Staff Picks

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You can still access reviews from pre-September 2012 for Adults and Children.

Reading Lolita in Tehran

A Memoir in Books (2003)
Reading Lolita in Tehran

The transformative power of literary fiction is debated, challenged, and celebrated in "Reading Lolita in Tehran" by Azar Nafisi.  A former professor of literature in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Nafisi uses prolific authors the likes of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov to connect with students coming of age during a  very tumultuous time in Iran's history.  The Memoir illuminates the delicate fabric that is Iran by weaving a story set against the backdrop of a revolution and subsequent war with neighboring Iraq.  

Though the book highlights those years between 1977 and 1997, chapter one begins in 1995.  Shortly after the ceasefire with Iraq, Nafisi resigns from her latest teaching position at an Iranian university.  She realizes a long held dream when she invites a select group of female students into her home each Thursday morning to discuss classic works of literature.  For those few hours each week, the women meet to discuss books in many instances banned from bookstores as well as minds.  They come together for a united purpose, and shed not only their veils but also their fears and inhibitions.  The women share ideas, pastries, and laughter.  Members of the reading group find they have much in common, and yet their individual struggles are also very different.  "Reading Lolita in Tehran" allows readers into the lives of women living, and surviving, their own destinies in a country divided over the direction of its future.     

As the memoir unfolds, Nafisi offers a better understanding of the Iranian culture and the fascinating women of Iran.  She exposes the brightly colored lives hidden under the garments they wear.  Reading fiction becomes an escape from the realities of their lives and offers hope for the future.  The irony of the situation is that the women learn more about their true selves through the fictional lives of the fictional characters they read about.  For instance, "Pride and Prejudice" helps them with issues related to love while "The Great Gatsby" and "Lolita" explore morality and freedom of choice.    

The book proceeds to her teaching years at the University of Tehran and other universities in Iran.  This is the stage where Nafisi introduces many of the men in her memoir.  They are the students who deal with the unrest through demonstrations or sometimes acts of violence.  They are the students who question her views and agree to put "The Great Gatsby" on trial in the classroom.  They are also the students or fellow faculty members who respect her position and engage her in intellectual conversations.  While the men written about in Nafisi's memoir may have enjoyed less restrictions than women to express themselves in public, the men of Iran also suffered and lost so much during the years of revolution and war while sacrificing for their families and for their country.  

The novel covers a span of twenty years that sees the author returning to Iran after living and studying in the United States, undertaking marriage and raising of a family, forging friendships, being expelled from her teaching position at the University of Tehran, and remaining in Tehran when the war was fought so close to her home.  The novel concludes with sorrowful goodbyes as Azar Nafisi returns to the United States and accepts a teaching position at John Hopkins University in Washington D.C. 

"Reading Lolita in Tehran" is a story about culture and books as much as it is a history lesson about a land of mystery and intrigue that often seems so removed from our own experiences living in a democratic society.  Yet, so many of the desires, fears, and goals are universally the same.  The author can be heavy on the details, but the rewards of exercising reading patience make it well worth the effort.  And rest assured that though sometimes long on words, Azar Nafisi tells a story which is nothing short of mesmerizing.       

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Carrion Comfort

(2009, c1989)
Carrion Comfort

In this novel Dan Simmons portrays psychic vampires in a horror genre, which he uses to illuminate real evil in this world.  I read this book in 1989 when it was first published and it has stayed with me.

Simmons took the name of this book from a poem written in 1918 by a religious writer, Gerald Manley Hopkins. The story Simmons tells is one of sociopaths with powers. People diagnosed as sociopaths, (or exhibiting all the qualities of such), have no feeling for what others are experiencing. They may think of themselves as being very moral, and or religious. But they are incapable of empathy and so cannot experience any horror they might bring to others. Compound that with beings that can enter one's mind and control one's actions, and you have the premise for this book. Three characters are old mind vampires: Willi, Nina and Melanie. They have been playing a game to see who can make the most people kill themselves, in the most interesting ways, as they are bored with life.

People (and relatives of people) used and abused by these psychic vampires come to realize what they are up against and band together to go after them. One character, Saul Laski, first met Willi in a Nazi death camp where Willi used him and others in a deadly chess game featuring human chess pieces. He has been tracking WIlli ever since. Other protagonists include a young black college student who figures out that his fathers “suicide” was the direct result of interference from one of these creatures, as well as a Southern sheriff who is much more intelligent than he lets on.

The uneasiness one feels reading this book may be due to Simmons changing to the point of view of Melanie Fuller, one of the players of the “game”. Seeing the world through her eyes is horrifying; every murder committed by her is justified by numerous reasons she patiently explains to the reader. It is the sheer banality of her evil that is most disturbing.  Simmons shows us how easy it becomes to commit monstrous acts when the ordinary rules of civilized society are suspended. These creatures, who are less than human, use their powers to try to dehumanize those who are human.

At almost 900 pages, this can be a daunting read, yet Simmons pulls it off. This is a “smart person’s” horror read. When the book was reissued in 2009, some felt it was dated, as there are no cell phones, etc. But the basic premise of the book is not affected by that-it is a timeless tale.

 

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Code name Verity

(2012)
code name Verity

A mesmerizing historical novel, well-researched and carefully written, this is one of those books where you want to sit down and read it straight through, not stopping for anything.

A young woman has been captured by the Gestapo after she lands in Occupied France.  She’s been tortured and starved in an attempt to gain knowledge of British defenses.  Her captor Hauptsturmführer von Linden makes a deal—she will be given paper and two weeks for her to write down everything she knows about the British war effort and he will let her live, at least for a while.  She begins writing…

The slow unfolding of the story gives you a feeling of what it would have been like—tremendous sacrifices, sadness and despair but also humor and love.  There is great characterization and strong female characters who make things happen. 

Those of you who read and liked Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games should read this book; though it is set in the past rather than a possible future, it has the same gritty desperation and determination to keep going no matter what the odds.  It is a book I definitely recommend.

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The Redgraves: A Family Epic

2012

Donald Spoto’s account of the Redgraves has the feel of a readable “intellectual” soap opera, for the talented Redgraves were well known for their work in the theatre and film world but their private lives were anything but conventional. There are many instances of infidelity, divorce, dysfunctional parenting, and the insecurities that resulted from these issues. Michael Redgrave, son of Roy Redgrave and Daisy Scudamore, is the primary focus of this expose but Vanessa Redgrave and her sister and brother, Lynn and Corin and the careers of the younger generation of Redgraves, including Natasha Richardson and her sister Joely, are examined. We learn of Michael Redgrave's struggles with his bisexuality (at a time when people were tortured and sent to prison if the authorities became aware), alcoholism, and Parkinson’s disease. Vanessa was blacklisted for her support of the Palestinian cause. The author covers familiar films such as Lynn’s Georgy Girl, and Vanessa’s Camelot and lesser known works. Spoto’s work is a thorough account. The Redgraves are portrayed as a down to earth close-knit family with their share of struggles. Some may consider the Redgraves to be a theatrical dynasty but as Vanessa Redgrave simply says, “We are family.”

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The Sparrow

(1996)
The Sparrow book cover

I'm finding it difficult to begin a review of this book--this story packed into this little volume is large in scope and dense in detail. The story told is of a group of smart folks coming together as friends and being friends when one member finds evidence of life in Alpha Centauri. Another member, a Jesuit priest named Emilio Sandoz then makes a proposal to the Society of Jesus that this group travel to this other star system, find the planet these other beings live on, and go meet them. They make the trip, they make contact, but as you'll learn in the opening of the story, only Emilio Sandoz returns to Earth.

Russell is good at providing those little hooks along the way to keep you reading. Why did only Emilio return? Why does he act so strangely? What's wrong with his hands? What are the being who live in Alpha Centauri like? Little hints are given, you're steered one direction, then taken another.

But it's not just the suspense that keeps you locked in to this story. The characters are deeply drawn and authentic--very easy to connect with as a reader. You care about what's going to happen to them next.

I want to note also that Russell's ideas of the future have aged nicely for a work of science fiction published in 1994. You may notice a lack of mobile phones, but characters use tablets that are easy to associate with today's popular tablet devices.

But is this book for you? Do you like stories of exploration? Of individuals forming unofficial families together out of friendships? Do you like to wonder about life on other planets? Answers in the affirmative suggest that you would enjoy reading Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow.

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You came back: a novel

(2012)

I loved this book.   It's not a happy story, but it takes you on a journey every single parent can imagine.   It draws you in, little by little, until you suddenly stop, look around and ask yourself how you got where you are now.  The story revolves around the tragic loss of a young child, and the lives of those drawn into the whirlpool of the accompanying emotions, events and inevitable self doubts.  The love of family and true friends supports Mark, the boy's father, through the worst of it, but he eventually has to take a step on his own.  He thought he was ready, but one of those steps presents a challenge he may not be up to.  Could it be true?

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The Split History of World War II :

a Perspectives Flip Book (2013)

 

In the Perspectives Flip Book series, readers look at critical times in history and in essence read two books, each looking at the time period from a variety of perspectives.  In this book, we start with the allies perspective, and when we flip the book we get the axis perspective.  The series currently includes a book about the American Revolution, the Civil War and about Westward Expansion.

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The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill

Alone (1983); Visions of Glory (1988)
The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill - Visions of Glory, 1874-1932 (1983)
The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill - Alone, 1932-1940 (1988)

Dozens, if not hundreds, of biographies have been written about Winston Churchill, but none are as insightful, or as gracefully written, as this brilliant work by William Manchester. The book is in two parts: Visions of Glory, which covers the first 58 years of Churchill’s life; and Alone, detailing the 1930s, when Churchill was out of government. That’s right; two volumes and some 1,600 pages and Churchill isn’t even prime minister yet. But don’t forget that Churchill was not merely a politician. He was a soldier, writer, painter, adventurer, and participant in just about every major world event between the late 1890s and the late 1950s. He was also a captivating character with a devilish wit, and to delve into these pages is a joy.

The author, William Manchester, had hoped to continue the story of Churchill’s life, but passed away at age 82 before the third and final volume, Defender of the Realm, could be completed. That work has now been finished by Paul Reid and is scheduled for publication in late 2012.

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Invisible

2005

This psychological thriller was published in 2005, but it remains one of my favorites. Seventeen year old, Doug Hanson lacks social skills, making him a target at school. The only "perfect" relationship he has is with his next door neighbor and boyhood friend, Andy Morrow who is a popular football player. The story becomes increasingly unsettling as Doug begins to mentally unravel and hints about the past begin to seep from the pages. Doug refuses to take his medication and spirals into a pattern of self-destruction and obsession with finishing a basement project.  Recommended for 7th grade and older.

 

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Gone Girl

2012
Gone Girl

What do you get when a weak-willed compulsive liar marries a charming sociopath? You get Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. This gripping mystery begins on Nick Dunne and Amy Elliott Dunne's fifth wedding anniversary, when Amy disappears. The narrative weaves between the present, as Amy's disappearance is investigated (Nick, as the husband, naturally becomes a suspect) and the past, where we see how both characters are experts at manipulating each other. It is a rare for me to enjoy a book when I don't like the characters, but this novel is an exception to that rule. Even though both Nick and Amy are pretty nasty human beings, their story is like a train wreck that you just can't look away from - I was constantly waiting to see what horrible thing happened next. The ending also surprised me. There were elements I expected, but a big surprise at the very end really threw me. If you like mysteries, especially more psychological ones, I highly recommend Gone Girl!

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The Immigrant Advantage

What We Can Learn from Newcomers to America about Health, Happiness, and Hope (2011)
The Immigrant Advantage

The Immigrant Advantage recounts 7 separate cultural traditions observed by some members of immigrant groups after coming to America: the Vietnamese Money Club; the Mexican Cuarentena; South Asian Assisted Marriage; Korean and Chinese Afterschools; West Indian Multigenerational Households; Barrio Stoops, Sidewalks, and Shops; and Vietnamese Monthly Rice. Traditions such as these, the author argues, comprise part of the explanation for “the ‘immigrant paradox,’ the growing evidence that immigrants, even those from poor or violence-wracked countries, tend to be both physically and mentally healthier than most native-born Americans” (inside flap).

 

A common thread through these traditions was the inherent practice of tapping into and relying on the resources and social support of personal relationships (friends and family) and community (online doesn’t count!). In addition to the overt, desired benefits that initiated observing such traditions, greater overall health, well being, satisfaction, and connectedness was a regular byproduct. I often have felt saddened that there are essentially zero cultural or ethnic traditions that were passed down through either my mother or father’s families. I found this most surprising on my father’s side, as he is 100% of his ethnicity but was raised only to ‘speak American.’ Perhaps because of that, I enjoyed learning about the richness of these selected traditions and how the author attempted to incorporate some of them into her own life.

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