas rambling through the borders are tended by a man who has lost half his face in the Great War.  He wears a tin mask with one eye painted on, permanently open."

What is most unique about Life After Life is that Ursula dies at the end of each chapter and then is miraculously reborn in the next. Ursula always comes back to life with a sense of dread that something has happened but is unaware of anything other than her sense of Deja vu. As the years pass and more events--both personal and public--unfold, she acquires a sense of dread and attempts to change the outcome of history.  Atkinson obviously has fun with this notion.  For example, Ursula befriends Eva Braun in one chapter and, when introduced to Hitler before his rise to power, takes out a gun and assassinates him. How differently life would have turned out for England and, indeed, for the entire world had that occurred.



Crime of Privilege

Set in Boston (the wealthy areas of Hyannis Port and Palm Beach) this book tells the story of the rich, powerful and politically connected Gregory's and the murder of a young local woman named Heidi Telford.

In 1996 George Becket is attending a party at the Palm Beach home of  Senator Gregory. A friend of a friend of the family, George soon realizes that he is in a whole different world and not just because he went to the wrong prep school and was headed to the wrong college. This was a world of money and privilege and doing what you want with little or no consequences, where loyalty to the family was paramount. This message was driven home to George when he witnessed the molestation of a drunk local socialite by 2 of the younger Gregorys. Breaking up the assault before it went even further, George realizes that there are major problems with these kids, drinking and debauchery not the least of them.

He never tells anyone about the assault he witnessed. This simple act will have consequences for George that will haunt him for the rest of his life. In 2008 George finds himself on Cape Cod working as a low level assistant district attorney prosecuting drunk driving cases. His job was made available through the machinations of the Gregorys. George becomes involved in the unsolved homicide case of Heidi Telford when her father corners him in a local watering hole. The case was supposedly investigated, but Heidi's father has been doing his own investigation, sending the information to District Attorney Mitch White. White owes his own position to the influence of the Gregorys.

Every person involved in the murder and assault is either connected or beholden to the Gregorys. Careers are made or destroyed, reputations protected or publicly shredded depending on whether you are in the good graces of the Gregory's. The more George looks into Heidi's death the more he realizes the Gregorys are always involved - in his job, protecting witnesses and most of all protecting themselves. George realizes he is being manipulated at every turn.



The Plateau Effect by Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson

Do you feel like you've gotten to a place in your career, project or life where you are just stuck and can't progress any farther? Rather than seeing your path as a mountain that you can climb simply by working harder it might be useful viewing it as a plateau, where you might need some kind of new effort to progress to another level. The book The Plateau Effect: Getting From Stuck to Success offers a number of ideas of ways to move beyond this plateau into the next phase of what you are trying to accomplish.

Authors Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson have divided the book into three parts. The first part summarizes the science behind "the plateau effect", offering many examples of how people are unable to progress beyond a certain point both mentally and physically, and demonstrating the need to shake things up in order to progress. One example they provide is that simple rote memorization doesn't seem to work, and that to truly remember things you need to use tricks suck as spacing the repetition at various set (but different intervals). Even athletes can get stuck, as they demonstrate with their analysis of Derek Jeter's late career resurgence.

The second part of the book discusses the causes of plateaus while the third part is where the authors finally offer some solutions to overcoming these plateaus. Options like saying "yes" to everything, concentrating more and multitasking less, finding quiet time and not worrying about perfection are some of the potential ideas for readers to consider when they are stuck.

Like many other business and self-help books this book is certainly skimmable in many places and the authors seem to acknowledge as much by offering an appendix that summarizes the eight main suggestions covered in previous chapters. I'm not quite sure that the book comes together as a whole yet in its individual colorful anecdotes there is much to enjoy. I recommend this to anyone looking for a breezy read that may offer them ideas for a personal or career lift.



Dad Is Fat by Jim Gaffigan

Don't read this book. Listen to it.* As funny as Gaffigan is in print, multiply that funny by at least 10 for the audio version. Although I primarily listened to Dad Is Fat on my car's CD player while driving, there were times when I pulled into the drive-way and remained in my seat listening and laughing all by myself, no doubt puzzling (and perhaps concerning) the neighbors.

Gaffigan, as you might already know, is a tall, pale, comedian/writer/actor who has appeared in movies and on TV in addition to headlining, and who doesn't work blue ("When you are discussing mini-muffins in a stand-up act, it's not really necessary to curse or bring sex into the material," he says). As you might not know, he is also the father of five kids, ages 8 and under, who live with him and his wife in a modest, 4-story walk-up apartment in New York City. The chapter "How to Put Five Kids to Bed in a Two-Bedroom Apartment" is a special favorite.

Gaffigan has long been know for his deadpan delivery of routines involving his own laziness as well as food. His Hot Pockets bits are legendary, but riffs on bacon, cake, and manatees are equally inventive and memorable. Dad Is Fat brings parenthood to that list of things that at first blush might not seem extremely funny (wait, manatees are always funny), but turn out to be given Gaffigan's take on them. For example, when talking about parent-teacher conferences, he says: "As your children get older, the parent-teacher conference is always a strange experience. The conference is supposed to be all about the child, but somehow it ends up with you feeling like you are getting a report card on your parenting. You still want to know your child is doing well and you still want to see their work, but because I am an actor and comedian, it seems that these conferences always lead back to my occupation. ‘Well your daughter/son is very dramatic and loves to talk, which I guess is no surprise, given your occupation.’ I’m not offended, but the implication that all improper behavior is the result of what I do for a living is rather absurd. As if a chatty five-year-old with a librarian mom would be a red flag. ‘We expected your child to just sit behind her desk and shush people. Maybe she needs Ritalin.'"

Dad Is Fat is smart and funny and sweet, much like Gaffigan. Those are five lucky kids.



The Dinner by Herman Koch

An international Best Seller, recently published in the U.S. in March 2013, The Dinner is the latest psychological thriller that everyone is talking about.  So I read it, and now I understand why! I'm describing it to patrons as in the genre of Gone Girl and Defending Jacob, but better written. 

Set in The Netherlands, Serge is poised to become the next Prime Minister. He and his wife summon his younger brother Paul and his wife to dinner at a pretentious restaurant. Their mutual children, 3 boys, have been up to some trouble, and the future P.M. wants it handled in a particular way. Course after course of fussy, over managed food arrive, as the foursome talk around the issue. The reader is intrigued as the facts of the (awful) incident are slowly and only partially revealed. 

A riveting read with a conclusion that I'm still not sure I understand. I hope to read it again, and Judy Levin will be offering it as her December 11th book club read!

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