Posts Tagged ‘Amy W.’s Picks’

Best ‘New to Us’ Books in 2014: Amy W’s Picks

December 16, 2014

According to this post, it seems I only read coming of age literary novels and hard-hitting non-fiction. But really look at it this way, I have spent a summer on an Ojibwe Indian reservation and in a small Midwest town both faced with terrible crimes, followed a Civil Rights icon on our nation’s path to equality, lived in rural Mississippi a few days before Hurricane Katrina hit and examined the day to day life of soldiers returning home with PTSD and/ or traumatic brain injury. I learned a lot, not just facts, but also about the human spirit.

The Round HouseRound House by Louise Erdrich
This book grabbed me in the first paragraph. The narrative is compelling as Joe, his tribal judge father and his community try to process the violent crime committed against his mother. The investigation is complex since his mother, traumatized, is unable to provide details and the laws governing the reservation and state laws strangle any chance of justice with red tape. Joe and his friends decide to take matters in their own hands. Erdrich balances this story nicely, with humor and excitement but also a serious examination of justice. This book also makes a great book club discussion.

Thank You for Your ServiceThank You for Your Service by David Finkel
Journalist David Finkel follows members of the US 2-16 Infantry Battalion as they return home from service in Iraq. The soldiers often hear the sentiment “Thank you for your service” from appreciative Americans. However, that appreciation, no matter how heart-felt, has no real impact on their day to day life at home after returning from war. Many of the soldiers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and/or traumatic brain injury. Their families are at a loss when it comes to caring for them, the public cannot seem to grasp the pain of invisible injuries and veteran assistance, when available, can also require great sacrifice ultimately adding to the stress of daily life. A notable book of 2013, Thank You for Your Service is a close look at the tragedy of a war that never ends for members of the armed forces.

The Devil in the GroveDevil in the Grove by Gilbert King
The Pulitzer prize-winning book is Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King and it is much more than an account of the trial of three young African-American men accused of kidnapping and raping a white woman in rural 1948 Florida. It is a detailed glimpse in the complex machinations of the Civil Rights Movement as played out in the courtroom. Marshall’s landmark case Brown v. Board of Education (1954 Supreme Court decision disallowing school segregation) was the result of years of planning and small victories that ultimately overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. I just had no real understanding of the complex planning it took to make it to that one important case. Thurgood Marshall (chief counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund) and the NAACP frequently took on lots of cases like the Groveland Boys. Their strategy was never acquittal but to kick the case up to higher courts through appeals with a decision that not only acquits the innocent but also has broader significance to civil rights with each case building on top of one another. If you think this book sounds like a somewhat interesting, but probably overly detailed academic snooze fest you are wrong. Devil in the Grove is a well-written, accessible and at times, a page-turner.  See my full review.

Ordinary GraceOrdinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
Life is idyllic in a small, northern Minnesota town during the summer of 1961 until the town is rocked by a series of murders. 13 year-old Frank Drum gets caught up in the the excitement as he and his friends speculate about who may have committed the sinister acts. Frank’s amateur investigations reveals the complexities of life in a simple, small town as those around him struggle with their life decisions. Ordinary Grace is a beautifully written, compelling page turner.

Salvage the BonesSalvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
It wasn’t that the Batiste family decided to stay in their home while Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast, it was that they had bigger battles consuming their lives. Every chapter moves the storm one day closer with some chapters the storm is not mentioned at all. Having never recovered from the death of their mother, Esch (the narrator), her brothers and her alcoholic father live a hand to mouth existence in rural Mississippi. As the storm approaches, their lives become unraveled. Esch, is fifteen, pregnant and alone with her secret. At a time Esch needs a mother the most, the memories of her mother fade all too quickly. This 2011 National Book Award winner is a tough read. Sometimes I find a book so incredibly heart-breaking, I struggle to turn the page and consider closing the book. Ward, growing up in the rural Gulf Coast did not have a chance to turn the page either or close the book on her life. Instead, she put words to paper creating a beautiful novel, rich in hope.  See my full review.

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Best New Books of 2014: Amy W’s Picks

December 1, 2014

I enjoy a well-balanced diet…of books. Here we have something for EVERYONE from light and fun page-turners to thought-provoking non-fiction. Don’t let 2014 end without checking out any (or all) of these awesome books!

This Dark Road to MercyThis Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash
Easter and Ruby are two young girls placed in foster care after the sudden death of their junkie mother. The girls are used to watching out for themselves. They hope to be adopted, but do not want to live with their maternal grandparents in Alaska, total strangers, living in a strange land. Their estranged father, a washed up amateur league baseball player, appears suddenly and confuses the already precarious situation. In the backdrop of the novel and adding to the tension, is the home run rivalry between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. The scores go back and forth and the competition is of interest to everyone. This Dark Road to Mercy is a well-constructed, page-turner that artfully tells a moving story in which children are once again thrust into an adult world.  See my full review.

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
Roz Chast, a longtime New Yorker cartoonist, documents the slow decline of her aging parents. Not only does this impact her life at the time, but spending time with them at their most vulnerable brings up old anxieties. No surprise, Chast tackles this subject with great humor and candor. I found this book to be comforting and thought provoking. The graphic memoir format really lends itself to exploring a topic I would ordinarily shy away from reading.

LandlineLandline by Rainbow Rowell
Remember back in the 80’s when you would talk on the phone for an eternity until your ear actually hurt? I do. I loved talking on the phone, not so much cell phones— and texting has its moments if you can get past all the auto-correct errors. Nothing will ever surpass the old school telephone when it comes to connecting with another person. Georgie McCool is in crisis mode. She is a writer for a sitcom that just may get a pilot. Her marriage, family, mental health and personal hygiene suffer from the effort. She needs to reconnect. Her old yellow phone becomes her lifeline to the past and the present. Told with great humor and tenderness, Landline is a delight!

All Joy and No FunAll Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior
Why, why, why is parenting so hard today? This thought has crossed my mind a lot, well, more accurately, this thought lives in my mind and it ain’t goin’ nowhere. Parenting seemed easy for my mom (it also did not hurt that I was a perfect child, am I right?). This is really the only parenting book I have ever read and boy, do I love it! It is not a book about how to parent , but a look at what parenting is about these days from a sociological and psychological perspective. So, I was right — it is hard–but now I spend a lot less time focusing on the no fun aspects of parenting. See my full review.

Thousand Dollar Tan LineThe Thousand Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas
I loved the Veronica Mars television series! This book takes place a few years after the series ends when Veronica gets really close to joining the FBI but decides to live and work in her small, California beach-side hometown, Neptune. Written by the series creator, writer and producer, Rob Thomas, stylistically the book is true to the spirit of the show and the 2014 movie. I know you are thinking, “that sounds kind of low-brow for you, a well-read librarian”. Well, it’s not. This book is not great literature, but it is perfectly entertaining and it was great to be reunited with old friends (this is the part where you remember the catchy theme song…A long time ago, we used to be friends….).

Church Folk by Michele Andrea Bowen

November 5, 2014

I am sure many First Ladies can attest, their job is not an easy one. They have nothing on Essie Lee Lane, a plain girl from a small town who knows her way around a kitchen (that means she can cook really well). Essie does not know what she is getting into when she marries the Reverend Theophilus Simmons. Reverend Simmons is an up and coming theological star in the 1960’s South. Not only is he easy on the eyes (that means he is handsome), but a respected Southern preacher is a position of power in the South especially as the Civil Rights Movement is taking hold. Reverend Simmons is everything you would ever want in a husband—let me re-phrase that, Reverend Simmons is everything every woman in the community wants as a husband. When Reverend Simmons chooses Essie as his wife, the townfolk do not silently sit with their hands folded on their lap, instead they put Essie and their marriage to the test.  Lots of drama ensues in this sometimes funny, sometimes serious but always lively book.

If you found my parenthetical definitions tedious and too obvious then I really think you will like this book. The loose vernacular style is a delight. The colloquial language is not just for show, it comes from the heart and captures precisely the emotions felt. This book is a real treat. And if you like it, be sure to read its sequel, More Church Folk.

Michele Andrea Bowen is one of several North Carolina authors visiting our regional libraries in November. You can meet her and learn about her work at Southeast Regional Library on Saturday, November 8, at 2:30 p.m.  Click here to register.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

August 27, 2014

The Elegance of the HedgehogElegance of the Hedgehog was a selection for my book club. I never wanted to read this book. I felt it would be too anecdotal and not enough plot for my taste. This is what I love about book club (aside from my friends and the food)—it gets me reading books I would not normally choose to read. I decided to listen to the audio book so this review is based on that version of the book. The audiobook is delightful.

The novel takes place in a high end Paris apartment building with the narrative alternating between precociously intelligent 12-year old Paloma and Renée the grumpy concierge. We learn very quickly that these narrators are not who they seem to be. Both have an appreciation of the finer things in life. This not only includes tangible pieces of fine art but also philosophy and Japanese culture. Paloma, tired of living amongst those who will never understand her, decides to commit suicide on her 13th birthday.

Renée takes pleasure in deceiving her witless employers who believe her to be a simple, pedestrian concierge. All of this changes when a mysterious Japanese gentleman, Ozu, moves in the building. He befriends Paloma whose admiration of Japanese culture breaks down any of the usual barriers she so deftly constructs. He sees through Renée’s guise and becomes determined to spend more time with her since they have so much in common. Through Ozu, Renée and Paloma discover each other and these kindred spirits existing under the same roof for years, become fast friends and allies against the gauche residents.

What I thought was to be an artsy, disjointed book is really very heartwarming and humorous. For the audio book two readers give life to Renée and Paloma which to me, makes the characters real. So if you are on the fence about reading this book, or appreciate a really well done audio book, give this a listen!

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

 

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

August 25, 2014

Salvage the BonesIt wasn’t that the Batiste family decided to stay in their home while Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast, it was that they had bigger battles consuming their lives. Every chapter moves the storm one day closer. In some chapters, the storm is not mentioned at all.

Having never recovered from the death of their mother, Esch (the narrator), her brothers and her alcoholic father live a hand to mouth existence in rural Mississippi. As the storm approaches, their lives become unraveled.

Esch, is fifteen, pregnant and alone with her secret. At a time Esch needs a mother the most, the memories of her mother fade all too quickly. She finds examples of motherhood in her brother,Skeetah and his pit bull, China, who has just given birth to a litter of puppies. Skeetah cares for China fiercely and is completely devoted to her well-being. China and Skeetah both care for the newborn pups who will be sold for dog fighting and the money used to support the Batiste family’s existence and endeavors to rise above their poverty. Esch narrates the story of her family with lush and poetic language interwoven with the classical mythology tale of Medea. Much like in mythology, all the battles, both real and emotional, are epic.

Jesmyn Ward deals in dualities making this book true to a life that is never simply black or white. The Batiste family (and their friends) live in poverty but have a richness of spirit making them resilient. Hurricane Katrina decimates the Gulf Coast, but reins in the family, forcing them to exist in one place and making them stronger. Skeetah and his pit bull, China, have a relationship built on the deepest filial love and brutally savage violence.

This 2011 National Book Award winner is a tough read. Sometimes I find a book so incredibly heart-breaking, I struggle to turn the page and consider closing the book. Ward, growing up in the rural Gulf Coast did not have a chance to turn the page either or close the book on her life. Instead, she put words to paper creating a beautiful novel, rich in hope. If you enjoy this book, I also recommend her highly acclaimed 2013 memoir, Men We Reaped.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

August 1, 2014

Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and SweetSet in World War II Seattle, author Jamie Ford explores the United States’ internment of Japanese Americans through this well-written historical fiction novel. Henry is a Chinese boy assigned to an all-white middle school on scholarship (meaning he gets to serve the kids in the cafeteria while they disparage his heritage). His parents are proud, his friends call him the white devil and his classmates taunt him. His only friends are Sheldon, an African American saxophone player, and Keiko, a new girl at his school who is Japanese. Henry is confused about who he should be at a time when identity is important to the American public and government. He is expected to be Chinese, an identity treasured by his father, a nationalist who sends money home to fight the Japanese attack on his homeland. His parents want him to speak English at home even though they do not understand the language. His parents force him to wear a button proclaiming “I am Chinese” as protection from anti-Japanese backlash. Like Henry, Keiko was born in the United States. When Keiko sees his button, she tells him “I am American”. Henry has truly found a friend in Keiko. They share a love of jazz and she shows him her beautiful sketches of Seattle life. He likes her so much, he rejects his father’s low opinion of Japanese and is horrified at the government mandated internment of Japanese Americans.

As an adult, Henry is mourning the loss of his wife after a long illness and stubbornly longs for a closer relationship with his son, Marty. When he hears that the belongings of Japanese Americans have been discovered in the basement of the Panama Hotel his mind immediately turns to memories of his friend Keiko. He knows that her family stored their more treasured belongings there meaning to retrieve them after the war. Henry lost track of Keiko and her family. Marty and his new fiance (a surprise to Henry, less so that she is not Chinese) help Henry search for a valuable jazz record in the pile of assorted and very dusty personal items. When they uncover Keiko’s sketchbook, Marty and his fiance sense that there is more to the story.

This is an enduring story of love and friendship despite prejudices, obstacles and the passing of time.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior

July 28, 2014

All Joy and No FunI have to admit that reading is such an escape for me that I rarely read anything directly applicable to my life. This includes books about: work, parenting, self-help, spirituality, politics, and global issues. All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood is the exception for me.

Ever since I became a parent around 4 years ago many questions have plagued me. I have questions beyond:
“How do I make her stop crying?”
“When was the last time I took a shower?”
“Did I just tell my co-worker I had to go potty?”
I often wonder why parenting seems so hard when I do not remember my mother and her generation having the same struggles being a parent.

This book answers a lot of those questions; however, it is not about how to be a better parent. The writer clearly states that this book is about the effect of children on parents . Author Jennifer Senior explicitly outlines all the things that are different today. She cites real studies, observes real parents in action, and even throws in some humorous parenting anecdotes from the likes of Erma Bombeck and Louis C.K.

Senior posits that even though parents experience moments of rapturous joy more frequently than our childless peers (like hearing my daughter laugh hysterically), we also don’t have a lot of fun the rest of the time and childcare is low on the list of fulfilling day-to-day activities. I know that sounds alarming and you think, “But I love spending time with my child!”. Look, children have never been on the top of the list to parents EVER. Senior points out (with physiological evidence) that you are dealing with an illogical being who may insist that she does not know how to put her shoes on —even though we know she does know how to put her shoes on, or screams over and over from her bedroom that she “forgot how to take a nap” (Step 1: stop screaming). So please, admit to yourself that it is not always fun, and that’s ok. But we have to put up with all the no fun to get to the joy. That’s the same with toddlers and teenagers.

So has All Joy and No Fun made me a better parent? Yes. Although Senior says she does not want to make the reader into a better parent, just more relaxed and aware of the process. That to me is a vast improvement in my state of mind and outlook on day-to-day life with my tiny caveman dictator (and bundle of joy). Now that I am taking fewer anxiety-laden guilt trips (you know, those trips that go absolutely nowhere), I may actually have the mental energy to read a book about being a better parent!

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais

July 17, 2014

The Hundred-Foot JourneyReader beware: reading this book may cause extreme hunger, salivation and an extreme case of wanderlust.

As a boy in Mumbai, Hassan Haji grew up in his family’s restaurant. Food was his way of life and viscerally connected him to his mother. Because of religious strife, a fire destroys the restaurant and kills his mother. Very distraught, his father takes the children and flees India. His father still wants to be in the restaurant business,  but cannot seem to find a profitable niche. He eats his way across Europe until they end up in Lumiere, a quaint village in the French Alps.

Lumiere does not know what to do with the brash, Indian family. Hassan’s father decides to open a restaurant. Likeable and with a discerning palate, Hassan’s father wins over the locals through his loudmouth joviality. But he makes an enemy in famous, local chef Madame Mallory. She owns the respected restaurant across the street and is beside herself with anger at the tacky restaurant with the gaudy colors, loud music and foreign odors. Madame Mallory does everything she can to make the restaurant fail.

Madame Mallory is more distraught when she discovers that the son of this loudmouth has a wonderful gift. Hassan has a way with food and flavor. Madame Mallory believes this gift is innate. Her jealousy gets the best of her when she confronts the family and accidentally causes Hassan to be severely burned. After a lot of guilt and some time reflecting on her life and actions, Madame Mallory decides to take Hassan on as her pupil. Hassan’s father is adamant that this will not happen, but as we all know, Madame Mallory is relentless when she wants something.

And so begins a beautiful relationship that takes Hassan to the top of French cuisine. This is a delightful read that will warm your heart!

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This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

May 19, 2014

darkroadbookcover.phpThis Dark Road to Mercy is the much anticipated sophomore effort of North Carolina author and all around nice guy Wiley Cash. As with his debut novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, Mr Cash does not disappoint. I always appreciate his even handed treatment of Southern culture since we are more than Hee Haw and grits. Cash has a knack for the Southern Gothic small-town setting. This Dark Road to Mercy takes place at the end of summer and you can really feel it– the humidity easing a tiny bit in anticipation for the first hint of a crisp fall morning. Also adding to the anticipation, is the home run rivalry between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. The scores go back and forth and the competition is of interest to everyone, adults and children.

Easter and Ruby are two young girls placed in foster care after the sudden, but not surprising, death of their junkie mother. The girls, raised in poverty by their single mother, are used to watching out for themselves. They hope to be adopted, but do not want to live with their maternal grandparents in Alaska who are total strangers, living in a strange land.   Their estranged father and washed up amateur league baseball player, Wade, appears suddenly. Easter is not happy to see Wade, who legally gave up his right to be their parent. She has found him to be a reliable disappointment. Her kid sister, Ruby, is intrigued by smooth-talking Wade despite Easter’s insistence that he is nothing but trouble. Wade admits he made some bad decisions in his personal life as well as his professional life. Wade wants to be their dad no matter what the law says.

Brady Weller is the court-appointed guardian for the girls tasked with watching over Easter and Ruby until they are in a permanent home. Even though he seems to radiate responsibility, Brady (like Wade), has made bad decisions costing him his law enforcement career and family. Brady uncovers information about Wade that makes him more of a danger to the girls than just a harmless nuisance.

Similar to his debut novel, This Dark Road to Mercy is a well-constructed, page-turner that artfully tells a moving story in which children are once again thrust into an adult world.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog. 

Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King

May 2, 2014

devilbookcover.phpI love it when I read a book and it leads me to another book and another, etc.  A few years ago I read the award winning book Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Isabel Wilkerson. It was indeed epic as Wilkerson followed the lives of three individuals leaving the Jim Crow Era South for a better life elsewhere. One of the gentleman was leaving the volatile citrus groves of Florida. She made mention of the Groveland case (Florida) as an example of the danger faced by African American men in the South and I filed that away in my brain, hoping to find out more one day.

As a result, I finally picked up the Pulitzer prize-winning book Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King and it is much more than an account of the trial of three young African-American men accused of kidnapping and raping a white woman in rural 1948 Florida. It is a detailed glimpse in the complex machinations of the Civil Rights Movement as played out in the courtroom. Many things impress me about this book. As always, I am astounded by the cruelty of the Jim Crow era South. Freedom from slavery was an important first step towards equality for African Americans, but given the discrimination faced in the years after slavery was abolished, it really seems like more of a baby step. This book was also a reminder that the landmark Plessy vs Ferguson (1896 Supreme Court decision providing a legal basis for “separate but equal” segregation) was a tremendous hindrance on the path to equality since “equal” is a subjective term that never actual measured up. Thurgood Marshall’s landmark case Brown v. Board of Education (1954 Supreme Court decision disallowing school segregation) was the result of years of planning and small victories that ultimately overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. I just had no real understanding of the complex planning it took to make it to that one important case.

Thurgood Marshall (chief counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund) and the NAACP frequently took on lots of cases like the Groveland Boys (often referred to as “Little Scottsboro” in comparison to a similar case in Alabama 15 years earlier). Their strategy was never acquittal but to kick the case up to higher courts through appeals with a decision that not only acquits the innocent but also has broader significance to civil rights with each case building on top of one another.

If you think this book sounds like a somewhat interesting, but probably overly detailed academic snooze fest you are wrong. Devil in the Grove is a well-written, accessible and at times, a page-turner. Gilbert King is comprehensive as he explores this unbelievable and sad event in American history.

In addition to Devil in the Grove, I also do recommend the above mentioned Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. If you are looking for a shorter read about the Civil Rights Movement, I cannot say enough wonderful things about March (Book One) by John Robert LewisAndrew Aydin and Nate Powell which is a graphic memoir about non-violence during the Civil Rights Movement.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

 


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