Posts Tagged ‘Memoirs’

Best ‘New to Us” Books in 2014: Ruth F’s Picks

December 19, 2014

I am a children’s librarian in Holly Springs. Next year, I will celebrate my 40th birthday and will most likely be fitted for my first pair of bifocals. Here are five books, some written by my contemporaries and others about middle age, that I recommend for those of you still able to read small print in dim lighting.

Life After DeathLife After Death by Damien Echols
Author Damien Echols was born just a few months before me and he would have graduated high school the same year I did — had he been born into the same world of middle class privilege that I was. Instead, he spent the first 18 years of his life in and economically depressed Arkansas hamlet. As teenagers, when I was fretting over my SAT scores, he was fretting over the verdict of his capital murder trial.  When I went off to college, he went off to Death Row. Then, after spending his first 18 years of adulthood in prison, Echols and two others incarcerated in connection with the same crime were released when DNA evidence was tested and deemed exculpatory. Shortly after, he landed a deal to publish a memoir based on the journals he kept in prison. I challenge any member of Generation X to read Echols’ story without noticing similar parallels between his life and ours.

Good in a CrisisGood in a Crisis by Margaret Overton
Sometimes, the best books are the ones you most love to hate. When life handed baby boomer Margaret Overton lemons in mid-life, she tried to make lemonade by writing a memoir. But it came out a little tart. I cringed at every supposedly funny story in this memoir about the author’s Internet dating escapades. And yet, I compulsively turned page after page because it is so easy to identify with Overton. For every good choice I have made that she did not, I feel relief that her train wreck of a life can’t possibly be what’s in store for me. And for every stroke of bad luck she endured, I feel a humbling sense that it probably is.

Lean InLean In:  Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg
Women like me, on the precipice of converting their households from DINK (double income, no kids) to what New York Times Columnist Pamela Druckerman famously called DITT (double income, toddler twins), will find this book fascinating. The rest of you might not be too interested in how author Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, wishes she had done more to secure reserved parking for expectant mothers at her company’s Silicon Valley headquarters. But you should read this book anyway. If you can overlook the usual gripes about late meetings and early carpools, there is a universal message about setting the terms of personal success and a refreshing new definition of what it means to be a feminist.

SisterlandSisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
This is a fiction story of twin sisters on the brink of 40. They share a psychic connection, but occupy separate sides of the Mommy divide. I’m not sure anybody will see themselves in either sister, but author Curtis Sittenfeld nailed the subtext and sanctimony between the childfree and the parents. The stay-at-home mother in the story, Kate, is affluent and secure. Mothering has given her lots of responsibility and purpose, but very little satisfaction. She is the very definition of a desperate housewife. Her childless sister, Violet, lives on the edge. By that I mean she is reckless, frivolous and completely unmoored. As the sisters decide whether to embrace the DNA that makes them the same or the choices that set them apart, their psychic prediction comes true in a way neither could have expected. Read another review.

The Book ThiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Who among us has not aspired to write the Great American Novel or regretted reaching middle age without having done so? Mark Zusak, that’s who. His 40th birthday is six months from now and his literary masterpiece is 10 years old. The Book Thief has earned a slew of awards, dominated best-seller lists, been canonized on high school required reading lists and been adapted for a movie. But a technicality prevents it from being called my generation’s Great American Novel: the author is Australian and the setting is Nazi Germany. It seems counter intuitive for a book about genocide in World War II Europe to also be about a post-racial American ideal. But Zusak makes it work. In this war story, humanity trumps race or creed. Young or old, Jew or Gentile, German or not, everybody faces a common enemy in the villainous narrator: Death.  Read another review.

Best New Books of 2014: Janet L’s Picks

December 8, 2014

Winter is coming, with its cold days and long nights.  In other words, perfect reading weather.  It’s also the traditional time to look back and choose favorite reads of the past year.  If you are a fan of humor, mystery, travel, or food (not to mention good writing) I can highly recommend the following five books:

A Man Called OveA Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
Neighborhood curmudgeon Ove is not amused when a lively young family moves in next door.  Imagine everyone’s surprise, especially Ove’s, when instead of the expected disaster, something wonderful results.  Fredrik Backman’s debut is an amazing mixture of comedy, pathos and social commentary.  Will appeal to almost everyone, especially fans of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and The No. 1 Ladies Detective series by Alexander McCall Smith.

The Bone OrchardThe Bone Orchard by Paul Doiron
Life would be much easier for Mike Bowditch if he could just keep his mouth shut, but then reading about him wouldn’t be so much fun.  No longer a game warden for the state of Maine, Mike finds himself drawn into a case when good friend and former mentor, Kathy Frost, is gunned down and critically injured.  One of my favorite mystery series; if you haven’t had the pleasure, begin with The Poacher’s Son.  Especially recommended for readers of the Alex McKnight series by Steve Hamilton, the Conway Sax series by Steve Ulfelder and the Anna Pigeon series by Nevada Barr.

Smoke Gets in Your EyesSmoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty
Caitlin Doughty, founder of The Order of the Good Death, is a Los Angeles mortician.  She wrote this book to give people a behind the scenes look at funeral home. Death is a somber and scary subject, but Doughty handles it with humor and compassion. If she hoped this book would demystify death and make it more comfortable to contemplate, she succeeded with this reader.  Recommended for fans of Mary Roach and Sarah Vowell.

The Age of LicenseThe Age of License: A Travelogue by Lucy Knisley
Graphic artist Knisley shares the ups and downs of her book tour to Europe and Scandinavia.   Honest, charming, yet serious, this graphic novel will appeal to fans of travelogues and mouthwatering descriptions of food—and isn’t that almost everyone?

The Black HourThe Black Hour by Lori Rader-Day
Sociology professor Amelia Emmet has made violence the focus of her academic research.  When a student she has never seen before appears outside her office and shoots her, theory becomes all too horribly real.  Back on campus, Amelia attempts to resume her life.  Relying on painkillers, a cane, and her sardonic sense of humor, Amelia struggles to find the answer to the questions that haunts her:  Why?

Little Failure: A Memoir by Gary Shteyngart

April 7, 2014

Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart

Moving to another country is somewhat like being born anew – the immigrant can still function, but there are many new impressions and a lot to learn. Gary Shteyngart was born as Igor Shteyngart in Leningrad (now [again] St. Petersburg) in an empire that no longer exists, the Soviet Union. As a seven-year-old child he moved to the United States of America with his parents, and they ended up in Queens, New York. The Shteyngarts were part of a deal between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. America sent grain to the Soviets who in return sent parts of its Jewish population to the U.S., a country young Igor viewed as the enemy.

Many Americans, not the least children, considered the Soviet Union a potentially lethal adversary, and growing up in the land of the free was not easy for a “Socialist” boy with a heavy accent. In Leningrad, young Shteyngart had been exposed to such phrases as “Lenin will live forever!,” and “1959 – Soviet space rocket reaches the surface of the moon,” but when he leaves the U.S.S.R., he learns that the nation is a military dictatorship that uses oppression, propaganda, and lies to keep its population in check.

Despite, or because of, their background, the Shteyngarts are quite naïve when they begin their lives in the U.S.A. When they receive a letter that says “Mr. S. Shitgart [sic!], you have already won $10,000,000.00!!!,” they believe what they hear. ”We cannot imagine that they would lie to our faces […] here in America.” But it is, alas, a lie, which the family finds out “quickly and brutally.” And as the immigrants adapt to life in the U.S. problems do not vanish. Old (Soviet) problems are simply replaced by new (American) difficulties. However, some challenges are internal rather than external and the Shteyngarts are like all other humans – they cannot run away from themselves. What they can do, however, is to understand who they are, and how they became that way.

Little Failure is an investigation of a family and its misadventures and adventures, written by an author whose fiction and nonfiction are closely related to each other.

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Best ‘New to Us’ Books in 2013: Sharon S’s Picks

December 23, 2013

One of the reasons why I like to read is for inspiration and instruction on how to live a better life. Here are the “new to me” books that inspired me most this year.

Healing Through Exercise by Jorg Blech
We all know that exercise can help prevent illness, but Jorg Blech provides well-documented evidence that exercise also promotes healing from existing illness. That means it is never too late to start. Even moderate exercise can have profound effects. The body atrophies more and more the longer we sit or lie in bed, so Blech urges us to get moving in whatever way we can to improve our health and extend our range of motion. Read my full review.

The Dry Grass of August by Anna Jean Mayhew
First-time novelist Mayhew has crafted a wonderful tale of growing up in the South in the 1950s. The story is told by 14-year-old Jubie, whose unjaded point of view enables her to understand many things the grown-ups around her fail to notice. In the face of tragedy, Jubie finds the courage to act on what she knows to be true, even though it goes against the grain of her society. Read my full review.

Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream by Adam Shepard
Is America still a place where you can make a life for yourself with very little besides hard work and gumption? Shepard decided to find out by starting a new life as a homeless man in an unfamiliar city. What he was able to achieve and how is a fascinating and thought-provoking tale. Read my full review.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Paulo Coelho’s characters are afraid of happiness; after all, it might be better to keep on dreaming than to realize your dreams and be disappointed in them. This story of a young shepherd who dared to pursue his dream in the face of many obstacles has inspired countless readers. It is a good place to start if you want to read the works of this internationally acclaimed author.

The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius by Kristine Barnett
Jake Barnett is a 14-year-old genius who is working on a new theory of relativity which is expected to put him in line for the Nobel Prize. However, this biography is his mother’s story of how she brought out the best in a child who was diagnosed as profoundly autistic and unable to learn. It is a story of courage and creativity which is my favorite true story of the year. Read my full review.

Best ‘New to Us’ Books in 2013: Melissa O’s Picks

December 20, 2013

I read a wide variety of books, both fiction and nonfiction. Ask me for a suggestion and I most likely have read something that would appeal to you. But I still enjoy wandering the library stacks. Stumbling across a fabulous book is like finding a gem in a pile of costume jewelry. Costume jewelry is fun and fleeting, but some books are treasures that become friends for life. These are some of the new friends I made this year. Some have been out there a long time, others are more recent arrivals, but they are all worth checking out and passing along for more to enjoy!

When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It’s Time To Go Home by Erma Bombeck
I am a huge fan of Bill Bryson. One day while lamenting I had read and reread all his books the title of this book caught my eye. Intrigued, I picked it up. I am so glad I did! I laughed so hard I was sore the next day. I found out Erma Bombeck had a syndicated newspaper column and was a well known humorist. Somehow she had flown under my radar. But no more! In this collection of humorous writings she describes her travels around the world with her family.  And a word of warning: I had this on audio book and had to pull over because the tears of laughter were blinding me.

Variant by Robison Wells
If you thought surviving high school was hard, then this book takes it to a whole new level. Benson Fisher thought he was escaping an intolerable foster care system when he made it into the elite Maxfield Academy. He arrives excited for his new future, but something just seems not quite right. And then students start to disappear.  At this boarding school breaking the rules can literally kill you and escape is impossible.

Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb
When I think of dragons I imagine powerful creatures to be admired or possibly feared. This is the first of Robin Hobb’s Rain Wild Chronicles, and these dragons are pathetic and sickly. They cannot survive without their human keepers and as sentiment grows against them they are driven out on a perilous journey. But will they reach safety? Or will the enemies surrounding them doom the dragons forever?

High Country Fall by Margaret Maron
Since I was heading into the mountains for a vacation, I thought what better book to take along then one set in the North Carolina Mountains. And I fell in love with Judge Deborah Knott. Not just because the books are well written, or because the setting was so perfectly described I felt I was there, but because she is so ordinary and believable I felt I was her as I was reading. Judge Knott escapes the pressures of a recent engagement by subbing for a fellow judge in Cedar Gap. There she stumbles into a murder mystery and danger, and what about that handsome DA Lucius Burke! This book is the perfect mix of action, mystery, humor, and romance.

Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl
If you thought writing restaurant reviews was easy, just wait until you read this biography!  Ruth Reichl was the New York Times restaurant critic for most of the 1990’s. With humor and wisdom she draws you not only into the restaurant world, but into her world as well. This book is so well written you will feel you can close your eyes and be sitting in a top steakhouse, or a tiny Chinatown sushi bar, eating along with her.

Best New Books of 2013: Janet L’s Picks

December 9, 2013

I like books that feature characters, whether fictional or real-life, to whom I can relate.  This year I was drawn into the world of a motherless girl in the NC mountains, an alien sent to Earth from another planet, a fellow librarian, service personnel redeployed home, and the commander of the British sector of post WWII Berlin.

Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel
In The Good Soldiers, David Finkel wrote about the lives of the soldiers of the US-216 Infantry Battalion during their deployment in Iraq.  Thank You for Your Service is the eye opening account of what life is like for these same soldiers as they return home.   This is a searing, heartbreaking and sometimes infuriating book, written with compassion and a great eye for the telling detail.

Flora by Gail Godwin
Ten year old Helen Anstruther lives in a dilapidated old house at the top of a rutted driveway in Mountain City, North Carolina. It’s 1945 and her father needs someone to stay with his motherless daughter while he goes to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to contribute to a mysterious project related to World War II.  Twenty two year old cousin Flora is recruited.  The developing relationship between Helen and Flora is the heart of the story and has unexpected and devastating consequences.  Read my full-length post here.

The Humans by Matt Haig
The family of mathematician Andrew Martin is surprised but pleased by the sudden, favorable change in his behavior.  Little do they suspect it’s because he’s been replaced by an alien sent to prevent him from discovering a mathematical truth that could give humans unprecedented power. Instead the alien finds himself warming to and falling in love with the very beings he’s been sent to destroy.  This novel deftly combines math, poetry, and family dysfunction into an often hilarious and touching exploration of what it means to be human.

The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook
Colonel Lewis Morgan is in charge of the British operations in the divided city of Berlin, immediately following the end of World War II.  His wife resents the assignment; they lost a child in the bombing of England by German planes.  Morgan struggles to treat the defeated Germans in a manner he considers decent while fulfilling his mission of rebuilding the war torn city and identifying former Nazis.

The World’s Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne
Josh Hanagarne has a well developed sense of humor, forged in the crucible of a loving family fond of practical jokes — and he needs it. Diagnosed with Tourette syndrome at a young age, he faces extra challenges in life. His condition affects his school life, his love life, and his stint as a missionary for his church.  He must persevere to find love, finish his education, and establish a career.  Along the way he develops coping mechanisms, including controlling his tics through physical exercise.  This is a very funny, beautifully written book with a lot to say about perseverance, family, marriage, faith and yes, weight training. Read my full-length post here.

Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream, by Adam Shepard

October 21, 2013

What is the American Dream? Is it still alive? Adam Shepard decided to find out for himself. Fresh out of college with no job, he left his hometown of Raleigh with a tarp, a sleeping bag, an empty gym bag, $25, the clothes on his back, and a fake identity as a high-school graduate who was kicked out of his parents’ house. The train dropped him off in Charleston, SC, a location he chose randomly and where he knew no one.

That first night was rough, but Shepard made it by bus to a homeless shelter in downtown. Though it was late, he discovered that there is always room for “one more” at Crisis Ministries. It was hard to get used to the smells and the overcrowding, but the food was good (especially when there were volunteers). For a while he worked temporary jobs where he was paid at the end of the day, but eventually he set his sights on a job with a moving company. He went to the company’s office daily until he finally got a chance to talk to the manager, even volunteering to work for free until he had proved his worth. The manager liked his attitude and hired him.

In less than a year, by careful saving and lots of hard work, Adam had an apartment he shared with a coworker’s cousin and a used truck that started up with a screwdriver instead of a key. He says his story isn’t so much rags to riches as “rags to fancier rags,” but he learned a lot along the way about what it takes to make a decent living. He concluded that there are three types of people: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who scratch their heads and say, “What just happened?” It is largely about the choices you make.

Shepard admits that his situation was not as dire as many of those on the streets—he’s young and healthy and doesn’t have a child to support, for example. One of his goals was to defend the American Dream against books like Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. I think his story demonstrates that it is possible to better your situation and achieve at least your modest dreams in what is still “the land of opportunity.”

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