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Selections for April 2008


Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen (2007)

On the surface, Claire and her sister Sydney are as different as chalk and cheese, and just about as close as that description implies. After a peripatetic first six years with her free-spirited mother, Claire has happily spent the rest of her 34 years at home in Bascom, North Carolina, in the same house that the Waverley family has occupied for many generations. She lives alone and works as a caterer, specializing in using the edible (and magical) flowers that grow in her garden. But when her younger sister Sydney unexpectedly returns to Bascom with her daughter Bay in tow, the sisters must gradually learn to trust and value one another, despite their differences. Of course, it doesn't hurt that true love comes along for both Claire and Sydney, or that the apple tree in the garden decides to give them a hand in finding happiness in their lives. In Garden Spells, Sarah Addison Allen has written a light and heart-warming romance that's sweet but not cloying, and thoroughly satisfying: in short, a fantasy that just could be real.


Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely (2008)

Publishing being the business that it is, it is often the case that one good (selling) book begets another (of the same type). It should come as no surprise, then, that following the success of the best-selling Freakonomics, readers have been deluged with books (some good, some not so good) on various economic topics. Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions definitely fits into the "good" category. One of the bedrock principles of classical economics (known as "the dismal science") is that people can be treated as rational decision makers. Ariely, who works in the field of behavioral economics, looks at how we make the decisions that we do, and how little sense those decisions often make. One of the real life examples he includes is why putting expensive items on the menu, even if they're only infrequently ordered, makes money for restaurants - it's been shown that many people resist ordering the most expensive item on the menu, but don't hesitate to order the next most expensive. (I caught myself doing exactly that recently.) Other areas he discusses are how and why we make predictable (but not necessarily rational) decisions when we're choosing from among three similar items; why we tend to prefer more expensive brand name medications to their generic (and cheaper) counterparts; and why paying kids to perform better in school (or to participate in household chores) is actually often counterproductive. Ariely offers these (and many other) thought-provoking arguments and examples (all backed up with scientifically credible surveys and experiments), and presents them in a chatty yet informed manner.


Little America by Henry Bromell (2002)

Focused on the diplomatic community of a small Middle Eastern country in the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, Henry Bromell's novel, Little America, is the story of a son's search for the truth about his father. History professor Terry Hooper wants to find out exactly what happened all those years ago in Kurash, where his father was CIA station chief. Congressional hearings have recently revealed that the CIA not only aided and advised the young King of Kurash, but also supplied him with large amounts of cash. What was the money for? What, exactly, was his father's role in the events that took place in Kurash at the time? Who is telling the truth? How important is it that some secrets not be revealed? Bromell cuts back and forth between the present, in Boston, and the past, in Kurash, using both fictional and historical characters to good effect. (There are some wonderful scenes with the Dulles brothers, Allen and John Foster, who between them would have ever-so-great influence on American politics in the decades between World War II and the end of the Cold War.) This is a terrific airplane read - it's stylish and intelligent, and absorbing enough that you might even wish that your plane ride were just a bit longer, so that you can finish the book before you land.


The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century America by Nigel Cliff (2007)

Just when you think that everything that could ever be said about Shakespeare and his influence has been said, a book like Nigel Cliff's The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth Century America is published, demonstrating just how wrong that thinking is. Cliff begins by focusing on the intersecting lives of two competing Shakespearean actors. One, Edwin Forrest, was an American who appealed to the working classes; the other, William Charles Macready, was an Englishman who was a favorite of upper-class intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic. The book opens in 1949, when a huge melee broke out at Astor Place in Manhattan between followers of the two, which left an impressive number of participants dead and injured. It then looks back to 1809 and yet another riot, this one at a performance of Macbeth in London - I always knew that Shakespeare incited passionate responses, but riots? - and looks forward to the Bard's popularity on the American frontier later in the century. (This last section ties in nicely with Interred With Their Bones, Jennifer Lee Carrell's impressive debut novel that I recommended in January's Pearl's Picks.) Cliff's book offers both fans of Shakespeare and those interested in 19th-century social history a well-researched, nicely written, and extremely readable book (although I must say that I spent a lot of time looking up words with which I was unfamiliar, so it was a good vocabulary-learning experience as well).


The Konkans by Tony d'Souza (2008)

I'm a firm believer that you learn something from every book you read, be it fiction or nonfiction, whether it's a bit of history of which you were unaware, or a deeper understanding of human behavior. I certainly learned something from The Konkans, Tony d'Souza's second novel, another of the now large number of novels about immigrants becoming hyphenated Americans. The events are seen through the eyes of Francisco D'Sai, beginning when he is a young child. Francisco's father is a Konkan (learning of, and about, Konkan culture is one of the main things I gained from reading this novel), who grew up in Goa, on the western coast of India. The Konkans were originally Hindus who were forcibly converted to Catholicism by Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century. (The story of this forced conversion is told to Francisco by his uncle, Sam, who is - justifiably - bitter about it, and who effectively (and affectingly), communicates the taste of this bitterness to Francisco and to the reader. Francisco's parents' marriage had a profound conflict built into it from the beginning - his American mother, in India as part of the Peace Corps, adored the country and wanted to remain there, and his Indian father loved the opportunities to be had in America, and needed an American wife in order to get the precious green card required to take advantage of those opportunities. Growing up in Chicago in the 1970s, Francisco is aware of the tension between his parents, as his father strives for success in his corporate job, and all that success brings with it - fancier cars, bigger houses, a coveted membership in an exclusive country club - while his mother yearns for the simple life of rural India. When his father's two younger brothers come to live with the family, the differences between the two ways of life are thrown into even sharper relief. This poignant novel will remind readers of Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake, but it offers its own particular insight into the immigrant experience.


The Condé Nast Traveler Book of Unforgettable Journeys: Great Writers on Great Places edited by Klara Glowczewska (2007)

Armchair travelers will have a great time exploring the world with this selection of essays from Condé Nast Traveler, entitled The Book of Unforgettable Journeys: Great Writers on Great Places, compiled by the magazine's editor-in-chief Klara Glowczewska, who also wrote the introduction. There are 21 essays, all of which appeared over the last 20 years (the magazine began publishing in 1987). The contributors (who are not allowed to accept free or discounted travel from airlines, hotels, or restaurants) include a wide variety of writers, among them Russell Banks (on the Everglades), Simon Winchester (on a volcano in the Philippines), art critic Robert Hughes on the pre-Romans who lived on the west coast of Italy, Irish novelist Edna O'Brien on Jane Austen's Bath, Francine Prose on Prague, consummate traveler Pico Iyer on Iceland, which he calls "the loneliest place on earth," and a dozen others. One of my favorite essays was an account of a safari in Tanzania taken by journalist Philip Gourevitch and his wife in 2005, wherein you'll meet, albeit briefly, a lioness known as Alice Pacino. Another was about gardens in Tokyo, by novelist Nicole Krauss. "Quick, call the travel agent," I found myself saying frequently to my husband as I read these essays. "Let's go here"¦ Or no, here. Or there"¦" The choices seemed endless and the places described endlessly interesting.


The Known World by Edward Jones (2003)

Edward P. Jones's stunning Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Known World, is as much a tapestry as it is a novel; it's a work in which every thread, color, and texture has been chosen with care. The result is a story that is deeply felt, painfully beautiful, and richly described. It takes place in the antebellum South, and at its heart are several generations of a family of black plantation owners, their slaves, and the people whose lives intersect theirs (for better or worse): freed blacks, white slave owners, patrolling deputies and the law enforcement officials of a fictional town in Manchester County, Virginia. Many readers will be surprised (as I was) to learn of the existence of freed black people who owned slaves; Jones' account compassionately and unsparingly details the harsh contradictions of that reality, giving us both the outer zeitgeist of the times and the inner, private conflicts of the people living in it. The Known World has justly received a panoply of literary awards and drawn accolades from just about everyone, from the New York Times to the National Book Critics Circle to a friend of my younger daughter (who, upon taking it with her on an Italian vacation, saw nothing of Tuscany, opting instead to stay in the hotel, reading and crying, for the entire trip). Even so, it took me more than several chapters before I was able to really let myself sink into the slow, careful weave of Jones' epic. Once I did, the quiet spell of the writing took over and held me completely, releasing me at the end with a certainty that I had truly experienced, as one character puts it, the "silent and songful" nature of human existence.


Gateway by Frederik Pohl (2004)

Gateway, by Frederik Pohl, has been one of my favorite science fiction novels for 30 years, ever since I first read it in 1978, and it's also one of the few books that have won both the Hugo and the Nebula, two of the top awards given by the SF community. Quite simply, it's a grand read. Robinette Broadhead relates the story of his life on (and off) the asteroid Gateway to his psychiatrist, a robot whom he's nicknamed Sigfrid von Shrink. (Even though he's fictional, I've often thought that the AI - artificial intelligence - Sigfrid sets the gold standard for psychotherapists.) When Broadhead wins a lottery in his native Wyoming, he uses his winnings to get a seat on the first space ship that's heading for Gateway, in order to make his fortune prospecting. Now run by a huge multinational corporation, Gateway appears to have once been the home of an alien race whom the humans call Heechees. (What they called themselves is anyone's guess.) These aliens quite clearly left Gateway millennia before the humans arrived, but they left behind a large number of working spacecraft, as well as other artifacts, that continue to puzzle human scientists, who would love to discover their original function and/or use. Any prospector who comes to Gateway can choose to go back out into space in any of the remaining spacecraft. The only catch is that each one is preprogrammed, and no one can figure out what its intended destination is, how long the trip will take, or how to change destinations once it's underway. When you're in a Heechee craft, you're forced to put your faith in Heechee plans and know-how. And what's wise for a Heechee is not necessarily wise for a human. These unpredictable journeys occasionally lead to fame and fortune for the risk-taking prospectors, but more often end in tragedy. What happens to Broadhead turns out to be a mix of fame, fortune, and tragedy, all of which involve Klara, a fellow prospector and the great love of his life - hence the necessity for his visits to Sigfrid, many years after the events he's describing. I think what keeps me rereading this novel is not the characters, well-drawn and interesting as they are, or the story, but rather wondering, down through all the years since I first discovered Gateway, if I would ever have had the nerve to take one of those Heechee spacecraft out into unknown, uncharted, and oh-so-dangerous territory. (Probably not.)


Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone (2000)

Although you'll find Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most, by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, on the self-help shelves in most bookstores, the library will probably have it cataloged more accurately in the "interpersonal relationships" section. Refreshingly plain spoken, the book was researched and written by the deputy director and two affiliates of the Harvard Negotiation Project, at Harvard Law School, which defines its mission as "to improve the theory, teaching, and practice of negotiation and dispute resolution, so that people can deal more constructively with conflicts ranging from the interpersonal to the international." One of the reasons I liked it so much is that the authors so clearly respect the intelligence of their readers. At the core of Difficult Conversations is a thorough and coherent analysis of the ways and whys we talk to each other when the stakes are high and our defenses are up. Using the information gained from a 15-year study, the authors' insights are humane, incisive, and wonderfully useful for those of us interested in both understanding and changing habitual responses. Conversation, in the authors' view, is as fascinating and complex as the people who engage in it, and getting better at the tough talks we find ourselves in so often is something that can benefit us all. One of my favorite parts of the book addresses our tendency to think that we need to stay rational and keep the messy feelings out of a difficult conversation with our significant other, our children, our co-workers, and our friends. "The problem with this reasoning," the authors point out, "is that it fails to take account of one simple fact: difficult conversations do not just involve feelings, they are at their very core about feelings. Feelings are not some noisy byproduct of engaging in difficult talk, they are an integral part of the conflict. Engaging in a difficult conversation without talking about feelings is like staging an opera without the music. You'll get the plot but miss the point."

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At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays by Anne Fadiman (2007)

More than half a century ago, the 814 section of the library shelves was a bustling place, with many books being published and many being checked out and read. Nowadays, there's not a lot of action going on in this part of the library. After reading Anne Fadiman's At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays, a delightful follow-up to her earlier collection, Ex Libris, we, along with Fadiman herself, can only bemoan that fact. Fadiman explains the different kinds of essays this way: the familiar essay is one that is seemingly addressed to a single reader, written in a conversational style. Unlike both the critical essay ("more brain than heart") and the personal essay ("more heart than brain"), the familiar essay has both heart and brain, in equal measures. The topics of Fadiman's essays range widely, from her admiration for Charles Lamb (who wrote hundreds of personal essays himself), moving houses, ice cream ("My favorite flavors are all variations of chocolate, vanilla, coffee, and nuts, none of which are good for you. I do not like fruit flavors. They are insufficiently redolent of sin."), butterfly collecting, and the Culture Wars, which she describes as "that peculiar development of the last two decades or so that takes culture--a multidimensional thing if there ever was one--and attempts to compress it to a skinny line running from left to right." She says, "I have never seen cultural politics enlarge a work of literature, only diminish it." (Much food for thought there.) The essays are marked, as I hope you can see by this review, by an enviable sense of humor, a passionate engagement with the world, and an engaging writing style.

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Now You See It: Stories From Cokesville PA by Bathsheba Monk (2007)

Bathsheba Monk's always smart, sometimes humorous, and frequently affecting Now You See It: Stories From Cokesville, PA, harks back to the form of Sherwood Anderson's classic, Winesburg, Ohio--a collection of interlocking short stories primarily set in and around one particular small town, in this case the coal-mining, steel-making, rust belt town of the title. The earliest story takes place in 1949, while several are set in the early 1990s. Because the stories are not arranged chronologically and do not follow the life of any one particular character, we get multiple perspectives on the residents of Cokesville, as we encounter them through their own eyes, those of an omniscient narrator, and via the words of their friends, enemies, and neighbors. Although most of the characters show up more than once (if only in a line in another tale), there are several stories about the (possibly autobiographical) Annie Kusiak, whose ambition as a child and adolescent is to be a writer. Here's how Annie describes the town she tries again and again to leave: "Seventeen church spires probe into the brown atmosphere of the downtown--looking for God, but finding soot, which rains like manna on the southside row houses. An inch of soot on the windowsill means a regular paycheck. Two inches means a fat one." Whether Monk is describing Annie's experiences both in and out of Cokesville, those of her high school friend Theresa Gojuk (known as Tess Randall in Hollywood, where she went to find fame and fortune), the experiences of the boys from Cokesville who went off to fight in Vietnam, Annie's Babba (whose first husband, she tells her granddaughter, was a dancing bear), Mrs. Szilborski, who hears the voice of God telling her to convert to Judaism, or the men for whom the loss of a job in the mines takes away their manhood and their reason to live, Monk brings them all vividly to life for us.

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Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand by Fred Vargas (2007)

In my seemingly never-ending search for engrossing mysteries, I was delighted to discover Fred Vargas' Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand. (Although two other titles by the French author are translated into English and available in the U.S., this is the first one I've read.) The job of tracking down murderers gets personal for Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg of the French National Police when a serial killer, long thought to be dead, seems to have risen from the grave and resumed his fiendishly clever murders. The Commissaire's connection with the killer known as "the Trident" (because of the method of his murders--use your imagination), began when, as a teen, Adamsberg's own brother was (falsely?) convicted of killing his young girlfriend, a crime Adamsberg always believed was committed by the Trident. In the course of his investigations (which have to remain secret from his superiors and most of his co-workers, since only Adamsberg is convinced of the return of his old nemesis), the Commissaire and members of his squad travel to Quebec for some training in CSI techniques, which come in handy at a crucial moment in the story. An engaging hero, a smooth translation, and a creative plot all add up to one of the best new mysteries from across the Atlantic that I've found in ages.