Darwin and Ellen’s Picks
We’re always happy to share our favorite books with customers. Ask any of our staff for a recommendation. Check back here for new titles as they are published.
Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein—John Nixon. If you already understand what a waste of human life and national treasury and moral leadership the Iraqi invasion under false pretenses was you may feel that you have no need to read this. However, ex-CIA analyst Nixon’s tale is interesting and instructive for a number of reasons: he documents that Saddam, although an uninhibited despot and murderer, was not a threat to the US, was disinterested in running his government and was busy writing novels while Bush/Cheney and the Neocons were trying to dream up reasons to remove him. Unfortunately the CIA top leadership was all too willing to bend their analyses to what was desired by the White House. The preening of the CIA before new presidents to get a seat at the table and support for their budget is a terrible ritual—one that is playing out at this writing. A very interesting view of the very real limits of our spy craft and how it is viewed by the Washington crowd. It could be in for a huge shake-up; what will remain?
Dr. Knox—Peter Spiegelman. A riveting first chapter introduces Dr. Knox (altruist or adrenaline addicted disaster junkie?) leaving the gasping reader eager for his back story. He is a former aid worker in Africa who runs a clinic for street people in a seedy section of LA and finances it by occasional off-the-books medical house calls to the wealthy and/or the shady who require medical attention but no publicity. The house calls are arranged by a friend, a former mercenary with an African connection. Champion of the downtrodden, Knox gets in a bind when a young Romanian boy is abandoned by his mother at the clinic and the pair becomes the focus of a search by a dangerous and successful Russian pimp. With the help of friends, Knox simultaneously practices medicine, keeps the clinic running, attempts to maintain his one relationship, and delves into the history/mystery of mother and abandoned boy opening up all sorts of repercussions for the clinic, its employees and himself. Do Knox and Co fend off the forces of evil? Is the clinic, teetering on the brink of closure, saved? Read on and enjoy Dr. Knox and his little helpers as they run amok in a part of LA you would probably rather not visit.
The House at the Edge of Night—Catherine Banner. To tell the tale of the impact of the global financial crisis on a small Italian community, Ms. Banner has constructed a sweeping novel covering three generations of an Italian family over a 100 year period. The Esposito family is followed from its origin with a foundling in Florence who, against all odds, becomes a low-level doctor to a small community on a primitive island off the coast of Sicily. From this event, the struggling island-bound clan grows and evolves, reacting to the impact of distant events—the two world wars, the depression, and finally the global financial crisis. More local events such as the decay of the gentry, the decline of the influence of the church, the short reign of fascism, the effects of modernization and impact of tourism also affect members of the family as they attempt to navigate the changing world—staying behind or leaving for education or a better chance. A marvelous distillation of the forces that produced the Italy of today, obtained by the examination of the loves and lives of the Esposito microcosm.
News of the World—Paulette Jiles. Under what circumstances might kidnapping be acceptable? If you have trouble imagining a likely scenario you should read News of the World, the story of an itinerant newspaper reader in the 1890s North Texas and the 10 year-old girl kidnapped by and rescued from the Kiowa Indians, and learn. A touching story of a decent, educated old man and a small “savage” trying to survive in a lawless and callous landscape. A post-Civil War road trip not to be missed.
Appetites—Anthony Bourdain. Collecting cookbooks can satisfy the voyeur in some home cooks. Reading the recipes and commentaries of competent chefs makes one imagine being capable of such culinary dexterity and confidence. This profane and non-PC cookbook featuring the bad boy of cooking is a delight in its irreverence, flights of fancy, and some simple down-and-dirty dishes. His hilarious commentaries preceding each recipe almost constitute a memoir. A wonderful way to spend some daydreaming time, and his three-day plan for a remarkable Thanksgiving meal is worth serious consideration.
History of Wolves—Emily Fridlund. Recounted by Linda, a 14 year-old “flat chested, plain as a banister” girl, this is a powerful and moving chronicle of a back-woods girl living off the grid in the remains of a commune, with two diffident non-conventional parents. Her sexual awareness is awakened by the attention paid to her by her history teacher (an accused pedophile), a new girl at school (“she had dimples on her cheeks, nipples that flashed like signs from God through her sweater”), and the young couple from the city in a new cabin near her home with whom she hangs out, helps out, and babysits their 4 year old son. The awkwardness of bridging her primitive home life with the opulence of the yuppie neighbors recalls universal adolescent memories of the fear of being different and the desire to belong. Flashbacks from Linda as a young adult foreshadow a dramatic event that will shatter the innocence of her childhood. A stirring reminder of why we don’t really want to be young (adolescent) again.
The Afterlife of Stars—Joseph Kertes. Robert Beck, age 9.8 (he’s obsessed with decimals), narrates his version of his family’s escape from Hungary following the 1956 revolution in this sweet and sorrowful novel. The Beck family survived the Nazi deportation of Jews through the intervention of a relative who worked with Raoul Wallenberg. Now, a second time in little more than a decade they are targeted by the Soviets and decamp in haste to Canada via Paris where a Hungarian relation has been a long-time resident. Robert’s version of the exodus is highly colored by his adored older (13.7 years old) brother Attila, a precocious, mischievous, brilliant adolescent who knows no limits. It is, in fact, Attila’s story and the story of a very touching brotherly love.
Pachinko—Min Jin Lee. Here is a Dickensian novel to keep you occupied during those long winter evenings. Not set in dreary London but primarily in Japan, it follows the saga of one Korean family whose members occupy the lowest strata of Japanese society through a number of generations spanning the 20th century. They start in poverty, have a passing connection with Christianity, produce talented but tainted children, some of whom fail, and some succeed in the not so pristine world of low-level gambling with pachinko machines. It’s a very absorbing story of a tribe that suffers indignity, copes with adversity, preserves traditions and yet manages to keep together. An interesting look at a group of dispossessed people in an otherwise homogeneous society which has some resonance with our country today.
Celine—Peter Heller. From the author of The Dog Stars, comes another well written, taut story of adventure set in the current day West with a touch of cloak-and-dagger. Celine, a crusty woman from old money and an upbringing in France, Fishers Island, and New England private schools is nominally an artist. In addition, she is a most unusual PI—she only tracks missing family members for their eventual reunion. Unusual to say the least, her son says that “it’s a wonderful thing to be in awe of one’s mother” and so he is as he helps her in tracking down a father missing for 20 years while fending off interference for some governmental agency (CIA?). And yes, she has a mysterious backstory that might explain who she has become. Devoured with pleasure.
Say Nothing by Brad Parks. A tense, suspenseful thriller set in rural Virginia. Brad Parks’ latest novel is the terrifying story of a federal court judge whose docket includes a seemingly straightforward drug case. Judge Samson’s life is turned upside down by the kidnapping of his two children, followed by increasingly dire and confusing warnings about how he must rule in the case. He releases the defendant (in accordance with his instructions), but that one turns out to just be a test. His next case, a patent infringement trial involving a giant pharmaceutical company, turns out to be anything but low-profile, and his ordeal includes blackmail, threats, political payback and deceit. A roller-coaster ride full of tension and all-too-human characters who must deal with the kidnappers without the help of the police – their orders had instructed him to “say nothing.”
Leopard at the Door—Jennifer McVeigh. An engaging and compelling novel set in 1950’s Kenya. Rachel has returned to her family farm in Kenya after an unhappy stay in England following her mother’s death. A cold and unwelcoming woman has moved in with her father, and the family and their white neighbors are fearful of the violent unrest sweeping the country – the Mau Mau uprising. A captivating tale of colonial Africa, the outrages that resulted from British rule, and the love that a young girl feels for a place she considers home.
Rabbit Cake—Annie Harnett. Grief observed, explained, suffered and experienced by an 11 year-old girl from a memorably zany family. Elvis Babbit is a precocious child who copes with her sleep-walking mother ‘till her death. Afterwards, she finds solace in her dog Boomer, her dad’s parrot and her crazy sister. But she struggles with trying to explain her mother’s death (“I didn’t believe Mom could be gone completely when there was so much of her left everywhere”) and finally visits her school psychologist who helps her chart out her 18 months of grief—an achievable goal for a young woman with a scientific bent. What an unusual collection of characters, and a very touching coming of age story from this first-time author.
The Underground Railroad—Colson Whitehead. Imagine the Underground Railroad was not just a series of hiding places leading escaped slaves to the northern free states, but a true railroad running through tunnels with connections in hidden basements. The talented and brilliant Colson Whitehead has done just that, as he tells the story of Cora, a young girl enslaved by a Georgia plantation owner. Cora is truly alone in the world – her mother escaped without her, and her fellow slaves treat her as an outcast. She takes the first opportunity to run, and the novel follows her as she makes her way to South Carolina to North Carolina to Tennessee and Indiana, always hunted by a malevolent slave-hunter named Ridgeway. Cora faces the indignities and horror wrought by a society that accepts the ownership of other human beings with incredible hope and dignity. The Underground Railroad is the story of one escaped slave, but more importantly, it is the brutal and cruel history of a people brought to America against their will; of families broken up and destroyed, and the hope that Cora miraculously maintained in the face of so much loss.
The Next—Stephanie Gangi. Joanne DeAngelis has died, leaving behind her two adored daughters, a devoted dog, and Ned, her “ex” from Hell. The Next is a ghost story with a twist – a bit of revenge (Fay Weldon’s She-Devil), a lot of poignancy (Alice Sebold’s Lovely Bones), and a great deal of humor. Joanne was betrayed by Ned during her final illness, as he left her for a famous and glamorous woman to advance his own career interests. As a result, Stephanie can’t quite leave this earth, and is stuck in a nether-world of her own making – a place of bitterness and anger, wanting revenge, wanting Ned to pay. I loved Joanne, her story and her struggle to get things right, with her daughters, with Ned, and the father of her children. She’s smart, funny, with a big mouth and an even bigger heart.
Cruel Beautiful World—Caroline Levitt. The 1970s is the setting for so many wonderful books last year, and Cruel Beautiful World is a standout. The story of two teenaged sisters: Charlotte, the good student with dreams and aspirations, and her younger sister, Lucy, who falls in love with her high school teacher and runs away with him. During Lucy’s disappearance, terrible things are happening in America, including the Charlie Manson murders. The turbulent events of that era form the backdrop for this insightful, beautiful and shocking novel.
Nobody’s Son—Mark Slouka. The best memoir – maybe the best book – I’ve read in a very long time. This small gem tells the painful and poignant story of Mark Slouka’s family. His parents survived the Nazis in Czechoslovakia, but were forced to flee their native land when the Communists took over. The beautifully written narrative follows their escape, to Innsbruck then Sydney, and finally, to New York. But this is no ordinary immigrant story – Mark digs painfully into his family’s history, uncovering the lies, the unhappiness, the disappointments, the estrangement between his parents, and the secrets his mother kept from all of them. Nobody’s Son is an amazing feat – a deeply personal and extensively researched memoir of his parents, his childhood and adult years, exposing all the rawness of their lives together, and apart. Not to be missed.
Forty Autumns—Nina Willner. A moving and sometimes gripping memoir set on both sides of the Berlin Wall. Willner is a former American Military Intelligence officer, whose German family was separated by the Iron Curtain for more than 40 years. This book is a real-life Cold War espionage story – the author’s mother escaped East Germany at age 20, leaving behind her parents and eight siblings. She describes her mother’s harrowing escape to the west, the loss she felt in leaving her family behind, and the terrible events that took place under Communist rule and the horror of the Stasi enforcement.
Twenty-Six Seconds—Alexandra Zapruder. The author is the granddaughter of Abraham Zapruder, who had the great misfortune of filming the assassination of JFK on that fateful day in 1963. In this interesting book, she tells the amazing story of that infamous tiny bit of film (just 26 seconds long), which was the subject of decades of litigation and spawned endless conspiracy theories. Zapruder conducted extensive research in creating a complete narrative of the film, its use and misuse, and explores the issues of ownership, privacy and ethics.