People who work in libraries tend to be fond of reading. For us, the old saying "So many books, so little time" resonates all too well. Below are book reviews from some of our staff covering a sampling of the many books we have enjoyed over the years.
This is a slim book of short stories that is well worth reading even if you are typically not a huge fan of short stories. The stories are interconnected through the title character Olive so the book reads more like a novel. At first glance, Olive appears to be a rather gruff, unlikeable character but as the stories progress, the reader discovers a tender, funny, and very human side of Olive. These richly written stories set in a small coastal town in Maine are sorrowful and humorous, depressing and hopeful...ultimately a great read!
- Joni Roberts, Librarian (10/11)
A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr is so brief it is difficult to describe without giving away all the surprises. Because, at its heart, it is a book about surprise – the surprise of the narrator at the quiet joy of discovery, the surprise of the reader at the powerful feelings the author creates in so few words. The book is set in northern England in the year following the Great War; the narrator is a veteran of that war, working his way back to humanity while uncovering a lost masterpiece. Carr creates images with deft strokes, drawing you into the world of the narrator. His redemption becomes yours, bringing you to an emotional discovery of your own.
- Rose Marie Walter, Archivist (11/11)
Nothing yet written creates the Christmas world like A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. If you have lost the happiness Christmas used to bring, A Christmas Carol will help you find your way back; if you feel overwhelmed by the deluge of advertisements facing you, this book will sweep you into a world focused on the peace and wonder of the season; if your budget this year means Christmas will be simple, frugal even, A Christmas Carol will make it rich and remind you how little is needed to create Christmas joy. At every reading, you start out as Scrooge, follow his journey through the past and end the book laughing with new delight at the miracle of Christmas. Give yourself the best present possible this year, read A Christmas Carol and find home.
- Rose Marie Walter, Archivist (12/11)
This lyrical novel tells the stories of Japanese women who came to California as “picture brides” between the two world wars of the 20th century. Early on, as the women try to make sense of their new surroundings, they are told, ”You now belong to the invisible world.” It is this world of the immigrant maid, farm worker, wife, and mother that we are led into by Otsuka’s captivating prose. Written in the first person plural and using brief passages, Otsuka takes the reader on a journey of shared experiences—“They gave us new names. They called us Helen and Lily. They called us Pearl.” Yet she conveys just enough detail about the women’s lives to make for a rich and often heart-breaking narrative.
– Carol Drost, Librarian (2/12)
For thousands of years, religions have held massive influence over societies. Rulers have risen and fallen because of religions; economies have been built around them; and people continue to govern their day lives according to their rituals and theologies. The theme throughout this book is that while religions have many similarities, they are not the same and to declare so is “dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue.”
The author, Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, examines some of the most influential world religions (Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Yoruba, Daoism, and Atheism). He looks at how each of these religions addresses specific human problems, such as Islam with the problem of pride and the solution of submission or Christianity with the problem of sin and the solution of salvation.
This is not a book on the history of religions, nor does it provide an in-depth perspective on these religions. Rather it encapsulates the core beliefs and gives insight as to how they continue to rock the world.
– John Repplinger, Librarian (3/12)
If you've always been intrigued by multiple personality disorder (or dissociative identity disorder), this is the novel for you. Set This House in Order is a quirky, complicated, and very engaging story of self-discovery, growth, and healing.
The protagonist, Andy Gage, and the many other personalities that share an imagined house in his head are often delightful, occasionally despicable, but always interesting. And to make matters even more intriguing it turns out that Penny Driver, Andy's new coworker, is also a multiple personality.
There is a lot going on in this book and in the hands of a less skilled writer, this novel could devolve into confusion and chaos. But Matt Ruff, a talented writer from Seattle, rises to the challenge and creates a beautifully written book that offers a fascinating and sensitive glimpse into mental illness. The book might take a little bit of patience to get into but it is well worth the effort.
- Joni Roberts, Librarian (5/12)
The second in a trilogy, Bring up the Bodies covers the period during King Henry the VIII’s reign when Henry once again seeks to remove his current queen, Ann Boleyn, in order to marry Jane Seymour.
While the story has been told often, and sometimes very well, Mantel focuses not on Henry or Ann, but on Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s advisor, and, according to Mantel, the true brains behind many of Henry’s policies and deeds.
As she did in the first book of the trilogy, Wolf Hall, Mantel paints a vivid portrait of Tudor England, conveying the physical elements—the food, the clothing, the decorations of the living quarters—along with the politics, social conflicts and personal strengths and weaknesses of her characters.
– Ford Schmidt, Librarian (9/12)
The day after his twin sons were born, Anthony Doerr received the letter telling him he had been awarded the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and with it a stipend and writing studio in Rome for one year. Six months later, laden with diapers, baby food, two baby carriers, two cribs, two of everything, he and his wife Shauna left with Henry and Owen for the adventure that is living in Rome with twin baby boys. Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World celebrates that adventure in exquisite detail. Italian food, customs, ancient villages, medical practices, the writings of Pliny the Elder – Doerr describes sensuous experiences, excruciating exhaustion and the funeral of Pope John Paul II so vividly you feel you are present. The only experience better than reading this book is going to Rome!-- Rose Marie Walter, Archivist (10/12)
If you enjoy historical mysteries, See Delphi and Die (set in A.D. 76), will not disappoint! This is the seventeenth of twenty books in the Marcus Didius Falco series by Lindsey Davis.
Falco is a private detective/informant/spy hired by the Roman Empire to investigate gruesome murders that occur throughout the land. Although he doesn’t enjoy his line of work, particularly when it involves dead people, mortal danger to himself or family, or reporting back to his cheapskate employer, Falco is good at solving mysteries.
In See Delphi and Die, Falco is on a business trip when he gets entwined in a pair of unsolved murders at the ancient site of the Olympic Games. Was it someone from the unconventional traveling group, the curious foreign foods, or the gods themselves who knocked off these two young Roman women?
Davis’ tongue-in-check humor and unique storyline will leave you reaching for the next Falco book in no time!
– John Repplinger, Librarian (11/12)
The Rapture has come and gone, leaving behind an assorted group of survivors. Civilization limps on, but the emotional and psychological damage inflicted on the “leftovers” is what Perotta focuses on. The loss of loved ones weighs heavily on some, while the more religious find their beliefs in tatters—why were they not chosen? Why were others--sinners, non-believers, Muslims, Hindus—taken?
The responses of those left behind vary. Some join newfound cults. Some try to carry on as before, but always the sense of loss pervades their lives.
– Ford Schmidt, Librarian (12/12)
This absorbing novel about the possibility of human extinction could be a prequel to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The story begins conventionally enough, with the marriage of former flight attendant, Jiselle, to a pilot who is a widower with three children. At first Jiselle thinks she has stepped into a perfect world, but things change quickly as she grapples with her new roles as full time stepmother and wife to a mostly absent husband. Added to the family’s stress is the growing presence of a pandemic, dubbed the “Phoenix flu.”
The flu and its rising death toll spread throughout the world, and the family is forced to alter routine activities and behaviors — first in minor ways, then more severely as food and fuel become scarce, ATMs stop dispensing money, schools close, and finally, communication and power sources function only intermittently. As a result of their rapidly deteriorating circumstances, the family members gradually grow into a productive community and at times discover beauty amid the horror and loss.
Fans of speculative fiction will find Kasischke’s vision of the disintegration of everyday life and the resulting breakdown of society both disquieting and poetic.
- Carol Drost, Librarian (1/13-2/13)
When was the last time you read a book that was screwball funny, poignant, thought provoking and emotionally satisfying all at the same time? Set in Seattle, Where’d you go, Bernadette by Maria Semple is such a book. Dysfunctional families are the norm in fiction, but this family is unique and Ms. Semple, whose credits include writing for Mad About You and Arrested Development, hooks you in the first chapter with the imagination and wit of her characters. Jonathan Franzen’s jacket blurb said, in part, “I tore through this book with heedless pleasure.” I couldn’t put it better myself!
– Rose Marie Walter, Archivist (3/13)
Yet another zombie apocalypse story? Perhaps, but in Whitehead’s telling, we are presented not so much with murder and mayhem caused by the carnivorous undead, but the psychological damage inflicted on those left to deal with them. Told through the eyes of Mark Spitz, (not the character’s real name, but one he uses, and an inside joke not explained until well into the novel) we see the loneliness and the psychic toll of living in a constant state of alertness and fear.
– Ford Schmidt, Librarian (4/13)
If you are looking for a fast-paced, action-packed, summer-fun read, The Orchardist is probably NOT the book for you. On the other hand, if you're searching for a thoughtful, quiet, beautifully written novel to savor, check out The Orchardist. Set at the turn of the century in the state of Washington, the book introduces us to William Talmadge who lives a quiet, solitary life tending his orchards until two pregnant girls appear on the scene. The compelling story that unfolds is terribly sad and wonderfully touching. The evocative descriptions of the Northwest and the remarkable strength of the characters make this book hard to put down. Amanda Coplin, a Portland author, has written an amazing first novel and we can only hope that she has many more tales to tell.
– Joni Roberts, Librarian (Thanks to Gretchen Moon, Professor of English, for recommending this book to me!) (6/13)
A young wife disappears, and her husband becomes the primary suspect in her disappearance. Both narrate the story, she from the past, he from the present, until past and present meet. Neither person is who they initially seem, and the development of what really happened is only one of the many strengths the author displays in her writing.
– Ford Schmidt, Librarian (9/13)
Vincent Van Gogh sold one painting during his lifetime, was reviled by many artists and critics of his time, died at age thirty-seven, few people attended his funeral. Yet his work changed painting in ways that are still being explored. Van Gogh: The Life is an engrossing, fascinating biography of this mercurial artist that will stand as the definitive work for many years. The authors’ analysis of his life experience and descriptions of every work of art he created – showing how his painting style often matched the emotional trauma he was experiencing at the time – provide a depth of information that deserves careful, thoughtful reading. If you value art and an understanding of the importance of Van Gogh’s influence, this book is worth your time and effort. Then, listen to Don McLean’s Starry, Starry Night.
– Rose Marie Walter, Archivist (10/13)
Love, friendship, religion; being a son, brother, pastor, husband, father; reminiscences, life experience, explaining a spiritual journey – Marilynne Robinson’s narrator in Gilead mines each of these emotional experiences to explain his life to his son. And, as you share his life with him, you find yourself exploring each emotion of your life to discover what your life means as well. Set in the Mid-West in the 1950’s, the narrator’s letter to his son becomes a treatise on the choices we make and the consequences we live with, yet it is not melancholy or sad. Despite the sorrow he expresses at certain outcomes in his life, his ultimate expression of joy and love comes in my favorite line of the book, “There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.” Let Gilead help you find your reasons. It is worth the journey.– Rose Marie Walter, Archivist (12/13-1/14)
Winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Orphan Master's Son is a big brute of a novel. It is not an easy read but eventually it grabs a hold of the reader and refuses to let go. The story is set in North Korea and offers a fascinating glimpse into this enigmatic country. The protagonist, Pak Jun Do, provides a variety of different services (tunnel soldier, kidnapper, spy) to the state and introduces us to a host of interesting characters along the way. The bleakness and desperation of Jun Do's life is offset by moments of beauty, kindness, and even love. And although this story of oppression and violence is often difficult to read, Johnson manages to interject humor to help lighten the darkness. Adam Johnson has written an unusual, fantastical novel; this complicated and compelling tale stays with the reader long after the last page has been turned.
- Joni Roberts, Librarian (2/14)
Physical fitness is a major force in today’s society with countless types of exercise equipment, television shows like the "Biggest Loser," and specialized diets such as gluten-free. In the U.S., over $20 billion dollars is spent on gym memberships and fitness-related products each year. Shelly McKenzie’s book, Getting Physical, provides an excellent historical overview of fitness as well as offering insights into the future direction of fitness in the United States. Most people don’t realize that our modern emphasis on exercise stems back to the Cold War! This is a well-researched book and an enlightening read.
- John Repplinger, Librarian (3/14)
An updating of The Scarlet Letter with an intertwining of The Handmaid’s Tale, this novel is set in a religiously fundamentalist future where crime is punished by melachroming, or genetically dying the skin, of the perpetrators. The so-called “chromes,” color coded according to their crimes (yellow for minor infractions, blue for child molesters, and red for murderers), are then released into society as a vivid reminder of their crimes. Hannah’s crime is murder, for aborting the unborn child conceived from a relationship with the pastor of her megachurch. Refusing to name him as the father, and additionally unwilling to implicate the abortionist, she tries to make her way through a hostile world.– Ford Schmidt, Librarian (4/14-7/14)
Set in contemporary Mumbai, this novel traces the lives of two women—Sera, an upper middle class Parsi widow, and Bhima, Sera’s long-time domestic servant. Over the years, the two women have come to rely on each other in complicated ways that transcend their respective positions. Both women have suffered through marriages that began well and then unraveled. Both have experienced the joy and heartbreak of parenthood. However, always present is the space between them—both literally and figuratively. It is this space that Umrigar explores so well as the story of each woman’s life unfolds.
Bhima navigates a world full of contrasts as she travels daily from her current home in the slums of Mumbai to Sera’s modern apartment. When the adult granddaughter whom Bhima has raised reveals that she is pregnant, Bhima’s life becomes increasingly insecure, and the pregnancy ends up having lasting repercussions for both Bhima’s and Sera’s families.
Sera’s life is prosperous and comfortable, yet she is haunted by memories of the unhappiness and pain she suffered while trying to be a loving wife to her husband and a dutiful daughter to her mother-in-law. And while Sera’s successful daughter and son-in-law now live with her, the family’s seemingly contented life is more fragile than it appears.
Umrigar weaves their stories into a dramatic conclusion where social class proves stronger than the attachments created through gender and friendship.