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Staff Picks: Books

“Bob the Cat” – not the only Cool Pet Story around

Teresa’s blog about A Streetcat named Bob got me yearning for stories about pets who help others heal. She did such a good job advertising Bob, that I couldn’t check it out quickly – too many holds! If you are eagerly awaiting your place in the cue for Bob, consider these titles in the meanwhile:

Homer’s Odyssey – A truly inspiring 3-lb. blind cat by the name of – you guessed it-- Homer, compelled his owner, Gwen Cooper, to develop a new career, in order to properly support her felines. He survived six moves with her and saved her from an intruder in her NYC apt. Homer has spunk, character, pizazz. I’d love to meet him! The chapters about living through 9-1-1 and its aftermath, one block away from the twin towers, were especially harrowing and moving. Somehow, Cooper’s account brought home to me the true terror pet owners experienced during the ordeal in a way I’d never envisioned before.

A Dog Named Boo - Coincidentally, author Lisa Edwards experienced 9-1-1 in New York with her pets, too. Edwards is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, who turned her sensitivity about her own abuse into wisdom when training her special-needs dog, Boo. She faced life challenges--like the early death of her beloved brother from Lou Gehrig’s disease-- and passed tests to become a professional dog trainer and behavioral consultant, in spite of her learning disability, figuring if Chuck could train to become a CPA after his diagnosis, she could manage difficult tests to obtain her career. Boo had a rare physical condition, which made training slow and arduous, but which gave him a unique patience and compassion for working as a therapy dog. His progress inspired Edwards to excel, despite physical limitations.

Edwards’ description of the healing encounters of therapy dogs with family members of deceased 9-1-1 victims and the emergency rescue workers are very moving.

Tired of reading about dogs and cats? Look instead for:

Alex and Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence – and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process, by Irene M. Pepperberg

Wesley the Owl: the Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and his Girl, by Stacey O’Brien. (Another co-worker, Rebecca, turned me on to this book. I blogged about it forever ago, and I still think it’s a remarkable story.)


A Dog Named Boo

A Wonderful Year of Discussions

The Oshtemo Book Group has had a wonderful year of discussions about a variety of books. We ended the 2009-10 season with a “Readers Choice” roundtable where everyone could share a book they particularly enjoyed.

Not surprisingly, each book mentioned was a top favorite of the reader, and we all added that title to our “must read” list.

We were surprised that so many of the titles fell under the “historical fiction” category, but not all. There were several nonfiction books and a Pulitzer Prize winner as well.

So if you are looking for a good summer read you might want to check out the following titles:



Oshtemo Book Group

Notes from No Man’s Land

The best book I read in 2009 was the last one I read:  Notes from No Mans Land by Eula Biss. This stunning compilation of thirteen essays that cover topics ranging from the history of telephone poles, an early 1900s mining town named Buxton, teaching in Harlem, and Hurricane Katrina all touch on race in America in a fresh, compelling way.  It won the 2008 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize so if you didnt catch it in 2008 or 2009, definitely put it on your list for 2010.




Other favorites I read in 2009:

Whatever it Takes by Paul Tough

Acedia & Me by Kathleen Norris

What Men Call Treasure by David Schweidel

Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner

Hot, Flat & Crowded by Thomas Friedman

Crazy for the Storm by Norman Ollestad

The Believers by Zoe Heller

Everett Ruess: a Vagabond for Beauty by W.L. Rusho

Red:  Passion and Patience in the Desert by Terry Tempest Williams

Methland  by Nick Reding

The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolano

Just Like Us by Helen Thorpe

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout


Notes from No Man's Land

Another Favorite from Richard Russo

One of my “best of” books of 2009 is Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic. Interestingly enough, one of my favorites of 2008 was his previous book Bridge of Sighs. Obviously I like his storytelling and writing style.

His newest title begins and ends with a wedding and the year in between. For that year, Griffin has been driving around with his father’s ashes in the trunk. This driving around is akin to driving into his past – childhood vacations on Cape Cod, the relationship between his parents, his own honeymoon on Cape Cod and the life plans he and his wife set there.

This is a novel of introspection and family emotions centered on a middle aged man confronting his past, his troubled marriage, and his daughter’s life on the eve of her wedding. Although there are some moments of sadness, there are also some great comic scenes and an uplifting ending.


That Old Cape Magic

Kathryn Stockett’s The Help

One of my Best of 2009 titles is The Help , a debut novel by Kathryn Stockett. This historical fiction novel takes place during the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s and is an exploration of the southern culture of black maids raising the children in white families. There are 3 narrators. Eugenia is a naive white girl, a budding social activist who is home from college with a journalism degree. She doesn't subscribe to the racist attitudes that surround her and she decides to write a book about the experiences of maids in the community. Abileen is a black maid who has raised 17 white children and shares her experiences with Eugenia, and Minny, also a maid, is a sassy tell-it-like-it-is backtalker who constantly loses jobs.

This book offers a unique point-of-view perspective. The 1960s is a free South but still has the conditions of black servitude a century after the Civil War. It reveals the power of white women who trust black maids to raise their children yet despise them and can control their lives-even ruin them. This is also a story that runs the full gamut of emotions without being melodramatic. It is one of that small group of books you read where you get to the end of the book and you don't want it to end. You will laugh, you will cry, and you will thoroughly enjoy this book.


The Help

Olive Kitteridge

Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge is a "novel in stories". It is in fact, a series of 13 stories. The novel is set in Crosby, Maine a similar Northeast setting as Strout's other titles Abide With Me and Amy and Isabelle. Olive is a junior high teacher who lives in Crosby with her husband, Greg a pharmacist, and son, Christopher. Not all the stories focus on Olive and her life as they are centered on the town of Crosby, but she is the link. We accompany Olive through close to 30 years as she struggles through this thing we call life and all its challenges with love, bad communication, aging, raising children, depression, lonliness, and loss.

This is a novel about how we think life is going to be and then the harsh realilties of what really plays out. It asks the questions do we ever really know someone and do we ever really know ourselves? Strout's mastery is in how she writes about and through the layers of human emotions and interpersonal relationships, about the universal message of what it is to be deeply human in all its messy imperfections. Short stories are something readers either love or hate. Either way, I encourage you to try this book as it keeps you reading into the next and the next story. Olive Kitteridge is another one of my Best Fiction of 2009 titles!


Olive Kitteridge

Last Minute Shopping Ideas

Of course, the best and most economical way to enjoy these wonderful nonfiction books would be to use your library card (or buy one for a non-resident user) but if you're engaged in some last minute holiday shopping, try these for the friend or family member who loves to read books about history, science, cooking, philosophy, current events, memoir, or poetry.


The Dawn of the Color Photograph by David Okuefuna



Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Although author Abraham Verghese has written a number of nonfiction titles, Cutting for Stone  is his debut fiction novel. Dr. Verghese, a physician living in the United States, was actually born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where part of this novel takes place. Cutting for Stone is a compelling novel about what is broken- family ties, sibling relationships, and trust. It is a sweeping epic-type story from India, to Ethiopia and New York. A good portion of the story is narrated by Marion the identical twin of brother Shiva. The boys were born from a secret union of Sister Mary Joseph Praise, a beautiful Indiana nun, and British surgeon Thomas Stone.

Dr. Verghese's has great insight into the medical world and his impeccable research comes through in all aspects of this novel. As he writes about Ethiopia and its culture, he will draw you in to this exotic place and setting. The story of this family grips you with the terrible hardness of life with its twists and turns as these twins face the past, present and future figuring out what family, destiny, and love really mean. It is a fascinating coming-of-age, coming-to-terms-with-life page turning read, and one of my Best of 2009 titles.


Cutting for Stone

The Year of the Flood

I really enjoyed Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale  a number of years ago so I was excited that her newest title The Year of the Flood  was recently published.  The Year of the Flood is a dystopian novel like Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake, another novel of Atwood's. She likes to make her readers work and whether you think of Atwood's writings as adventure romance, or science fiction there is another way to look at them. What if? What if a world perceived as science fiction becomes reality? How does one survive catastrophic isolation? What happens when society breaks down?

In The Year of the Flood, the enviroment has been decimated, and nature has become bizarre genetic-spliced life forms. The three narrators in this book Ren, Toby, and Adam One are associated with God's Gardeners, a group which appeared in Oryx and Crake. There has been a "waterless flood" and these three characters have been islolated and do not know who or what has survived. Each must venture out of isolation in order to survive. Atwood had created an overarching story to make this book unique in that it can be read as a companion or parallel book to Oryx and Crake. If you have never read any of Atwood's titles, you can jump right in with The Year of the Flood and then go back to check out Oryx and Crake.  They are thought-provoking reads!


The Year of the Flood


See’s Shanghai Girls

One of the books I particularly enjoyed reading this year was Lisa See's Shanghai Girls. See's two previous books Snow Flower and the Secret Fan  and Peony in Love  focus on China, its culture, and women and she continues these themes in her newest title. Shanghai Girls is an historical fiction book which takes place from 1937-1957. It begins in Shanghai where sisters Pearl and May are having the time of their lives. They are modern, beautiful, carefree, independent calendar girls. That is until their father sells them to pay a debt and war begins. Their struggle to escape and survive takes them on a life changing journey to California where they experience Angel Island. 

See is a master at place and setting and her novels have a grace about them as you are transported to another world and culture. Her overarching subject in her writing is the exploration of the way woment live in other cultures, and women's destinies which are out of their control. She particularly shines in her explorations of relationships between women within the constructs of society and her strength is in writing a universal story. Shanghai Girls also presents a unique WWII perspective from the point-of-view of Chinese immigrants living in the U.S. during the war. If you are taking a look back at 2009 to see what books you missed reading, I highly recommend this title. It's one of my top picks in the best of 2009.


Shanghi Girls