Posts Tagged ‘Emil S.’s Picks’

Best New Books of 2014: Emil S’s Picks

December 2, 2014

When a book calls my name, I will not turn it down. Somehow, the books know how to find me.

No Place to Hide No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald
“Cincinnatus” was the alias Edward Snowden used when he contacted Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for The Guardian and a former constitutional lawyer. Cincinnatus referred to a real life hero, a farmer who in ancient times defended Rome against foreign forces, and then voluntarily gave up absolute power and returned to life on the farm. Edward Snowden was a former National Security Agency contractor, and the revelations brought about by him altered the course of history. This book – a curious blend of real life thriller, lecture, moral-ethic discussion, and petition – shows how invasive U.S. surveillance capabilities have become, and what it means in a world in which people increasingly find and display their inner lives online.  See my full review.

War of the WorldsWar of the Whales by Joshua Horwitz
Whales and other marine mammals are under severe threat from a number of human activities, not the least mankind’s insistence on waging war and preparing for war. The navy use of sonar creates noise storms that again and again cause atypical mass strandings and deaths of whales. The U.S. government regulators have become captives “to the interests they’re supposed to police,” and it is up to individuals and private organizations to help protect life in the oceans. War of the Whales is the true story of how environmental law attorney Joel Reynolds (of NRDC), marine biologist Ken Balcomb, and many others did everything in their power in order to reduce deadly, man made noise pollution and save some of the magnificent creatures that humankind share this planet with.  See my full review.

Everything Leads to YouEverything Leads to You by Nina LaCour
Emi’s goal is to become a set designer in Hollywood, and as an intern on a movie set, she visits the estate sale of a legendary Hollywood actor. When Emi and her best friend Charlotte find a letter hidden in the jacket of an LP, the two of them – without knowing the content of the letter – begin searching for the intended recipient. The mysterious letter leads her to the alluring Ava, and life begins to take on film-like qualities.  See my full review.

Cycle of LiesCycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong by Juliet Macur
If the mountains of Le Tour de France are the dragons of that particular classic, then the riders are the knights. And when Lance Armstrong started slaying and devouring these opponents he seemed to be living a real life heroic poem of epic proportions. Armstrong had bravely defeated a monstrous cancer, made a mind-boggling comeback, and then developed into one of the most revered and remarkable athletes in the world. However, the tale took a nightmarish turn as evidence of highly advanced and organized doping mounted. Here is the story of Lance Armstrong’s rise and fall as understood by New York Times journalist Juliet MacurSee my full review.

Little FailureLittle Failure: A Memoir by Gary Shteyngart
American author Gary Shteyngart was born as Igor Shteyngart in Leningrad (now [again] St. Petersburg) in the Russian empire that went under the name of Soviet Union. When he was seven years old, Gary and his family moved to the United States as part of a Jews-for-grains swap between the two superpowers. The Shteyngarts ended up in Queens, New York, and life in the land of the free was not easy for a “Socialist” boy with a weird accent. This memoir investigates a troubled family’s adventures and misadventures in two cultures, and it is moving, poignant, and at times outrageously comical.  See my full review.

War of the Whales by Joshua Horwitz

November 17, 2014

“What if the catalyst or the key to understanding creation lay somewhere in the immense mind of the whale? Suppose if God came back from wherever it is he’s been and asked us smilingly if we’d figured it out yet. Suppose he wanted to know if it had finally occurred to us to ask the whale. And then he sort of looked around and he said, ‘By the way, where are the whales?'”

As Cormac McCarthy points out, the whales have a great deal to teach Homo sapiens. The Bible describes poetically how “the great creatures of the sea” were created before humankind (Genesis 1:20-23), and science makes the same claim: while Homo sapiens has been around for perhaps 200,000 years, the whales have roamed the oceans for tens of millions of years. The wisdom bestowed upon the whales by time is thus immense and studies of whales and other creatures have helped improve the life of human beings. When we annihilate a species, we destroy future discoveries – keys to longer life spans, cures for diseases, spectacular engineering feats – and the destruction of a species is the destruction of a resource that cannot be quantified.

So, “‘where are the whales?'” Some of them are already gone forever, others are on the brink of extinction, and many are threatened. The ruthless whale hunting took an extreme toll on their numbers, but whaling is no longer the major threat to whales. Instead, other dangers have emerged. How the documented warming of the oceans will affect whale populations is yet unknown. What is beyond a doubt is that marine traffic is a serious and constant danger, as is the pollution of the oceans – not the least noise pollution.

For marine life drowns in man-made noise, and studies indicate that sonar used by navies to track submarines can result in mass strandings of whales. Sonar also drives whales away from areas that are important to their survival, and it has been documented that these mammals abandon feeding for extended periods when sonar is in use.

War of the Whales, a deeply moving true story by Joshua Horwitz, describes the whales’ historic and current circumstances and how environmental law attorney Joel Reynolds takes the U.S. Navy to court to expose the Navy sonar program and reduce ocean noise pollution. While Reynolds is involved in this enormous challenge, marine biologist Ken Balcomb witnesses an atypical mass stranding of whales. Balcomb investigates the disaster and his hard evidence leads him to join Reynolds: the stage is set for a clash between an intrusive man-made world and the need to protect life in the ocean.

As the case travels through the U.S. legal system, Reynolds knows that a conservation battle never truly can be won: “the environment is never saved. It always needs saving. So do the whales.”

Find and reserve this book in the card catalog.



Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst

October 28, 2014

Midnight in EuropeCristián Ferrar is a Spanish (or rather, Catalan) émigré who lives and works in Paris, France. His employer is the law firm Coudert Frères, and the firm does a good deal of international work. Recently, some international cases have become more complicated due to the Spanish Civil War, “now in its seventeenth month; individuals and corporations cut off from their money, families in hiding because they were trapped on the wrong side – whatever side that was – burnt homes, burnt factories, with no means of proving anything to insurance companies, or banks, or government bureaucracies.”

At the same time, the way of life of the French Republic, with its deep democratic roots, is seriously challenged. Right-wing extremists rule neighboring Germany and Italy, and now the Spanish Republic is about to fall into the hands of Franco’s fascists and his conservative supporters. The Republic does not have many allies in the world – Mexico and the Soviet Union give their support, but other than that the international aid mainly consists of volunteers from around the globe; mostly workers, anti-fascists, social democrats, socialists, communists, and anarchists. Ferrar is also willing to contribute to the cause, and when he is contacted by a general of the Republic he sees a chance to help out. German and Italian pilots have shown the world the future of warfare, and the Spanish Republic needs anti-aircraft guns to survive. Where to find them, though? The Soviet Union turns out to be the best option. But the U.S.S.R. will not sell the weaponry. The Soviets want to hold on to the firepower they have. So the equipment has to be stolen.

A small band of idealists and hired gangsters organize the job, and they will find opposition on every level: honey traps, harbor spies, and armed servants of the far right.

Again, Alan Furst creates a mosaic of a European midnight, where people who have never before met come to share path through life as a war of ideologies engulfs the continent.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong by Juliet Macur

September 30, 2014

Road bicycle racing was the first sport to ignite my imagination. The dynamics of the peloton (the main group of racers), the nature of the teams in the competitions, the individual contributions to the group effort, the silent sacrifices by the domestique, the physics of the sport, the incomprehensible physical effort, and the epic quality of the races – it was all endlessly fascinating. Later in life, when I heard French philosopher Roland Barthes refer to le Tour de France as a heroic poem – the substance of legend – I concurred.

Many years after the first encounter, I reconnoitered an upcoming Tour de France stage in the French Alps. When I left the car, the gradient was so extreme that I almost toppled over, and when I walked up the mountain road, the altitude offered only exhaustingly thin air. It was easy to appreciate just how extreme these athletes were. But by now I knew that the riders were not just exceptional human beings. With the help of EPO, blood transfusions, testosterone, cortisone, and human growth hormone, many of them were, in a very real sense, superhuman.

Cheating has been part of le Tour de France since the very beginning. During the late 1990s and the early 2000s, cheating reached an unprecedented level of sophistication, and ringleader Lance Armstrong – who won Tour de France seven times in a row! – became the face of the deception.

Cycle of Lies is in part a journey through a sport that had become deeply corrupt, but the book also exposes the dangers of weak journalism. When Lance Armstrong began to dominate the Tour de France, American journalists who knew little or nothing of cycling flew over to Europe to write about the superhero. As Armstrong and the Postal Service team crushed the competition, newly arrived journalists saw heroic efforts; veteran journalists who had covered le Tour for years saw something else. What Armstrong and his teammates were doing simply wasn’t possible. Headlines in French media read, “Armstrong, the Extraterrestrial of the Tour,” “On Another Planet,” and “Hallucinating Armstrong.” In the U.S., the mainstream media stood behind Armstrong, and Washington Post reported that the French were jealous: “France’s motto: If you can’t beat them, investigate them.”

The message of Juliet Macur‘s book is clear: Don’t find your heroes in the images produced by media.

When the accusations finally started to find traction in the U.S., writer Malcolm Gladwell defended the actions of Lance Armstrong, but then he went on to say, “When you write about sports, you’re allowed to engage in mischief. Nothing is at stake. It’s a bicycle race!”

He’s wrong, of course. The physical and mental well-being of human beings is at stake here. People’s livelihood is at stake. Their ethical and moral interactions with the world are at stake.

If that doesn’t matter, what does?

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

Gone Fishin’ by Walter Mosley

September 22, 2014

Gone Fishin'Walter Mosley is perhaps best known for his Easy Rawlins mysteries (Devil in a Blue Dress, et al), but the man has written a lot and tackled many different genres. Therefore, it would be unfair to say that Gone Fishin’ is an unusual Walter Mosley book. But it is not a mystery. Instead, it is a Bildungsroman that contains some faces familiar to readers of the Easy Rawlins series.
The main characters are said Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins and his friend Raymond “Mouse” Alexander, and the year is 1939 – nine years before the events of Devil in a Blue Dress; the novel that launched the Rawlins’ series.

Late one night, a racket breaks out on Easy’s apartment door: “I knew it couldn’t be the police,” Rawlins says, “they just broke down the door in that neighborhood”. Instead, Mouse is the one who interrupts his rest. Mouse is about to marry EttaMae, a hugely popular woman, and thus he needs some money. To overcome his shortage of currency Mouse wants Easy to drive him from their home in Houston’s Fifth Ward to a Texas town called Pariah (!), where Mouse hopes to access to his “Momma’s dowry.” The problem is that his stepfather Reese Corn stands between Mouse and the dowry, and Mouse – who isn’t easily scared – is afraid of Reese.

Easy is offered 15 dollars and agrees, although he is mad because he is about to lose his friend. He’d help Mouse out without the “threats and the IOU,” but to make sure that Mouse doesn’t realize this, Easy says, “I want my fifteen dollars, man. You know I ain’t doin’ this fo’my health.”

And in a three year old car that Mouse has “borrowed,” they leave Houston for Pariah.

As they reach the bayou, Mouse suggests that they should visit his friend, Momma Jo. On a ledge over her fireplace, Easy sees thirteen skulls, one of them clearly human.

“’Domaque,’ Momma Jo said, and I turned to see her looking at me.


‘My husband.’”

Yes. They have entered the land of voodoo, and soon enough, sex, revenge, and death keep them company, too.
It has been pointed out elsewhere that Mosley’s books have strong existentialist traits. This is true for Gone Fishin’ which portraits a morally ambiguous world. And it is a novel filled with all kinds of tensions and questions: “Who knows?” Easy says, “Maybe I would’ve died out there in Pariah if Mouse hadn’t held me to his black heart.”

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

The Castafiore Emerald by Hergé

August 8, 2014

The Castafiore EmeraldMany years ago, on a cool autumn eve, a young foreigner walked the streets of Paris, France. Outside a bookstore, adults – a long line of them – were waiting to be let in, even though the shop had been closed for hours. It turned out that Hergé’s unfinished comic book Tintin et l’Alph-Art would be released the next day – thus the crowd.

In many countries around the world, The Adventures of Tintin are shelved with children’s literature. This makes perfect sense, as many youngsters love these strong stories that are populated with captivating characters and wonderful use of language. However, as the crowd outside the Paris bookstore showed, the books are for adults too. For Hergé was one of the great storytellers of the 20th century and if there is perfection in art it can be found in the graphic novels of Hergé and his staff.

The Castafiore Emerald (1963) is part of Hergé’s late, mature work, and while children and adults alike can adore this “comic opera” for its humor, it is also filled with adult elements. It is, in part, an anti-narrative, riddled with misunderstandings and communication breakdowns, and the plot is an exercise in creating suspense out of next to nothing. But while Hergé finds plenty of traction while toying with the reader’s expectations, he simultaneously offers a complex and revealing exposure of bigotry.

In The Castafiore Emerald, Hergé turns his back on international adventures as Captain Haddock and his friend Tintin enjoy some downtime in Marlinspike, the captain’s grand estate. Low-key, domestic adventures rule the days at Marlinspike. Most disturbingly, to Haddock who only wishes for peace and quiet, is a letter from his acquaintance Bianca Castafiore, the very loud opera diva of Milan. When she announces her immediate arrival to Marlinspike, Haddock decides that this is a good time to leave for Milan. But in his hurry to leave Marlinspike he slips and sprains his ankle. Leaving the estate is now out of the question, and soon enough the old sailor finds himself in a wheelchair, trapped in the company of the uninvited opera singer. Haddock’s problems grow worse when two Paris Flash reporters announce to the world that Haddock and the diva intend to get married, and when – to his horror – a TV crew invades the castle to interview Castafiore.

In the meantime, Tintin is busy solving the mystery of Castafiore’s lost emerald. Who is behind the disappearance of the gemstone? Could it be Castafiore’s secretive pianist, Wagner, who sneaks off to the village and make clandestine phone calls when he’s supposed to be practicing his craft? Or is it the Romani that have camped on the estate? Or does it have something to do with the ghostly footsteps that can be heard in the attic at night?

The story lines of The Castafiore Emerald are weaved together in the most wonderful way, and even if this book offers low-key adventures, the cliff-hangers will last till the very last panel.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour

July 31, 2014

Everything Leads to YouIn Los Angeles, California, where modern legends and myths are created, and where everyday life is lived moment by moment, Emi is trying to become an established part of the movie industry. Her goal is to work as a set designer, and as an intern on a movie set she gets to visit the estate sale of a recently deceased Hollywood legend. When Emi and her best friend Charlotte find a letter hidden in the jacket of an LP, the two of them – without knowing the content of the letter – begin searching for the intended recipient.

Meanwhile, Emi is offered work for a low-budget movie that has the potential to launch her career. The screenplay shows Emi that it will be a realistic film, and the challenge is to create sets that give an impression of actual everyday life. At the same time, Emi views her personal life through the lenses of the Hollywood movie industry, which offers romance, mystery, and redemption. And as the mysterious letter leads her to the alluring Ava, life does take on film-like qualities. Perhaps the border between film and real life isn’t all that rigid; perhaps the two co-exist in a symbiosis.

“We love films,” Emi says, “because they make us feel something. They speak to our desires, which are never small. They allow us to escape and to dream and to gaze into the eyes that are impossibly beautiful and huge. They fill us with longing. But also, they tell us to remember; they remind us of life.”

John Green said that he was “SO PSYCHED to read” this piece of realistic fiction. John Green lovers may feel the same way.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

July 16, 2014

The Magician KingConsider the smartphone. It can be used to stay in touch with people who are an ocean away. It can store an enormous library of books and the works of thousands of musicians. It can show the path to distant lands, record sounds, and capture images. Yet, is it considered near magical or is it taken for granted?

What if a reader could actually learn magic and enter a fantasy world? Would this bring boundless joy or would it all soon enough seem bland and uninspired?

In Lev Grossman’s The Magician King (a sequel to The Magicians), magic and discontent mingle and meet. After graduating from Brakebills, a secret college of magic, Quentin and some of his fellow magicians rule the magical realm of Fillory. This should be the happily-ever-after, but to Quentin, constantly dissatisfied, it is not. Something is missing, even as his wildest dream has come true.

He decides to go on a quest. Not a very dramatic one, but still. He commissions a ship and sails to the Outer Island to collect back taxes. While Quentin is there, he comes across a fairy tale about seven golden keys. The search for one of the keys accidentally (?) sends the king back to the miserable home of his parents on earth. He is not alone, though. By his side is Julia. She is a creature who once was a gloomy woman, desperate to attain the magician’s skills she felt entitled to (even though she had narrowly failed her entrance exam to Brakebills).

Julia has already paid the price for her quest – what will the price for Quentin’s quest be?

The Magician King is a journey to the heart of darkness of the fantasy genre. It is in part a tale of a desperate need to belong and the search for meaning. Lev Grossman may not be the heir of C. S. Lewis (as he is sometimes described), but he is certainly an author for our time.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

July 3, 2014

No Place to HideHere’s a reading suggestion: The United States Bill of Rights (ratified in 1791).

Let’s focus on Amendment IV. It states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The amendment has its roots in English law, and it was crucial in the establishment of the United States. In pre-Revolutionary America, British officials had the right to “ransack at will any home they wished,” and opposition to government invasion of privacy took hold in what was to become the USA.

“It was intended,” Glenn Greenwald writes in No Place to Hide, “to abolish forever in America the power of the government to subject its citizens to generalized, suspicionless surveillance.” However, throughout US history, American government agencies have spied on US citizens, and today the “surveillance abuse” has reached unprecedented levels.

In December, 2012, Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for The Guardian and a former constitutional lawyer, was contacted by someone who used the alias “Cincinnatus” – a reference to the Roman farmer who defended Rome against foreign aggression, and then voluntarily gave up (absolute) political power and returned to life on the farm.

Cincinnatus turned out to be Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor. The documents he eventually shared with Greenwald and the world showed that the NSA can monitor and collect information from hundreds of millions of people around the globe, that it – without “probable cause” – has US telecommunications companies turn in “all phone records for all of its American customers,” that it can break into the communications links of crucial data centers across the world, that it can crack encryption that protects sensitive data on the Internet, and that, “according to its own records, it has broken privacy laws or exceeded its authority thousands of times a year.”

The turning point for Snowden came while working as an NSA contractor in Japan. “I watched NSA tracking people’s Internet activities as they typed. I became aware of just how invasive US surveillance capabilities had become. I realized the true breadth of this system. And almost nobody knew it was happening.”

Greenwald was startled when Snowden said that he wanted to identify himself as the person behind the disclosures. Snowden said that he was at peace with the potential consequences of outing himself. His only fear was “that people will see these documents and shrug, that they’ll say, ‘we assumed that this was happening and don’t care.’”

If you believe that the rights of Amendment IV are your rights, No Place to Hide may be for you.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.


The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

June 20, 2014

The Wind in the WillowsKenneth Grahame was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1859. His father was a lawyer. He lost his mother when he was just five years old, and his paternal grandmother raised him. Living with her, he became acquainted with the river Thames and its river rats (or water voles, as they are not rats), and there – on the river bank – The Wind in the Willows begins.

Winter has passed, and the lightness of the northern Europe spring has arrived. Mole – very much a hearth and home kind of creature – has had it with spring-cleaning and takes the day off. He ends up by the river, which he has never seen before, and meets the water vole Ratty. In his rowing boat, the Rat teaches Mole about life by the river; they are about to embark on many adventures.

If this sounds idyllic and pastoral, that’s because it is. The rural landscape of Grahame wants nothing to do with the Industrial Revolution that had transformed the Great Britain in his time. The quiet adventures of Ratty and Mole are filled with a love for the wonders of the natural world and peak in the chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn;” here the divine essence of nature is revealed.

Enter Mr. Toad.

Mr. Toad is a spoiled aristocrat who gets obsessed with one thing after another: sailing, rowing, caravan travel, whatever. Possessions are his thing. One day, when a motorcar passes Mr. Toads caravan, the car scares the horse and upsets the Rat. Toad, however, is delighted. He has found a new obsession. Before long, his friends learn that he has wrecked six cars and even has been hospitalized on several occasions. Toad pays no heed to the rules of traffic or other’s safety, and his friends decide to protect Mr. Toad from himself.

Mole, Ratty, and Mr. Badger (who was a friend of Toad’s late father) try to convince Toad to change his ways, but he will not listen. They then decide to put Toad under house arrest, with themselves as guards, till he changes his mind. Toad is clever, though. He pretends to be ill, tricks the Rat, and escapes. However, his escape, like most of his triumphs, is short-lived. He steals a car, drives like a maniac, and is caught by the police. Justice has no patience for him. He is sentenced to twenty years in prison.

And this is just the beginning of Mr. Toad’s mindless adventures. The quiet parts of The Wind in the Willows are magical – in nature’s own way – but the outrageous mishaps of Mr. Toad turn the book into a brilliant comedy.

The Wind in the Willows is a tale for children – Grahame originally wrote it for his son – but it’s a story readers can return to throughout the span of a lifetime.

Find and reserve this book in the library.

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