Posts Tagged ‘Sue S.’s Picks’

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

September 25, 2014

This is my favorite new book of the year so far. It’s composed of funny, angry letters, mostly letters of recommendation, written by a man who has been around too long and seen too much, but who can’t stop caring about his job and the people it touches. The book jacket promises that each letter is “a small masterpiece of high dudgeon, low spirits, and passive aggressive strategies”, and the author delivers on that promise.

Jay Fitger is a professor of English at the aptly named Payne University. Jay is 55 years old, divorced twice, the kind of guy who is just too honest and too smart for his own good. He’s also angry as he watches his department become more and more downsized and marginalized as the university budget constricts. His letters of recommendation for students and colleagues who need his help in applying for jobs, grants, etc. often tend to lack the tactfulness one expects in such missives.

Here’s an excerpt from a letter written on behalf of a student seeking an internship in the office of a state senator:

Malinda is intelligent; she is organized; she is well spoken. Given her aptitude for research (unlike most undergraduates, she has moved beyond Wikipedia), I am sure that she will soon learn that the senator, his leathern face permanently embossed with a gruesome rictus of feigned cheer, has consistently voted against funds for higher education and has cosponsored multiple narrow-minded backwater proposals that will make it ever more difficult for her to repay the roughly $38,000 in debt that the average graduate of our institution inherits—along with a lovely blue tassel—on the day of commencement.

Gee, with friends like these…

As the book progresses, the reader learns more about the failures of Jay’s personal life, and about the politics surrounding him at the university. By the time the book ends, both Jay and the reader encounter the sadness that any good comedy includes as well as a surprising satisfaction at how things turn out.

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Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

August 7, 2014

Brave New WorldYou’ve heard of this book. You’ve probably even read it, years ago in high school. (Maybe not so many years ago for some of you.) In 1999, Brave New World was number five on Modern Library’s list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, as chosen by its editorial board. This list inspired another list chosen by readers. Brave New World was number 18 on this one. So, perhaps it’s time to read it again to see what all the adulation is about.

Set in the year 2540, Brave New World describes a society that has given up independent thought and true happiness, replacing them with stability and constant pleasure. Embryos are grown in jars, and decanted rather than born. While in their jars, they are treated with chemicals to ensure the resultant person will have the intelligence needed for whatever job they are being engineered to perform. The Epsilons will do the most menial of jobs, so their intelligence is severely limited, Deltas are a little more advanced, and so on up to the Alphas. They have the most complex jobs, and so are the most intelligent.

Everyone, no matter their level, is conditioned as a child to be content with their lot in life and to accept the precepts of society. While sleeping they hear recordings repeating phrases like, “I’m so glad I’m an Epsilon” and as toddlers they are subjected to mild electric shocks when they approach a book. (Reading books might cause some independent thought that might in turn lead to instability in society.) They are also taught from an early age that “Everyone belongs to everyone else”. In other words, sexual promiscuity is encouraged, while developing feelings for one special person is a big no-no. Special relationships can lead to jealousy, anger, and discord, and would disrupt society. Stability is the number one priority. If ever your conditioning isn’t enough to keep you content, then there’s always soma, a Prozac-like drug that everyone uses.

You may have noticed that I’ve spent a lot of words just describing the idea of the book, without even touching yet on the characters or the plot. That’s because the idea is the most fascinating thing about Brave New World. Oh, there’s a story about what happens when individuals question their conditioning and just can’t fit in, and when a man who has been raised outside mainstream society is brought into it and experiences all these ideas for the first time. But the plot and the characters are not why you read this book. You read it for the intellectual rather than the emotional appeal.


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Murder on Astor Place by Victoria Thompson

July 24, 2014

Murder on Astor PlaceFans of Anne Perry’s Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series should also enjoy this mystery series, called the Gaslight Mysteries. Author Victoria Thompson places her historical mysteries in New York City in the early 1900s, when Theodore Roosevelt had just become the chief of police.

The main character, Sarah Brandt, is a woman who was raised among the social elite. But Sarah is estranged from her wealthy family. As a young woman she had fallen in love with a doctor who was very far below her social status. She had a major break with her family when she married this doctor and became a midwife. Now a widow, she is still practicing the trade of midwife and it is while visiting a patient that she sees a young woman who looks very familiar, and who is found murdered the next day. It turns out that this woman is a member of a high-society family that Sarah used to know. Besides wondering why the victim was staying in a boardinghouse in a cheap neighborhood, Sarah also wants to see the killer brought to justice, and so she gets involved.

As with many mystery series of this type, the amateur detective has a partner of sorts who is a professional. In this case the professional is Detective Sergeant Frank Malloy. He is a man of his time and certainly does not appreciate Sarah’s efforts to help him. Only gradually does he come to value her assistance as she is able to talk to people in high society in ways that he cannot.

Thompson has certainly done her research on the place and time. For example, Malloy is saving up money for the bribe he will need to become a captain. Roosevelt has vowed to clean up this kind of corruption, but Malloy has no faith in that just yet. In fact, he considers giving up on this case early on because he can see that there will be no money in it for him. But his deep desire for justice keeps him searching for the killer.
If you’re looking for a new mystery series to try, the Gaslight Mystery series already has 16 titles. Begin at the beginning with this one.
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A Room With a View by E.M. Forster

July 2, 2014

A Room With a ViewBeing a fan of Jane Austen, I can’t help but love A Room With a View. Even though it was written nearly 100 years after Austen, this novel by E.M. Forster has many Austen hallmarks.

The main character, 19-year-old Lucy Honeychurch, is a member of the English upper middle class, and she hasn’t quite worked out yet just who she is and what she wants from life. On a trip to Italy with her maiden aunt Charlotte, Lucy meets George Emerson and his father, a pair who speak the truth without realizing how offensive this can be. When Lucy witnesses a tragic incident in the town square, George helps her to return to their hotel, and the two form a bond that Lucy refuses to acknowledge, even to herself. Instead, she becomes engaged to Cecil Vyse, an arrogant, upper class prig of a man who views Lucy as someone he can shape into his ideal woman. Back at home in England, George enters Lucy’s life again. He declares his love for her, but she continues to refuse to see that she feels the same about him.

The most amusing character, and the most Austenian, is Aunt Charlotte. Here she is on a picnic arguing with Lucy about which of them will have the use of a mackintosh square to protect them from the damp ground:

“The ground will do for me. Really I have not had rheumatism for years. If I do feel it coming on I shall stand.” … She cleared her throat. “Now don’t be alarmed; this isn’t a cold. It’s the tiniest cough, and I have had it three days. It’s nothing to do with sitting here at all.”

A Room With a View is Forster’s lightest, most optimistic novel. However, if your copy has an appendix in it, then you will discover that the author did not expect things to go well for his heroine and hero after the events of the book. You can read the appendix  here.  Personally, I prefer a happy ending for Lucy and George.

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Longbourn by Jo Baker

June 11, 2014

LongbournI confess to being a Jane Austen fanatic. As such, I have read or tried to read many prequels, sequels, and retellings of Austen’s six novels, especially Pride and Prejudice.  Most aren’t very good, and I think the problem often lies in the author’s attempts to imitate Austen—to stick too closely to the original instead of making it their own.  No one can successfully imitate the literary genius of Jane Austen’s works.

Jo Baker succeeds because she uses Austen only as a starting point. Longbourn takes place during the events of Pride and Prejudice, but the main characters are the servants at Longbourn, the home of Elizabeth Bennet and her family. The reader sees what life is like for the people who must work long hours behind the scenes at backbreaking tasks to keep the household running smoothly.

The main character is Sarah, a young housemaid who has been working for the Bennets since she was orphaned as a girl. Sarah is grateful for her job, but she longs for something more. Then, as so often happens, two different but eligible men come into her life.  One is James Smith, a rough-around-the edges man with a mysterious past who is hired to work as a footman at Longbourn. The other is Ptolemy Bingley, a smooth and handsome mixed-race servant of Mr. Bingley, descended from slaves on the Bingley sugar plantations in the Caribbean.  Both men offer Sarah their love along with very different futures.

Here’s one of my favorite passages from the book, as Sarah contrasts her life with that of Elizabeth Bennet:

“Sarah wondered what it would be like, to live like this—life as a country dance, where everything is lovely, and graceful, and ordered, and every single turn is preordained, and not a foot may be set outside the measure. Not like Sarah’s own out-in-all-weathers haul and trudge, the wind howling and blustery, the creeping flowers in the hedgerows, the sudden sunshine.”

There were times in the book when I felt things were moving a little too slowly, but overall this is one of my favorite Austen retellings. I would recommend it not only for fans of Austen, but also for fans of historical fiction that features the everyday lives of ordinary people.

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Howard’s End by E. M. Forster

April 4, 2014

Howard's End by E.M. ForsterBeing a Jane Austen fanatic, I often see similarities between her novels and whatever I’m reading. In the case of Howards End, that’s especially easy to do. Just like Sense and Sensibility, this book features two sisters of different temperaments. Margaret is the more practical one, while her younger sister Helen is the flighty, romantic one. Margaret and Helen are rich Londoners, living off investments made with inherited money. Their lives become intertwined with those of the Wilcoxes. This family is also rich, but Henry Wilcox and his sons are businessmen. They drive the economy that makes the sisters’ lifestyle possible. A third family is composed of Leonard Bast and his wife. Leonard is a clerk, a member of the working class who is striving desperately to make it into the middle class.

The Howards End of the title is the name of the country home of the Wilcox family. The house and the large elm tree in the yard are symbols of the connection between nature and human beings. Mrs. Wilcox grew up there and only she really appreciates the house, and the importance of connections. Her husband and children just don’t get it. Mr. Wilcox and his oldest son Charles deal with the world by taking emotion out of the equation and breaking problems into small pieces, never allowing themselves to see how their actions might adversely affect others. Here’s Forster’s description of their relationship:

“Charles and his father sometimes disagreed. But they always parted with an increased regard for one another, and each desired no doughtier comrade when it was necessary to voyage for a little past the emotions. So the sailors of Ulysses voyaged past the Sirens, having first stopped one another’s ears with wool. “

When the Wilcoxes become involved with Margaret and Helen, who try to help the Basts, then problems arise and complications multiply. Published in 1910, Howards End is a classic tale of Edwardian England, but the problems and issues wrestled with in its pages are relevant to America today.

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A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich

February 28, 2014

This is a curious little book. In 40 short chapters, the author, E. H. Gombrich, attempts to tell the history of the world from prehistoric times until the development of atomic energy. He succeeds in giving an easy-to-read overview of Western civilization, with a few chapters about Asia and the Middle East scattered throughout.

The book was originally written for children, and you can see this in its casual writing style, but the vocabulary and sentences seem too complex for the children I know. Maybe I’m underestimating them, but at any rate, Wake County has placed this book in the adult section. Here’s a sample passage about Attila the Hun:

“In 444 he was at the height of his power. Can you remember who was in power 444 years before Christ’s birth? Pericles, in Athens. Those were the best of times. But Attila was in every way his opposite. People said that wherever he trod, the grass ceased to grow. His hordes burnt and destroyed everything in their path. And yet in spite of all the gold and silver and treasures the Huns looted, and in spite of all the magnificent finery worn by their leaders, Attila himself remained a plain man. He ate off wooden plates and he lived in a simple tent. Gold and silver meant nothing to him. Power was what mattered.”

Another interesting thing about this book is that, because the author was German, his country of origin figures prominently in his history. That’s a nice change from most English language history books. It’s nice to be reminded occasionally that England was not always the focus of European events. America also gets pretty short shrift. There’s a chapter that is partially about the discovery of America by Columbus, and another about the American Revolution, and a few mentions of our role in the industrial revolution and the world wars, but we are not the focus here as so often happens in the books we usually read. I found that different point of view refreshing.

Like most world history books published in this country, there is almost no mention of either Africa or South America. China gets some attention, but only enough to whet my appetite for more. Likewise, Japan only comes into the book when Westerners force their way into the country. I am now very curious about the history of the rest of the world. Luckily, I work in a library!

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The Mischief of the Mistletoe by Lauren Willig

February 20, 2014

I’m a big fan of Jane Austen, so when I discovered that Austen herself is a character in this novel, I had to give it a try. I am glad I did. The Mischief of the Mistletoe by Lauren Willig  turned out to be a Regency-era romp, filled with adventure, humor, and romance. The story is set at Christmas, but it’s a fun read for any time of year.

The book is set in 1803 in Bath, England. The real Jane Austen was indeed living in Bath at that time. The fictional Jane Austen is a friend of the book’s heroine and main character, Arabella Dempsey. Arabella is a young woman who grew up with her rich aunt, receiving a good education along the way. But now, her aunt has married a young fortune hunter, and Arabella must return home to her father and three sisters. Finances there are tight, so Arabella takes a job as a teacher at Miss Climpson’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies.

Before long, Arabella stumbles into a possible conspiracy involving French spies, English aristocrats, and the English spy known as the Pink Carnation. Helping her is Reginald “Turnip” Fitzhugh, a clumsy but handsome aristocrat whose physical resemblance to the Pink Carnation often involves him in intrigue. As Arabella and Turnip work together to solve a mystery that begins with a message inside a Christmas pudding, they feel an unmistakable attraction for each other.

Arabella and Turnip are both helped and hindered in their investigation by an amusing cast of secondary characters. Besides Miss Austen, there is also Turnip’s sly and mischievous younger sister Sally, the obviously false Italian music instructor Signor Marconi, the terrifying Dowager Duchess of Dovedale, and a host of English gentlemen who seem to have come straight out of a P.G. Wodehouse story.

The Mischief of the Mistletoe is one of a series of novels about the Pink Carnation and the men and women who work with him to thwart French plots against England. You don’t need to read the others to enjoy this one. While this is the first of these novels that I have read, it will not be the last.

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Loyalty by Ingrid Thoft

January 24, 2014

This debut mystery novel by Ingrid Thoft promises to be the first in a series that has elements of two of my favorite genres—the legal thriller and the female private investigator. The main character, Fina Ludlow, is the investigator for a Boston law firm run by her take-no-prisoners father and her three brothers. Fina (short for Josefina) is in the tough-girl mold of others of the genre such as Kinsey Millhone, Carlotta Carlyle, and V.I. Warshawski. She’s smart, stubborn, and tough, and not always law-abiding.

The book begins quickly with three plot lines. A woman is dumped into the ocean, Fina’s father asks her to find her missing sister-in-law, and a woman is introduced who appears to be running an escort service. These plot lines will eventually come together as Fina uses all her resources and skill to find out what has happened to her sister-in-law. Her family loyalty will be tested as she tries to figure out why her brother seems so unconcerned about his wife’s disappearance and about what his teenage daughter does when she’s not at school.

Loyalty was a real page turner for me, and so I was willing to overlook the small things that annoyed me, like how Fina uses a contact at the telephone company to find out the owner of a phone number she finds in her sister-in-law’s recipe box. Hey, Fina, why not just Google it? And even though she realizes that in a missing person case, every hour counts, Fina doesn’t call her contact until the day after she finds the number. Sheesh.

But these are just quibbles. Overall, Loyalty was a well-written fast-paced thriller. I look forward to the next book in the Fina Ludlow series.

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A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

January 16, 2014

You’ve probably never heard of this book, but in Australia it’s a classic, and everyone reads it in school. It has something for just about everyone. Part of the book is a war story, part is an adventure story in the Australian outback, and there’s also a love story. But mostly, A Town Like Alice is a story of the quiet heroism of ordinary people.

Jean Paget is a young Englishwoman living in Malaya when the Japanese invade the country during World War II. Along with other women and their children, Jean is taken prisoner. Because there is no prison camp to put them in, and because no Japanese commander wants to be responsible for feeding them, they are forced to walk hundreds of miles over the next several months, passed from place to place. As the only one who speaks the native language of Malaya, Jean takes a leadership role in helping the women obtain food from whatever village they are staying in for the night. Still, over half the women and children die of exhaustion or disease. Along the way, they meet an Australian prisoner named Joe Harman, and he and Jean feel an instant attraction to each other that is not acted upon because Joe mistakenly believes that Jean is married. Still, Joe helps the women by stealing chickens from the Japanese commander currently in charge of them. He is caught, and the women must watch as he is crucified and beaten to death by the Japanese.

Finally, the war ends and Jean returns to England where she takes a secretarial job. She lives a quiet life, emotionally cut off from the people around her. Then she learns that she has inherited rather a lot of money from an uncle she hadn’t seen since she was a child. She must now decide how to spend the money and her life. What she decides to do will surprise you and touch you. It’s a beautiful story.

This story, narrated by Jean’s lawyer, is told in a quiet and straightforward way. There are no superheroes, superspies, or superpowers. Just everyday people helping each other to do what has to be done.

I hope you will read this book. If you do, please refrain from reading the summary on the back of the paperback. In my opinion, the summary gives away a plot point that should be a pleasant surprise for the reader.

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