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Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

American Housewife: Stories by Helen Ellis

EllisI’m often asked to recommend fiction that is “light but good,” and American Housewife fits that description exactly.  A slim book at just 188 pages that are such fun to read, it is a collection of humorous short stories that had me laughing out loud. 

Usually I don’t read short stories because as a rule, they leave me unsatisfied. But one look at this collection by novelist (and professional poker player!) Helen Ellis made me pick it up. The cover art features a small woman, sitting on a closed commode and dressed in a fetching orange terry cloth hooded ensemble, her hair in giant curlers wrapped in a scarf, filing her nails.  

The author writes in a snarky, somewhat sarcastic tone about everyday things. Book clubs, for example – how do you get invited to join the right one, do you have to sit in assigned seats, and are custom cocktails and laminated book marks provided? Another story is about a reality TV show in which contestants vie to unearth the most valuable piece of junk at the flea market.  Also funny is a piece examining ways to become a patron of the arts and another story about “The Southern Lady Code.” What is the Southern Lady Code? It’s what southern ladies say in response to awkward moments – for example, a southern lady will say “she has a big personality” when she means “that woman is as loud as a T-Rex,” or she’ll say,  “He has a good time!” to describe someone who parties way too much.

This would be a great book to take on a vacation, or to read while commuting.  It is not, however, a good choice for anyone easily offended – the author is not particularly concerned about being politically correct or subtle, and a few of the stories are pretty dark (which is why I am recommending it!).

Nancy's Picks  American Housewife


The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom

AlbomI had not read this well-known author (Tuesdays with Morrie, The Five People You Meet in Heaven) before, and actually had not planned to until one of our fabulous library patrons told me how much I would love this book – and wow, I love this book!

The setting is fictional famous singer and guitarist Frankie Presto’s memorial service.  He was a former Spanish War orphan who became an international musician and led a very exciting life. At the memorial, musicians Presto played with during his life share stories about him and give eulogies. Each witness to his life seems to have known him in a way unique from all the others.  The narrator of the book, is, wait for it – MUSIC! Music’s voice ties the various musicians’ stories together to create a fabulous testimony to Presto; his life, his loves, his instruments, his constantly forming and reforming family, his travels, and most importantly, a very special guitar with strings that just might have magical powers.  Author Albom is a lifelong musician who writes about “the bands we all join in life” that become our family. 

 I’m eager to read this book through a second time, as I know that when I was caught up in the story, I missed a lot of details that would no doubt make the novel even richer. The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto has been popular with men and women alike, and especially with anyone who believes in the power of music. It would be great for book discussions.  A CD has been made of the songs that are performed in this book, featuring such stars as Tony Bennett, The Byrds, Kiss, and Lyle Lovett .


Nancy's Picks  Music  Inspirational  Historical Fiction  Family  Faith


A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir by Lev Golinkin

EightCratesBrowsing the shelves of new biographies, I was drawn to the cover of this memoir. It depicts a boy carrying a heavy backpack and a teddy bear, followed by his shadow with a hammer and scythe overlay. The boy is a young Lev Golinkin, the author of this book.  The image on the cover is a metaphor for Golinkin’s journey toward freedom as a state of being as well as a state of mind.

The memoir begins in 2003 (the culmination of Golinkin’s college days at Boston University), then switches seamlessly to  harrowing period between 1979 and 1990—the final decade of the Soviet Union--when Golinkin’s family applied for, and was finally granted, immigration to the United States. The book details the blatant antisemitism endured by Golinkin, his sister, and his parents-- from his routine beatings at school under the watchful eyes of his teachers to his sister’s denial into medical school. Golinkin’s early childhood experiences leave him with a deep self-loathing that continues well into his 20s. Only when the author returns to Europe to trace his family’s escape from the USSR and meets those who helped them does he come to terms with his past.

To quote Gal Beckerman of the The Wall Street Journal (December 18, 2014):

Written with biting, acerbic wit and emotional honesty in the vein of Gary Shteyngart, Jonathan Safran Foer, and David Bezmozgis, Golinkin's search for personal identity set against the relentless currents of history…This is a thrilling tale of escape and survival, a deeply personal look at the life of a Jewish child caught in the last gasp of the Soviet Union, and a provocative investigation into the power of hatred and the search for belonging. Lev Golinkin achieves an amazing feat--and it marks the debut of a fiercely intelligent, defiant, and unforgettable new voice.

Sara's Picks  Russian History  Memoir  Jewish History


Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa

HeartIsAMuscleThe book’s setting is the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle in 1999, and the ensuing violent riots. Prior to the “Battle in Seattle,” 300 peaceful protestors convene to serve as impediments, physically preventing the international delegates from reaching the hotel where the WTO meetings are held. The highly organized protestors have been well trained by a young woman called King who provides one point of view on the riots.

Another perspective is that of the Police Chief Bishop, positioned high above the crowds in a cherry picker.  Overlooking the scene, he is confident that he has the right officers in the correct places to ensure the delegates’ safe passage.  He thinks things are under control, but they are not. Looking at the youthful protesters, he is reminded of his stepson who ran away from home at 16, following his mother’s death.  The two have been out of touch for three years, and Chief misses the teen.

The third point of view belongs to Victor, a young African American who is trying to sell enough pot to the protestors to fund a plane ticket out of the U.S.  Victor is persuaded to join the protestors at the last minute. 

The final point of view comes from Dr. Charles Wickramsinghe, a delegate from Sri Lanka. He is desperate to get the last signature on his petition for Sri Lanka’s entrance to the WTO.

Nancy's Picks  Historical Fiction  American History


The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

ScorpRulesFour hundred years ago the world developed an Artificial Intelligence called Talis and charged it with saving humanity, which Talis did… by taking control. After annihilating a few cities as a statement, Talis takes all the rulers’ children until they reach the age of 18 - if they live that long. Should the leaders and governing dignitaries go to war, the children’s lives are forfeit.


Bow’s Sci-Fi novel is labeled for “Young Adults” but it’s also enjoyable for those of us who have exceeded the boundaries of YA. The main character of the book, named Greta Gustafsen Stuart, and the other Children of Peace in her school live in fear of the dust plumes that indicate a Swan Rider is coming. Swan Riders, tasked with taking the Children into the Gray Room, only come when war is declared; on the morning The Scorpion Rules begins, a dust trail is spotted.


Young Adult  YA  Teen  Science Fiction  Sci-Fi  Sarah Marie's Picks  Fantasy


Purity by Jonathan Franzen

PurityJonathan Franzen, celebrated author of “Big Important Novels,” has returned with Purity, his first new book of the decade.  This monster of a book explores the concept of privacy in the digital age, the lasting effects of bad parents, the search for identity, and much more.  It’s big, brainy, sometimes slow, and sometimes abrasive.  It’s also one of the best books I read last year.

Twenty-something college grad Purity “Pip” Tyler is working a dead-end job, burdened with $130,000 of student loan debt, and squatting with anarchists in a dilapidated house in Oakland.  Most troubling of all for her, she can’t escape constant contact from her agoraphobic, hypochondriac mother.  After a chance meeting, she takes an internship with The Sunlight Project, a Wikileaks-style online venture dedicated to exposing government and corporate secrets.  Andreas Wolf, a charismatic übermensch who grew up under the omnipresent eye of the East German Stasi, heads The Sunlight Project and harbors some secrets of his own.  In Wolf, Pip sees an opportunity to learn about the father her mother has kept a secret from her and thus learn more about her own identity.  If you’ve read The Corrections or Freedom, you know the drill: the plot bounces across continents, narrators, and decades as the characters become embroiled in the great crises of our time.

If you can handle far-reaching literary tangents (nuclear proliferation, fine art, and digital privacy are just some of the subjects which receive lengthy subplots), flawed characters, and a 550-plus page count, give Purity a try.  When I finished this book, I felt like I had been taken around the world and through time; and offered a glimpse at how historians, philosophers, and other big thinkers the future will view the world we live in today.


Purity  Parenting  Jonathan Franzen  Jake's Picks  Digital Age


The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House

ResidenceRich with detail and anecdotes about the idiosyncrasies of the residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House, delivers a very entertaining and in-depth look at the tiny world that makes the Presidency run.  Covering staff protocol on every topic from cooking to interacting with the family, Brower’s book gives the reader an up close view of day-to-day management of the White House, from the Kennedy era to today.

While, of course, most everyone knows the President receives a lot of assistance, the book documents that the relationship between staff and residents is much deeper than one would think.  This is revealed through the many anecdotes that staff members relayed to Brower. These stories range from the quite bizarre, such as LBJ’s obsession with the fire hose-like water pressure of his shower, to the truly touching, such as Barbara Bush’s late night visits to the deathbed of a beloved butler’s father. Along with learning about the day-to-day activities at 1600 Pennsylvania, readers get a firsthand look inside the political events that shaped our country from the early 1970s to 9/11.

At less than 300 pages, this book represents hardly a large time investment, but the insight it provides gives both a very full portrait of the bubble of the Presidency and a detailed look at its humanity.


The Residence  Presidents  Andrew's Picks  American Presidents


The Turner House

turner houseThe Turner House is a first novel, an amazing and beautiful book full of both details and ideas.  While we may not have experienced the specifics of the lives of the 13 Turner children and their parents, lives detailed with clarity in the novel, we understand all through Flournoy’s exceptional telling of their story.  Showing sensitivity and understanding, Flournoy writes characters who experience a range of situations – growing up in a large family in Detroit; working (as housecleaners, factory workers, truck drivers, police officers, medical professionals); migration to the north; poverty; unemployment;, homelessness; addiction to alcohol, drugs and gambling; and, primarily, emblematic of all that the family experiences, trying to save the family home that is crumbling in a decaying neighborhood.

One of the central themes is a haint, a ghost that appears to the eldest child, Cha-Cha, and to others in the family.  Another theme is the city of Detroit, history and present day, described accurately and with compassion.  To quote from The New York Times Sunday Book Review, “That Flournoy’s main characters are black is central to this book, and yet her treatment of that essential fact is never essentializing.”

Most of us will know the joys and the distress that the Turners find in life, through circumstance, and also through family and friends.  To quote from the final pages of the book, the thoughts of Viola, mother of the 13: “The love pivoted between hard and unwieldy and tender and sincere….She would be gracious.  She would talk about strength and pride.  She would tell a little joke.  They would all feel loved.”


Turner House  Literature  Historical Fiction  Gail's Picks  Family Drama  Contemporary  African American Literature


Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush

BlogMeachamAlthough Meacham tackled many Presidential subjects in his previous award-winning books, in Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, the author breaks new ground -- not only because his subject is still alive, but also because of some of the controversial analyses presented within the book’s 600 pages.

However, even though Destiny and Power was written by an author in close communication with the subject, the book doesn’t shy away from showing the truth.  What is offered is an extremely fair, in-depth portrait of our 41st president’s life and times.  Rather than merely rehashing history, the book takes the reader along for the ride, giving a very vivid and extremely detailed account of George Bush’s life from his birth to his final interviews with Meacham this past September.

While this book has been much commented on due to Bush’s controversial comments in the latter pages about about his son’s administration, the rest reads like a true portrait of the man, rather than a mouthpiece for his ideas. 

Destiny and Power not will only appeal to the demographic that agrees ideologically with Bush, but also to anyone interested in learning about George Bush the man and the times he inhabited.

Andrew's Picks  American Presidents


Fishbowl: A Novel

Fishbowl: A NovelFishbowl is a whimsical tale about the intertwining lives of the occupants of a high rise in a large metropolitan city. What makes the story unique is that it is told by a goldfish named Ian who just happens to be plunging to his death from the twenty-seventh floor balcony.  Ian glimpses these lives as he falls past their windows.

The motley cast of characters includes the lonely building superintendent whose long hours and years of service go unrecognized by the tenants; a pregnant woman about to give birth; a construction worker with a secret life; a traumatized boy who believes he can time travel; a two-timing graduate assistant who learns, too late, that lying and love are incompatible; and an agoraphobic woman with an unlikely career.

In addition to these quirky people, the building itself is an amazing character. As the author states in the beginning of the novel:

The building fulfills an Arcensian mission of carrying everything mentioned thus far, housing the spirit and chaos of life and those beings in which they reside, through the floods and to safety every time the water recedes.

Sara's Picks  Romance  Contemporary