Posts Tagged ‘Essays’

Best New Books of 2014: Sarah K’s Picks

December 5, 2014

Identity and struggle are the themes of five of my favorite books from 2014. How does adversity shape who we are? How much do we control our identities and how much are we shaped by external forces? I invite you to check out these following titles

An Untamed StateAn Untamed State by Roxane Gay
Kidnapped by an armed street gang in Haiti, Mireille trusts her wealthy father to pay ransom to return her to her fairy tale existence with her husband and baby. When Mireille’s father refuses to capitulate to her captors, she must find the strength to endure days of torment while trying to maintain a connection to the woman she was. Gay’s frank treatment of rape and its aftermath with clean understated writing adds to the intensity of this book.

On the RunOn the Run by Alice Goffman
As an undergraduate, Alice Goffman moved into a neighborhood in Philadelphia and began taking field notes as she fully immersed herself in the lives of the families living there. The War on Drugs had created a culture of constant police surveillance of the lives of the residents there, especially among the young men, many of whom were in some sort of entanglement with the legal system. Goffman witnessed arrests, escapes from the police and how police use employment and familial relationships as leverage against suspects. Goffman has written an insightful and sobering critique of the policing of poor neighborhoods and the human toll that it takes on the individuals living there.

The Empathy ExamsThe Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
From the confinement of illness to the traps of poverty and prison, Leslie Jamison’s clear-eyed and far-ranging essays explore the intersection between empathy and pain. If you only have time for one essay, read “Fog Count,” which begins with a prison visit, but then expands to include the larger picture of the prison-industrial complex, strip mining and the economy of West Virginia.  Her curiosity about the human condition brings into sharp focus the capacity and limitations of compassion. She deftly weaves personal experience with the universal to create a collection that rivals early Joan Didion.

The Other LanguageThe Other Language by Francesca Marciano
A woman writes about the ideal Italy while homesick in New York. Another seeks out an old companion on an isolated island in the Indian Ocean; while a third buys a Chanel gown on a frivolous whim. In this collection of nine stories, Marciano travels across countries and cultures with a knack for capturing settings and tone. She vividly captures the lives of her characters at moments of transformation with lovely and fluid storytelling that keeps the pages turning.

How to Build a GirlHow to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran
Eager to escape her lackluster existence as a working-class teenager in the Midlands of England, and her unfortunate Scooby-Doo impersonation on local television, Johanna Morrigan decides to reinvent herself as Dolly Wilde, music journalist. After gaining the attention of a London-based music magazine, Johanna/Dolly embarks on a series of professional and sexual misadventures as she tries to figure out how to build her new life. If you were a teenager in the early 1990s, or enjoy bold raucous humor, chances are you will love this book as much as I did.

The Opposite of Fate : Memories of a Writing Life by Amy Tan

March 31, 2014

Are you a fan of Amy Tan?  Then you must try her collection of essays.  Much is revealed about the inspiration and true events that inspire her well loved novels such as The Joy Luck Club and The Hundred Secret Senses.  To read about her life is to find true meaning in the much overused word “amazing.” Tan was raised in Northern California by her mother and father who had married in the United States soon after her mother was released from prison in Shanghai.  Yes, and it gets more interesting as you go along.  A few essays tell of the darkly humorous battles between the young Amy and her mother over everything from piano lessons to Amy’s hippy boyfriend when they lived in Switzerland.  We learn of the fascinating history of the women in her family that provided storylines and characters for many of her novels often re-creating the harrowing experiences of her mother as a child.  Tan’s Grandmother became the concubine of a Chinese businessman through treachery on his part and her vulnerability after becoming a young widow with children.  He continued to treat her and her daughter, Amy’s mother, with disrespect.  The humiliation and dishonor leads to a tragic end for the Grandmother with her young daughter present.  Anyone who has read any of Tan’s novels will recognize where some of her stories have come from.

In another essay Tan writes about the many imaginative papers that college students have written about her books and their fanciful interpretations of her work.  She finds that even the Cliff notes for The Joy Luck Club offer an overly dramatic account in their biographical notes on the author.

I was shocked to learn that I once had carried on “a relationship with an older German man, who had close contacts with drug dealers and organized crime.”

Tan’s voice is much more flip and irreverent in her essays than in her novels.  She has a wicked sense of humor through it all.  If you have enjoyed one of her novels, have writing aspirations of your own or want to read some strange but true accounts of an interesting life, you will enjoy this book.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog

Best ‘New to Us’ Books in 2012: Emil S.’s Picks

December 19, 2012

Classics play a major part in my reading life, but in 2012 I mainly re-read classics (or read classics that I obtained through Inter-Library Loan). Thus, my “New to Us” books are all fairly new, no older than 16 years old, and therefore many years away from even being considered for the shelf of classics. In the meantime, they can perhaps be classified as noteworthy contemporary reads! — Emil S.

Red Gold by Alan Furst
France is occupied by German forces, but things have changed since “Case Barbarossa” – the German led attack on Soviet Union. French communists who take their orders from Moscow have been activated and now participate in a war effort that reaches from France to the heart of Soviet Union. Jean Casson, a former film producer, lets himself be pulled into the French Resistance, and he is good at getting things done. But the different sides of the anti-German movement are suspicious of each other, and while the occupying forces are being attacked, the French are preparing for the next battle – the conflict after the war.

Arguably by Christopher Hitchens
British born, American writer Christopher Hitchens was arguably one of the great public intellectuals of our time. He was fantastically prolific and (as Ian Parker once put it) wrote faster than some people read. In 2011, Hitchens passed away, and the fearless opponent of (almost) any kind of oppression was dearly missed by many. Arguably, published about two months before his death, contains 107 of Hitchens’ texts – his range is enormous and it’s a great book to carry around as it embraces so much of this strange and wondrous world.

Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes by William Kennedy
William Kennedy was born in 1928 and he writes with the confidence and authority of a veteran. Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes is a sprawling novel that mainly takes place in Cuba during the revolution of the late 1950s, and in an Albany, New York, that is about to explode after the killing of Robert Kennedy in 1968. When reading the novel, it is near impossible to predict where it is going, and the plot is (perhaps) hard to define. Instead, this novel is about strong, wonderful characters and about awesome dialogue – that’s the heart and soul of Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes.

The Sorrow Gondola by Tomas Tranströmer
When Tomas Tranströmer’s SorgegondolenThe Sorrow Gondola – was published in 1996, it was his first collection of poetry since the stroke that hit him in 1990. In Tranströmer’s native land, Sweden, the book instantly became a bestseller, and it’s easy to understand why, for the poet’s writing was as powerful as ever. He writes, “The sun is low now./ Our shadows are giants./ Soon, everything will be overshadowed.” But in another poem he writes, “A blue light/ radiates from my clothes./ Midwinter./ Clattering tambourines of ice./ I close my eyes./ There is a silent world/ there is a crack/ where the dead/ are smuggled across the border.”

The Submission by Amy Waldman
A jury gathers in New York, New York, to select a memorial for the victims of the massacre of September eleventh, 2001. The winner turns out to be an American Muslim, Muhammad Khan, and when media finds out, a heated debate and even acts of violence spread across the nation. The Submission is a novel about America and Islam, and about the open wounds of 9/11, but it is also a story about media and how media shape the debates in this nation (and elsewhere). And the reader has good reasons to ask, is media interested in the truth or merely in the news?

Best New Books of 2012: Sarah K.’s Picks

December 4, 2012

I am an eclectic reader, reading across genres, with a focus on literary craft and vivid characters. I read to be transported. Below are five of my favorites from 2012. All of them were compelling and were either hard to put down, played with new forms of fiction, or left a lasting impression. Enjoy!  — Sarah K.

The Diviners by Libba Bray
It’s 1926, and Evie O’Neill is thrilled when her parents send her to New York City after she sparks scandal in her small town using her hidden gift of reading objects. However, her plans for a free-wheeling flapper lifestyle are dampened by her living situation at her Uncle Will’s museum of the occult, and the discovery that a supernatural serial killer, Naughty John is on the loose. As the killer gains power, Evie realizes that her secret gift may be the key in stopping Naughty John from striking again.

NW by Zadie Smith
Using altering perspective and shifts in tone and style, NW follows the intertwining lives of four former classmates who once lived in a housing project in northwest London. Leah, Felix, Natalie (née Keisha), and Nathan represent the intersections of class and culture and the transformations one makes through life. Smith is also concerned with the movements of time and place, the role of memory and the constraints of identity, and uses experimental prose forms to explore the nature of her characters in new and exciting ways.

The Yard by Alex Grecian
Reeling from the failure to solve the Jack the Ripper murders, Scotland Yard’s newly formed “Murder Squad” suffers another setback when they find one of their own detectives stuffed into a trunk. Newly hired constable Walter Day must overcome his own self-doubt and the derision of greater London to find the killer. With the help of forensic specialist, Dr. Bernard Kingsley, Day explores the darker corners of Victorian England to solve the crime.

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
When it comes to women, Yunior is a feckless connoisseur, constantly sinking relationships though his cheating despite his best intentions. These nine interlocking stories follow Junior though his romantic travails and his turbulent relationships with his mother and older brother, who is even more of a Don Juan than Yunior. Diaz’s lively prose, fabulous descriptions and clear love for his characters despite their flaws make this book a must-read.

When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson is probably best known for her novels Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home, she is also an adept essay writer. Though not a light read, When I Was a Child… is a satisfying exploration of the intersections between solitude and community, faith and politics beyond simple polemic. Robinson’s essays are wide-ranging in topic from the nature of austerity to the power of older hymns, and present provocative ideas such as, “community…consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know….”

French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork and Corkscrew by Peter Mayle

June 5, 2012

This week we’re featuring some of our favorite Audio Books, just in time for planning your summer road trips. You can also click the Audio tag at the bottom of this post or at the top of the tag cloud on the right hand side of our blog’s home page for more great audio book suggestions!

Eat your way across France and then write about it? That’s right. Peter Mayle took the challenge and ran with it, and the result is a literary delight that will leave you laughing at the wonder (and at times horror) of the French culinary world. From frog leg festivals to the blessing of the sublime truffle, Mayle’s
year-long journey will captivate you.

This book is especially engaging as an audio edition — narrated by Simon Jones — as you can truly appreciate the French pronunciation of their foodstuffs (something they take very seriously as evidenced by the amount of time and money the French are willing to spend in pursuit of gastronomic enjoyment). In addition, narrator Simon Jones’ droll humor truly brings to life Mayle’s descriptions of life in France.

And never fear, Mayle does not simply drag you along from food item to food item. There are also delightful forays into kitchens, restaurants, and local festivals all interspersed with informative, and yet often hilarious, historical background on the subject.

For anyone who has yet to give nonfiction a try, this is your book. Put it in your car, listen as you clean or organize your closets, or just get inspired to try some of those French recipes you have gathering dust in the corner of your kitchen. You’ll feel as if you have spent a year in France!

If you enjoy this audio book, try Mayle’s first book A Year In Provence on audio, or try any of his wonderful nonfiction writings (my personal favorites) or his novels.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

Mama Makes Up Her Mind by Bailey White

May 30, 2012

Don’t mess with Bailey’s Mama. She’s not afraid of anything. She sleeps on the front porch during a hurricane. She kills rattlesnakes by rapping them sharply on the head with her walking stick. She keeps skydiving worms in a bowl in her kitchen.

Bailey’s Mama is feisty, but you can’t help but love her. She’s the only elderly white lady campaigning for the town’s only black political candidate. When a crowd of marine biologists start poking around in the swamp next door, Mama spends hours staring at them with her binoculars. Next day they invite her to join them, so she spends the afternoon examining clam specimens and then stays up all night reading books about bivalve mollusks.

Along with her incomparable Mama stories, Bailey treats us to tales of her other eccentric friends and relations, from Aunt Belle, who tames an alligator in the swamp, to Luther, the town taxidermist, who is so desperate to learn how to cook that he asks Mama to give him lessons.

Bailey’s adventures as a first-grade school teacher are included, as well as tales of her travels, from taking the train to New York City disguised as a pregnant lady to her trip to the North Florida town of Micanopy, which is so overgrown with vegetation that tendrils of wisteria creep in through the back door and curl around the bookshelves.

In fact, Bailey can make anything sound like an adventure, even if it is just buying a used car or taking Mama to the doctor. It is nice to know that Southern literature does not have to be just dreary tales of family skeletons in the closet. Bailey’s “skeletons” are on display, right next to her brother’s snakeskin collection, the rusted 1930s typewriter on which Mama writes her memoirs, and the dark oak bed that has a disconcerting habit of folding up on its occupants in the middle of the night.

You never know what you are going to find at Bailey’s house, but you can be sure it will be an interesting experience.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell

August 20, 2010

I’m in a New York Mood this week, I suppose.  And, Joseph Mitchell is just the thing; though born in Southeastern Robeson County, Mitchell moved to NYC and began writing for The New Yorker.  For many writers he set the standard for stellar journalism.  Most of his pieces are profiles of unusual NYC locals; to explain why this book is so utterly engaging, I’m going to first talk about someone else.

My grandfather Johnny Sartori tended bar every day at the King Kong on the Bowery in the ‘40s and ‘50s.  Not one to crook an elbow, he preferred sober company to drinking.  When he wasn’t making friends, most of his time was spent either taking my grandmother dancing or my mother and uncle to Chinatown to eat with the proprietor’s family in the back of this or that restaurant (thus my mother’s penchant for frighteningly spicy food).  While my mother was still a child he died, apparently of heat stroke.  His experiences as a Bowery bartender, Italian immigrant, and war veteran died with him, save what my grandmother, uncle, and mother can recall.

Online you will find absolutely no trace of the King Kong Bar.  But I know it existed–I have a pile of old swizzle sticks that still bear the name (thin yellow plastic topped with a rearing elephant).

One afternoon I opened Up in the Old Hotel to read “Mazie,” an essay about a kind-hearted curmudgeon who “presided for twenty-one years over the ticket cage of the Venice Theatre, at 209 Park Row…where the Bowery begins.”  6 pages later, I caught my breath at this: “When she gets thirsty she sends an usher across the street to the King Kong Bar & Grill for a cardboard container of beer.”  Mazie’s story became, peripherally, my grandfather’s story.  Here were some of the odd Bowery folks he probably served from behind the bar.  Here were the same streets he walked when heading home to my family’s x-shaped building on St. James Place or to visit a friend’s restaurant on Mott or Mulberry.  Here are the people and places and peculiarities of New York City from the late 30s to the mid 50s, described by someone who lived there and loved it.

While neither a Luddite nor technophobe, I am generally irritated by the supposed panacea of Google, by those who assert that “everything is online.”   And while it is the case that there is a Google Books digital edition of this title, page 29 –the page where my grandfather’s bar is mentioned– “is not shown in this preview.”  A journalist’s narrative sure beats a handful of plastic swizzle sticks.  I’d hazard a guess that that’s true for the other 30+ essays that immortalize New York’s fishmongers, street preachers, bartenders, restaurant owners, drunks, bearded ladies, policemen, gypsies, and all the rest of it.

Check out or reserve a copy.

Consider the Lobster and Other Essays by David Foster Wallace

May 4, 2010

I’m not one to fawn over celebrities, but when David Foster Wallace died in 2008, I cried.  It depresses me to think that his body of work is now finite.

You don’t have to start with his essays: he’s also written many short stories, one book about the concept of infinity, and two novels, one of them a mindbendingly brilliant, 1,000+ pages.

But.  His essays … are … so … GOOD.  Addictive- potato- chip good.  Call- in- to- work- with- the- “flu” good.  I’ve- run- out- of- hyperbolic- hyphenated- silliness- so- just- read- them- OK? good.

This collection of essays is the most recent, with topics ranging from the Academy Awards of the hard-core pornography industry to John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign.  Wherever your interests lie in the spectrum of these two topics (porno vs. politico jokes notwithstanding), I promise that you will find each essay fascinating and utterly absorbing, as will be the case with everything in between (Kafka, Updike, grammar, lobster).

You may also become obsessed with footnotes: Mr. Wallace has a knack for minutia, anecdotes, and asides, all of which are included in footnote form, some of which span several pages (and some of which have footnotes of their own, i.e. the footnotes have footnotes).  This would be ridiculous and exhausting if Mr. Wallace were a lesser writer.  Instead, you wonder how you’ve lived this long without adding hundreds of footnotes to your own writing, and after a while it’s difficult to avoid imitating him.

Here’s an excerpt from his essay “Authority and American Usage,” which is all about US lexicography: “We regular citizens tend to go to The Dictionary for authoritative guidance. [footnote] There’s no better indication of The Dictionary’s authority than that we use it to settle wagers.  My own father is still to this day living down the outcome of a high-stakes bet on the correct spelling of meringue, a bet made on 14 September 1978.”

The whole essay is like that.  By the end you’re in a frenzy about the “ideological strife” and “seamy underbelly of US lexicography,” and desperate to read a copy of Garner’s Modern American Usage.  But then maybe you start reading another essay, and it’s all about Joseph Frank and his enormous Dostoevsky biography and subsequently about how difficult Russian literature is, so then you’ve got to put off reading Garner’s so that you can re-read Notes From Underground because you obviously didn’t try hard enough the first time (but Mr. Wallace won’t judge you for this or call you a Bad Person).

And so on.  Get a copy and then read everything else by Mr. Wallace, too.


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