Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

In April 1873, the Tigress rescued 19 men, women and children from an ice floe off the coast of Labrador. They said they had been on the ice since October 1872, having been on the Polaris, an American steamer that was on a polar expedition supported by the American Navy. They had left Connecticut two years earlier and had not been heard from since they left the coast of Greenland trying to sail through to the Arctic Sea, eventually becoming trapped in the ice at the 85th parallel. George Washington DeLong was on another ship, the Juanita, also looking for the Polaris.

DeLong was a "do it now" kind of guy. A career Navy man, he dreamed of leaving the Navy and settling in the French countryside with his French born wife and family. He was sent to find survivors of the Polaris, reaching the 75th parallel before turning around in the face of a gale. This experience changed DeLong. He began to obsess about the Arctic and how to reach the north pole.

Fast forward a few years. James Gordon Bennett, Jr. was the publisher, editor and owner of the New York Herald. He was a dilettante, a young man with a lot of disposable cash. He was also the beginning of sensationalism journalism and was eager to explore the north. He and DeLong were a perfect match. At this time in history the north pole was just a point on a map - no one had ever been there. The United States had purchased Alaska in 1867 and was anxious to find out exactly what was there. DeLong started planning. He spoke to whaling captains, other explorers, map makers and anyone who had information about the "Polar Problem." The thinking at the time was that the North Polar region was easily sailed, shallow with warm water and ice free, loaded with marine life and maybe a lost civilization. DeLong wanted to be the first to explore it by sea. 

He set out with financing from Bennett and the United States and left with 33 men in the most well equipped boat money could buy. They headed into the Arctic and found that it was ice, almost all ice. From the moment the reached the Bering Sea there were problems. But DeLong kept going.



A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin

This is a good, new work of historic fiction from an award winning author.

Main character Gary Chang is a skilled translator who is eventually moved by the Chinese government to the U.S. so he can spy on U.S. governmental activities, and report on them back to China.

His story is told through the point of view of his diaries, as discovered by his daughter, a scholar.

Several subplots involving his Chinese family, American family, and his mistress keep things interesting!



The Supper Club Book by Dave Hoekstra

Your local tavern isn't the only place where everybody knows your name. The supper club down the interstate is there to welcome you with open arms for some prime rib or walleye, and maybe a nice old-fashioned to wash it down. You say there isn't a supper club nearby? Grab former Chicago Sun-Times columnist Dave Hoekstra's The Supper Club Book and get up-to-date on the supper clubs of the midwest, which is by definition the part of the country where these clubs are found.

Not familiar with the concept of a supper club? Hoekstra (and Garrison Keillor, who writes the introduction) helpfully spell it out for us. A supper club will present you with a relish tray, with celery, carrots and other varieties of small edibles. The napkins will certainly be made out of linen. The club (which is not strictly a "club", as membership is not required) will probably be run by a family, perhaps second- or third-generation owners. You'll be presented with a meat and potatoes menu featuring prime rib, though there will also almost certainly be a Friday night fish fry. Finally, though the club may be dimly lit you will be welcomed with open arms for a long, relaxing dinner - the definition of slow food.

Many of these supper clubs are located in the country, with clientele coming from all around to enjoy the food and atmosphere. Madison is the nearest sizable town that has supper clubs inside its boundaries, though Racine and Beloit also provide options that aren't located too far from Chicago. Hoekstra offers up the history of each of the 24 supper clubs that he profiles, talking to current and former owners, chefs and patrons and giving us the trivia that we desire. There were supper clubs patronized by gangsters (Fisher's Club in Avon, Minnesota), aping an Istanbul establishment (The Turk's Inn in Hayward, Wisconsin), set up with a bowling alley in back (Sister Bay Bowl in Sister Bay, Wisconsin) and run by colorful characters (nearly all the supper clubs in the book).

Despite having never eaten at a supper club, this book filled me with nostalgia and made me excited to give one a try. While perhaps I'm not ready to plan a vacation around these clubs, I'll definitely be patronizing one on my next trip to Wisconsin - perhaps one of the two Wisconsin Dells options, conveniently located across the street from each other. I'm also interested in comparing a Wisconsin old fashioned (made with brandy) to one of the old fashioneds offered in other states (made with bourbon). I love quirky travel books like this and I loved this book!



Lisette's List by Susan Vreeland

Susan Vreeland is a bestselling author of eight novels about art and artists. Perhaps her best known is Girl in Hyacinth Blue about Vermeer. Other artists who have been subjects of her fiction include Emily Carr, Renoir, and Tiffany. Her novels are characterized by a good story, lovely details of art works and the making of art, and strong women as central figures in a work of historical fiction. Lisette's List is another excellent work that fits the profile.

Lisette is a young bride who moves, with her husband Andre, from Paris to Roussillon, a village in Provence, where Andre grew up, raised by his grandparents, and is returning to care for his aging grandfather. Lisette and Andre have loved their life in Paris, working in the world of galleries and art. Lisette loves Andre and his grandfather, but finds it difficult to adjust to life in a small village. Two years later, in 1939, Andre and Maxime their best friend from Paris, volunteer and leave for the war.

Grandfather Pascal had also worked in the world of art, the ochre mines near Roussillon, as a pigment salesman, and as a frame maker; over the years he has traded frames for several fine paintings by Pissarro, Cezanne, and Picasso. Lisette's enjoyment of life in Roussillon develops as she admires Pascal's collection of paintings by artists who had been inspired by the beauty of the region. She becomes a part of the community of interesting citizens, all struggling to live in a country torn by war.

Because the Nazis are confiscating art works, Andre has hidden Pascal's paintings and, to protect Lisette, not told her their location. Lisette befriends Marc and Bella Chagall who are hiding in the area; before they leave for America, Chagall gives her a painting, which she also hides.



We are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler, best known in science fiction circles for her award-winning stories, has now written a family drama with science as its backdrop. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was inspired by a real-life experiment in the 1930s in which a husband and wife tried to raise a baby chimp alongside their baby daughter. Both scientists, the couple carefully documented their findings. The experiment was discontinued when the toddler began mimicking the behavior of the chimp.

Similarly, the author-also a child of academics-spent her first 11 years growing up around the University of Indiana campus. Like the narrator's father, Fowler's dad was a psychologist who did home experiments on lab rats. As early as the age of 6, she recalls arguing with her father about animal intelligence, basing her conclusions not on data, but rather, on her observations of the family pets. She writes that this book represents a continuation of that long-running argument.

The book skips back and forth in time as we, the readers, are captivated, amused, and horrified by the recollections of the endearing narrator, Rosemary. Now in her forties, she recalls her life with her quirky human family and her chimp sister, Fern.  The novel has many surprising turns and unexpected revelations. Further discussion of the plot would prove to be a spoiler.

It is with good reason that Fowler's book was short-listed for the 2014 Booker Prize. It highlights very pertinent issues concerning the treatment of animals and ultimately, the treatment of our fellow human beings. At the same time, Fowler explores the notion of family with both humor and pathos. As noted book critic, Ron Charles, concludes:



The Devil in the Marshalsea

London 1727 was not a good place to be if you had any debts. There were debtor's prisons and Marshalsea was among them. Just outside the center of London, the prison held debtors until they could pay off the debt owed plus the cost of their incarceration.

Tom Hawkins is a gentleman by trade but has bad money habits. Trained to be a priest, he leaves that life and his parents after he decides that a more exciting life in London is what he wants. He owes 20 pounds to his creditors (a substantial sum at the time). To acquire the money he decides to gamble with what little he had left. To his credit he wins 10 pounds which is enough to keep him out of the Marshalsea. While walking home from the tavern where he and his friend Charles have gone to celebrate, Tom is mugged and his money stolen. The next day he is arrested and put in Marshalsea. His friend Charles, a vicar is distraught. He vows to help Tom survive the prison.

Tom's stay in Marshalsea is a life threatening one. Already beaten from the mugging, he runs afoul of the head of the prison and winds up being beaten again. He is rescued by the arrival of his friend Charles and his patron, Sir Philip Meadows, who is ultimately responsible for the prison. The prison has a ghost or so the inmates think. A man was murdered and the murder was covered up and the prisoners think Tom's new roommate Mr. Fleet did it. Tom makes a bargain wit the prison head and Sir Philip to try to solve a murder in exchange for his release. Now his trouble really start. 

This fast paced and historically accurate novel was written by first time author Antonia Hodgson. It is based on stories from the prison as well as some historical diaries. I recommend this great, atmospheric book.



The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion

This is the follow up to The Rosie Project, which has been wildly popular. I don’t think you have to read The Rosie Project to appreciate the sequel, but if you haven’t read the first book, The Rosie Project, I would recommend that you do, because it is so darn funny.

In The Rosie Project, brilliant but socially awkward Professor Don Tillman, a bachelor at age 41, decides it is time to mate. He devises a survey for prospective mates to complete, a survey that is so scientifically devised and mathematically valid that he is sure he will find his perfect match. Let’s just say that the woman he falls in love with does not fit his precisely delineated criterion - at all.

In The Rosie Effect, Professor Don Tillman and Rosie are married, and have moved to Manhattan. He has done his best to adjust to the unpredictability that comes with married life, and for Don, is coping rather well. Until of course, the unexpected occurs…..

A good light read, a worthy sequel to the original, highly recommended.



Play On: Now, Then and Fleetwood Mac by Mick Fleetwood and Anthony Bozza

Anyone who grew up listening to Fleetwood Mac in the seventies probably has at least a passing knowledge of the drama behind the band's triumphant Rumours, which is still among the top selling albums of all time. Two of the couples that formed the band (Lindsey Buckingham/Stevie Nicks and John and Christine McVie) were breaking up, affairs were being had, drugs and alcohol were rampant and recording costs were skyrocketing. However, you'd have to be a REAL Fleetwood Mac fan to be aware of the rest of the band's unusual history with guitarists: original guitar god Peter Green deciding to retire from the music industry, Jeremy Spencer quitting to join a religious cult and Danny Kirwan succumbing to mental illness. Even short-term replacement Bob Weston got into the act by having an affair with drummer Mick Fleetwood's wife.

In short, you can say that Fleetwood Mac has had a colorful history. Who better to take us down that road than its longtime drummer (and one of two remaining original members) Mick Fleetwood? In Play On, the tall, striking Fleetwood tells us his (and Mac's) story from his earliest days drumming with Bluesbreakers to the current Mac reunion of its most successful lineup of Fleetwood, Buckingham, Nicks and the McVies.

Bluesbreakers provided the training ground for many great British musicians including Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor and the three who provided the basis for the original Fleetwood Mac: Peter Green, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood. While based in the blues, the Mac's sound developed into a more lyrical and mystical pop style, eventually leading to its massive success following Fleetwood's offer to the duo of Buckingham Nicks to join the group.

The story of Fleetwood's relationship with his ex-wife Jenny that runs through the book is intriguing, as they remain committed to each other (marrying and then later remarrying) while Jenny's resistance to life on the road and Fleetwood's allegiance to the rock and roll lifestyle doom any kind of happily ever after epilogue. But more interesting is Fleetwood's relationship with a band that has had more than 15 members over its lifetime - with consistency being found only in the bassist and drummer - but nearly every lineup of which was able to find success on the charts and on tour.



Visible City by Tova Mirvis

In a recent article for the New York Times, author Tova Mirvis speaks candidly about her divorce from her husband and from her faith.

I stood before the panel of rabbis, waiting to have a religious divorce conferred upon me. I was dressed as the Orthodox Jewish woman I was supposed to be, modestly, in a below-the-knee navy skirt and buttoned cardigan. But I felt exposed. 'What kind of shameful woman,' I imagined the rabbis thinking, 'leaves her marriage; what kind of mother uproots her life?'

 It felt impossible that any of them could understand why, a month shy of my 40th birthday, after almost 17 years of marriage and three children, I had upended the foundations of my life. I was barely able to believe it myself.