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2014 Staff Picks

March 2014

Book Cover for Far From the Madding Crowd Hardy, Thomas
Far From the Madding Crowd

Fiction
This classic starts off in the usual ho-hum way of introducing a main character through a description of his lineage, how he came to be where we find him, and the background of his present occupation. Don't get complacent. Both the fate of the main character in Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust and the devastating beginning of Ian McEwan's Enduring Love could have been inspired by what befalls Gabriel Oak in these first few pages. While Hardy's work is dense with tragedy, it is the tragedy of being human, not of being a victim. Devastations are unleashed by moments of pique. All of the drama takes place without props outside on English lanes evoking a universality to the pain of being human and the realization that we can all be victimized by our own emotions. Hardy's prose captures landscapes, weather, and the emotional palettes of his characters with equal aplomb. Sharply pin-pointed prose reaches and awakens places in the psyche possibly rendered dormant by exposure to much duller fare. Two chapters appropriately named "Storm" and "Rain" stand out as examples of Hardy's incredible ability to describe weather. If you like weather to be part of your reading experience, M. C. Beaton's Hamish Macbeth series provides that, along with great characters and cozy mysteries to be solved. If you like unrelenting suffering, you will like Joyce Carol Oates' We Were the Mulvaneys, or the classic by A. J. Cronin, Hatter's Castle. Available on dvd: A Handful of Dust, Enduring Love, Hamish Macbeth, We Were the Mulvaneys, Far From the Madding Crowd (classic), and the Masterpiece Classic remake of Far From the Madding Crowd.
Recommended by Geo, March 2014

 
Book Cover for The Imposter Layton, Bart (director)
The Imposter (2012)

DVD
The Imposter is a documentary produced by Dimitri Doganis and directed by Bart Layton. You have to watch this! “In 1994, a thirteen-year-old boy disappeared without a trace from San Antonio, Texas. Three-and-a-half years later, he is found alive and well thousands of miles away in Spain. He tells a story of kidnap and torture when he returns. While his family is excited to bring him home, all is not quite as it seems. Is the boy really who he claims to be, or is he an imposter giving the family false hope for their child's return?” Above is the summary from the library’s catalog. To add anything more would destroy this documentary. I have to bring to it everyone’s attention because it is truly a bizarre missing child investigation from the beginning to the end. I really, really, really wish that I could tell you more, but you just have to watch it for yourself.
Recommended by Mel, March 2014

 
Book Cover for Ishmael Quinn, Daniel
Ishmael

Fiction
Take a step back in time with me to the year 1996; an 18-year-old high school senior (who didn't read a book unless he had to) was given an assignment: read the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. The teacher who assigned this book said one thing to my class, "Yes, I understand that the main character talks to a gorilla; get over it." So I did just that, and it was a decision that I'm very glad I made. Ishmael is an interesting look into where we humans messed up, and what that major mistake is will surprise you — it makes a whole lot of sense. The story is of a man who answers an ad about a teacher needing a student with an honest desire to learn. It turns out that the teacher is a gorilla. What unfolds is an interesting look at where humans made their first big mistake, as taught by a non-human, giving you an outsider's opinion. If you are the type of person who wants to gain more than just enjoyment from a book, I highly recommend Ishmael. This is my favorite book of all time. Even 18 years later, this book still makes me stop and think – which is more than I can say about most of the other books I have read.
Recommended by Jason, March 2014

 
Book Cover for How to Travel the World for Free Wigge, Michael
How to Travel the World for Free

Nonfiction
A more accurate title for this book would be How I Traveled the World for Free instead of How to Travel the World for Free. Yes, author Michael Wigge travels from Berlin to Antarctica without a cent, but he has a leg up on us average travelers. More than a few times, he's able to bypass costs - such as tickets for a boat tour of Niagara Falls or a 9-hour bus trip - simply by explaining to agents that he's a reporter trying to make his way to the end of the world or by regaling them with funny travel stories. He also has some tricks that lots of readers just aren't going to try, and are often illegal. For example, Wigge goes dumpster diving for food or avoids conductors by hiding out in the restrooms or bike compartments of trains. Wigge is plain lucky sometimes: a friend's father gives him an airline ticket from California to Hawaii, countless shop owners and vegetable sellers offer him free food and drinks, or strangers offer him sleeping accommodations in their homes. (Many of these generous folks have far fewer means than the author has during his non-traveling life.) Not to mention, some of Wigge's pursuits - hitchhiking, couchsurfing, or sleeping alongside a homeless man in a park - just wouldn't be advisable for some women traveling alone. But a misleading title should be no deterrent; I heartily recommend this funny, fast-moving travelogue. Humanity's generosity, especially south of the equator, is awe-inspiring, and there are some truly practical travel tips along the route.
Recommended by Rita, March 2014

 

February 2014

Book Cover for Leading So People Will Follow Andersen, Erika
Leading So People Will Follow

Nonfiction
If you've been in management for a while, you've probably read your share of management books. The advice starts to run together after a while, so you might be hankering for something new. Try Leading So People Will Follow by Erika Andersen. Joseph Campbell is mentioned in the first few pages, so you are immediately aware that this isn't your average MBA-produced book. Andersen uses a fairy tale to illustrate 6 different leadership qualities: farsightedness, passion, wisdom, courage, generosity, and trustworthiness. Andersen offers easily digestible, practical tips for gaining these qualities. For example, she gives some really great tips on how to delegate, which is a skill that eludes many managers. This is a great title for managers or aspiring managers who like to think outside the box when it comes to leadership.
Recommended by Holly, February 2014

 
Book Cover for When the Marquess Met His Match Guhrke, Laura Lee
When the Marquess Met His Match

Fiction
Lady Belinda Featherstone is an American living in Victorian London. Married at the age of seventeen to a handsome but impoverished British earl, she was swept away by romance and promises. Her youthful expectations and illusions were soon shattered, however, when her husband continued to dally with his mistresses and cavort around England, leaving her behind. Throwing herself into London society, she becomes a respectable (and secretly wealthy) widow helping wealthy Americans navigate London society and find successful matches to titled British aristocrats. When Nicholas Stirling, the dissolute Marquess of Trubridge, asks for her assistance in finding him a wife after his father cuts him off, she instantly resists because his unabashed fortune-hunting motives and rakish reputation painfully remind her of her late husband and her once broken heart. But as Belinda gets to know Nicholas, she finds there’s much more behind his façade, and that the rumors surrounding him just might not be true. For his part, Nicholas has spent his entire life defying his father at every turn, turning his own life upside down in the process. Belinda confronts his reputation and actions, shaming him into changing his life. When Nicholas confesses an attraction to her, Belinda is forced to reexamine her assumptions and wonder, might she be the perfect wife for him after all? Beautifully and elegantly written, poignant, and witty, I thoroughly enjoyed this story. This is the first book in a new series by Guhrke, who writes elegant historical romances set in Victorian and Edwardian England. Charming, funny, and entertaining, this would be a good pick for fans of Downton Abbey.
Recommended by Maria, February 2014

 
Book Cover for The Last Summer of the Camperdowns Kelly, Elizabeth
The Last Summer of the Camperdowns

Fiction
I have struggled as to whether or not I can give this book a full-blown endorsement because it was uncomfortable to read many of its pages. The main character's frequent interactions with a certain malicious presence -- felt from almost the beginning — consistently unsettled me. However, the intelligent and quick-paced dialogue throughout the novel won me over. Set in the early 1970's, twelve-year-old Riddle James Camperdown is the only daughter of Greer, a former screen legend, and Camp, a rising star politician. The acerbic wit of her mother and political passions of her father haven't created much of a nurturing environment for Riddle, but she is settled and content in her ultra-privileged life, until, that is, she witnesses a terrible act of violence in a nearby horse stable. Her anguished decision to stay silent has dire consequences that prove to have lifelong ramifications. Adding to Riddle's personal turmoil is her introduction to Harry Devlin, a swoon-worthy college student who happens to be the son of Michael, an enigmatic piece in the confusing puzzle of her parent's marriage. The Last Summer of the Camperdowns has left me thinking "What if ...? What if ...? What if ...?". This title would provide for many great discussions in book groups.
Recommended by Sheila, February 2014

 
Book Cover for Leaving Mother Lake Namu, Yang Erche and Christine Mathieu
Leaving Mother Lake

Nonfiction
Yang Erche Namu grew up in the 60s and 70s in a remote mountainous region of China, near the Tibetan border. She was raised in the Moso community, a matrilineal society in which property is passed through women and in which adult men, including fathers, live with their mothers, siblings, aunts, and cousins instead of with a partner and their children. According to Namu, "women and men should not marry, for love is like the seasons - it comes and goes." At night, a woman of age meets with her lover in a private room in her mother's house, and hangs the lover's bag outside the door when she no longer wishes to meet with him. If she has a child, the child will live with her, raised by an extended family including the child's grandmother, aunts, and cousins. Namu includes such details in Leaving Mother Lake, but this is far more than an anthropological study. Namu shares the beauty of Lake Lugu and the surrounding hot springs and mountains, the happiness of butter tea and New Year festivals, and the years she spent in near isolation tending yaks with her uncle at high elevations. One day this insular world, free of modern conveniences, is visited by outsiders - representatives from the Cultural Bureau who have come to record traditional Moso songs. Namu is selected to travel to the city to participate in a singing contest. She goes, she wins, and moves on to a larger competition in Beijing, which she also wins. When she returns to Lake Lugu as a celebrity, she finds her surroundings dull, her suitor infuriating, and her new job interminable. Based on this, and an ever-weakening relationship with her mother, she makes a life-altering decision. (I chanced upon this memoir while reading Sex at Dawn, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, who use the Moso as an example of a society that doesn't foster monogamy, and is perhaps better for it.)
Recommended by Rita, February 2014

 
Book Cover for A Simple Plan Smith, Scott
A Simple Plan

Fiction
This is the story of three men who find $4.5 million in the woods and become casualties of a war between fantasy and reality. From the moment these men find the money any action is rationalized in their attempt to hold on to it and escape detection. Smith's brand of suspense is so unrelenting that you will beg for mercy more than once. The movie by the same name, starring Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton, surprisingly altered the events of the story, but without any loss of quality. Both the book and the movie are good storytelling. If you like merciless suspense you will also like The Ruins, Smith's second book, which features a unique manifestation of evil as the main character. (You can skip the movie version of The Ruins.) The Blunderer, by Patricia Highsmith, is also a good choice for suspense with the added bonus of a sucker-punch ending. An equally brutal treatment of characters can be explored in Evelyn Waugh's civilized, subtle, and unforgettable A Handful of Dust; Waugh was chastised for his treatment of the protagonist and accused of hatred toward the characters.
Recommended by Geo, February 2014

 

January 2014

Book Cover for House at Sugar Beach Cooper, Helene
The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood

Nonfiction
In The House at Sugar Beach, Helene Cooper tells a very personal coming-of-age story, set against the backdrop of Liberian civil unrest. Many readers will relate to the aches and triumphs of her adolescence and her attachment to her parents, while learning much about the African country founded by freed American slaves. As the book opens, seven-year-old Helene moves with her family to a huge, isolated oceanfront home. Due to her ancestors’ role in creating the country, Helene is brought up in a very wealthy environment and is considered a “Congo.” The “Country” people, or original inhabitants of Liberia, aren’t so lucky in most cases. The book reads like a novel, as we are only provided with the narrator’s perspective. But because our narrator is a journalist, we have scenes involving first crushes and school dances juxtaposed with coups and riots. The bulk of the book focuses on her time in Liberia, but Helene does eventually move to the States, and we learn a bit about her life here: her less-than-perfect assimilation into American high school and college, and her journey into a career with the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. Check this title out before Helene’s visit to Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Monday Night Lecture Series on February 10, 2014.
Recommended by Holly, January 2014

 
Book Cover for Cartwheel duBois, Jennifer
Cartwheel

Fiction
Although this story will evoke thoughts of the Amanda Knox case that took place in Italy, the author assures us that this is not Amanda's story. The location is a hot and hostile Buenos Aires. The focus is more on the satellite characters of the story and less on the actual crime. The character of the accused is illuminated through the perceptions gleaned from her family, the prosecuting attorney, and her boyfriend. The eponymous cartwheel is central to the perception of guilt, as well as the proverbial blood in the water fueling the tabloid feeding frenzy. The truly fascinating cast of characters — including her boyfriend, who is described as looking like a "homosexual pirate" in one instance and a "postapocalyptic butler" in another, and the prosecuting attorney haunted by his mad wife — lend a humanity to the chaos that ensues when innocents are embroiled in the horrific repercussions of a criminal act. Do not skip the author's note at the end of the book. For similar reading experiences try Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan, for its literary caliber and other brilliant lives scarred by violence, Defending Jacob, by William Landay, for the debilitating experience of having a child in trouble, and In Cold Blood, classic true crime by Truman Capote.
Recommended by Geo, January 2014

 
Book Cover for Cartwheel duBois, Jennifer
Cartwheel

Fiction
Although this story will evoke thoughts of the Amanda Knox case that took place in Italy, the author assures us that this is not Amanda's story. The location is a hot and hostile Buenos Aires. The focus is more on the satellite characters of the story and less on the actual crime. The character of the accused is illuminated through the perceptions gleaned from her family, the prosecuting attorney, and her boyfriend. The eponymous cartwheel is central to the perception of guilt, as well as the proverbial blood in the water fueling the tabloid feeding frenzy. The truly fascinating cast of characters — including her boyfriend, who is described as looking like a "homosexual pirate" in one instance and a "postapocalyptic butler" in another, and the prosecuting attorney haunted by his mad wife — lend a humanity to the chaos that ensues when innocents are embroiled in the horrific repercussions of a criminal act. Do not skip the author's note at the end of the book. For similar reading experiences try Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan, for its literary caliber and other brilliant lives scarred by violence, Defending Jacob, by William Landay, for the debilitating experience of having a child in trouble, and In Cold Blood, classic true crime by Truman Capote.
Recommended by Geo, January 2014

 
Book Cover for Design Brooklyn Hellman, Anne
Design Brooklyn

Nonfiction
Brooklyn has undergone a renaissance lately, for better or for worse. This book puts issues of gentrification aside and focuses on the restoration, renovation, innovation, and industry taking place in one of the most densely populated urban areas in the country. Mike D, of the Beastie Boys, grew up in Brooklyn during a decade when its streets were remarkably different from today. He opens Design Brooklyn with an interview about the borough's evolution, the role of art in his life, and how he and his wife decided to return to Brooklyn and design a townhome, including their own wallpaper featuring people and places from the neighborhood. (Yes, Biggie Smalls' mug figures into the paper's rose-tinted toile design.) Along with Mike D's home, dozens of other renovated brownstones are displayed in full-page photos, showcasing the craftsmanship, art, and furniture of past and present Brooklynites. Bars, restaurants, Navy Yard buildings, artists' studios, and other re-imagined edifices are shown, and the authors were careful to include a range of design styles. Victorian, mid-century modern, stark contemporary, and industrial chic all figure into this diverse Brooklyn.
Recommended by Rita, January 2014

 
Book Cover for Shock Value Zinoman, Jason
Shock Value

Nonfiction
A few years ago, I saw John Carpenter’s Halloween on the big screen. It was one of the most terrifying and entertaining experiences I have ever had at the movies. Jason Zinoman’s book, Shock Value, tells the fascinating story of John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Brain De Palma and other directors who revolutionized the horror genre in the 1970’s. Zinoman provides insight into how these filmmakers provided a new and frightening way to entertain audiences. If you are a film fan — even if you are not a big horror fan — I would highly recommend Shock Value by Jason Zinoman.
Recommended by Katie, January 2014

 

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