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Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

the japanese lover 9781501116971 lgIn The Japanese Lover, Chilean author Allende analyzes the themes of love, loss, prejudice, and age. The novel’s main protagonist, Alma Mendel, arrives in San Francisco in 1939 at the age of eight. Her parents have sent her from their home in Poland to live with her wealthy Uncle Belasco and his family. Alma befriends her cousin Nate Belasco and the gardener’s son, Ichimei Fukado. These two will play pivotal roles in Alma’s life for many decades.

Alma is an amazing character—kind yet toughened from her early experiences with loss. She is also self-centered and somewhat haughty. By the time she reaches her mid eighties, she resides at an assisted living facility where she has befriended one of its employees—Irena. Both women have secret pasts, the memories of which continue into their present lives.

Allende’s first novel, House of the Spirits, published in 1982 to critical acclaim, won her international fame and has been translated into 37 languages. It ranks as one of my all-time favorites. Here, Allende fictionalizes the turbulent history of post-colonial Chile after the overthrow of her uncle, Salvatore Allende, in 1973. Like House of the Spirits, many of Allende’s books are family sagas and offer sociopolitical commentaries of the times in which they are set.

Allende has written nearly 20 works and has garnered many awards. In 2004, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 2010 she received Chile's National Literature Prize. President Barack Obama awarded her the 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The Japanese Lover  Sara's Picks  Isabelle Allende


City On Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

city on fireCity on Fire is an amazing first novel that has been compared to the work of Tom Wolfe, Jonathan Franzen, Don DeLillo, and Richard Price.

Hallberg said the idea for the novel came to him when he heard Billy Joel’s Miami 2017: Seen the Lights Go Out On Broadway. The song references New York City’s Blackout of 1977, as well as the economic devastation, crime, and drug scene that blighted New York City in the 70s.

Over the course of the book’s 900+ pages, the reader meets people from opposite ends of the social strataindividuals whose lives converge over the mystery of who murdered a 21-year-old girl and the possible connection of the crime to an abandoned East Village property. Old money rubs shoulders with mercenary and sinister forces, relationships (gay and straight) are explored, and the tragic effect of loss on children’s lives is seen in the main protagonists. Meanwhile, fires are being set throughout New York. Are they just outgrowths of economic inequalities? Or is something else something far bigger afoot? Hallberg’s novel includes numerous sympathetic, larger-than-life personalities, but perhaps the biggest character in the book is New York City itself.

If you are seeking a novel in which you can immerse yourself a book that contains not just straight narrative, but also letters, magazine clippings, handwritten and typed coffee-stained notes put yourself on hold for this literary fête. City on Fire is sure to be one of the most talked about books for fall, and probably short-listed for a literary award. Hallberg has written a tour de force not to be missed.

Sara’s Picks  Garth Risk Hallberg  City on Fire


Killing Reagan by Bill O'Reilly

Killing ReaganWhile it’s obvious that the latest entry in Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing” franchise, Killing Reagan, doesn’t end with a titular death like the other books in the series, it is nonetheless a page-turner. Following Reagan’s life from his breakout in movies in the 1930s to his death in 2004, Killing Reagan can be described more as a biography of our 40th President than a chronicle of John Hinckley Jr.’s assassination attempt on the President in 1981.

With this book, O’Reilly seems to be giving up on detailing famous killings to jump into the genre of creative non-fiction (the assassination attempt only takes up about 40 pages). His writing style, however, remains the same. The author interweaves the story of Reagan’s life with a series of interesting anecdotes about the man, his family, and his entourage to present what reads like a suspenseful historical novel.

Even though this book doesn’t present any new perspectives on Reagan’s life, and the accuracy of some of the research is under question, Killing Reagan succeeds in its main purpose, which is to entertain. Reaching nearly 300 pages, but feeling much shorter, this book presents a vivid picture of Reagan’s career, personal life, and legacy. Although Killing Reagan probably isn’t the best book for the avid scholar, it’s perfect for anyone who wants to brush up on his or her knowledge of Presidential history, or for someone who simply desires a light, quick, fun read.


Killing Reagan  Bill O'Reilly  Andrew Scarafile


National Book Award Shortlist 2015

Last week the finalists for this year's National Book Awards were announced and there is no better place to find all of them in your format of choice than the library! 


refundRefund: Stories by Karen E. Bender

In Refund, Bender creates an award-winning collection of stories that deeply explore the ways in which money and the estimation of value affect the lives of her characters. (Review from Amazon.com)




Tracy Smith  Ta-Nehisi Coates  Sally Mann  Lauren Groff  Karen E. Bender  Hanya Yanagihara  Carla Power  Angela Flournoy  Adam Johnson


The Prize by Jill Bialosky

the prizeWhat happens when an artist’s desire to be rich and famous collides with the need to be true to his art? Similarly, what are the moral responsibilities of a gallery to the artistic vision of a painter or sculptor—even at the cost of bruising the ego of that artist and potentially losing him or her? And finally, what is the price of deception—personally and professionally?

Jill Bialosky, author of four poetry collections, two novels, and a New York Times bestselling memoir, has written a haunting tale that explores the inner demons of artist Agnes Murray and her art dealer, Edward Darby. Agnes has the volatile combination of insecurity, inflated ego, and a desire for fame. The reader is frequently reminded of her fine, Irish beauty—the lustrous, red curls, green eyes, and slender frame. She is described as nearly anorexic, as if consumed by her ambition and her creative endeavors. Utterly dependent on others’ opinion of her, she allows her husband, “art whore” Nate Fisher, to control her.

Meanwhile, Edward has demons of his own. He has kept troubling secrets from his wife, Holly, and over the course of 25 years, has not shared much of his professional life with her. Bialosky explores the impact of this on a marriage. Edward’s gift for compartmentalizing allows him to justify his affair with the beautiful sculptor, Julia Rosenthal, while still being comforted by hearth and home, represented by his wife. As Elizabeth Rosner writes in the San Francisco Chronicle, “It’s tempting to ask whether Edward’s limited self-awareness is what prevents him from being a true artist himself. Lacking the necessary spark of creative genius, he has made a life of service to the brilliance of others; thus he is in a perpetual state of searching for someone else’s fire to restore his own.”

The Prize is an exploration of the depths of passion—erotic and creative—and analyzes the flawed, all too human, characters that populate its pages. As author Howard Norman concludes, “The Prize is vividly modern, and in the tensions offered between art and life, timeless. Yet finally, Bialosky’s novel is a kind of old-fashioned love story, with an ending whose bittersweetness is powerfully earned”

The Prize  Jill Bialosky


Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

fates and furiesFates and Furies, long-listed for the 2015 National Book Award, is a stunning novel that examines love, loyalty, and deception. On the surface, it is about a marriage between a privileged young man and a woman with a shadowy past. Spanning 22 years, it traces the period between the impulsive marriage of its central characters, Lancelot (Lotto) and Mathilde, and the death of Lotto at age 46. The book is an exploration of a long relationship highlighting the passion, the dependency, and the exasperation within. But Fates and Furies is far more than a dissection of a marriage; it is an analysis of the effects of childhood experiences on our adult lives.

Lotto was born under a lucky star. His family catered to his every whim. He grows into an optimistic man with almost no ability for introspection. Lotto’s weakness for an approving audience results in his choice of an acting career—a career in which he has limited talent. Still, he gets parts, his friends applaud him, and his wife supports him—literally and financially. In essence, his life is about “fate.”

By contrast, Mathilde is not so lucky. After unintentionally (or intentionally) causing a tragedy at age 4, she is disowned by her parents. What happens in subsequent years contributes to her need to exact revenge. Mathilde’s “life has never been defined by a sense of glorious destiny but rather by a compulsion to even the score, any score, many scores.” (Robin Black, New York Times, Sunday Book Review, September 8, 2015)

Whereas the first part of the book, “Fates,” centers almost exclusively on Lotto, the second part, “Furies,” shifts to Mathilde. As a narrative device, this allows the reader further insights into their marriage and into Mathilde’s psyche. Her web of deceit is stunningly depicted in startling, and sometimes, salacious prose. Yet, Mathilde’s story does not reveal the only truth. Although Lotto is too unaware and too self-absorbed to make him a reliable narrator, Mathilde’s perceptions are colored by childhood neglect and abuse. Hence, the “truth” in any marriage depends on who experiences it.

Sara Lifson  Lauren Groff  Fates and Furies