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Staff Picks: Books

The Magic Mirror

Kamara had a hard day at school. One of the boys called her names and used some nasty words talking about her. The one bright spot is that she is on her way to gramma’s house. Kamara knew that gramma would make her feel better. And gramma did. Gramma sent Kamara to clean the mirror upstairs. It was a mirror that had been passed down from her great grandmother to her grandmother and it turned out to be a magic mirror. When Kamara started rubbing the mirror she saw another young girl’s eyes staring back at her.  Through the eyes of women throughout the past centuries Kamara was able to see the violence, hatred and poverty that women of color have faced throughout history. Through it Kamara sees humiliation and determination. She sees pride, beauty and courage.  

There is a lot of history in this very small book. In The Magic Mirror Zetta Elliott does an amazing job of teaching history and courage. She sends the message to young girls that they are not alone.


Station Eleven

"Because survival is insufficient."

With those words (amusingly taken from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager) as their creed, the remnants of a near-future worldwide epidemic attempt to not only survive, but also maintain their humanity. Station Eleven presents several overlapping stories, spanning decades both pre- and post-apocalypse, all revolving around washed-up actor Arthur Leander, who dies onstage during a performance of King Lear moments before the beginning of the epidemic that ends civilization.

Like The Road with a (marginally) more optimistic outlook on life, or the world of Mad Max populated by theater majors instead of post-nuclear mutants, Station Eleven asks what it means to truly be human in a landscape where humanity is severely diminished. A significant portion of the book follows a nomadic theater troupe as they wander between the scattered settlements of the Great Lakes region, performing Shakespeare while fighting off bandit attacks and foraging for food. The most quietly devastating section, however, is the last third of the novel, taking place at a small airport in Indiana where the last remnants of humanity slowly congregate, complete with all of its' struggles and triumphs realized in miniature.

Quiet and contemplative, and beautiful as it is brutal, Station Eleven is a welcome and refreshing take on the post-apocalyptic disaster genre.

 


California

I recently picked up author Edan Lepucki’s debut novel California from the Central library’s Library Reads display after seeing its cool cover there for several weeks. I’m happy to report that I have yet to be disappointed by the quality of any of the Library Reads selections that I have read and California is certainly no exception to that rule. California follows the story Micah and Cal, newlywed twenty-something Los Angeles residents, as they flee the city and the seemingly imminent total collapse of civilization for the northern California wilderness. What they find in that wilderness and how they survive will weave together their personal and family histories with more and more mystery and complexity being added along the way to keep you wildly turning the pages until the very end.


At the Water's Edge

This new title by Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants, is another well written period novel, this time World War II in a small village in the Scottish Highlands.

It is a love story, an examination of the impact of war on a naïve young woman, the search for the Loch Ness monster, and a husband’s spiral into self-deception. At times the story is quite believable, others times it is a stretch. I did keep reading to the end though.

I consider this a good beach read, better than many of that unofficial genre.

 


Landline

Georgie McCool (yes, that’s her real name) is a writer for a successful sitcom living in L.A. with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create her dream t.v. show—but she needs to have the first few episodes written within the week.  And it happens to be Christmas week.  Ever the workaholic, Georgie skips a family vacation to Omaha, much to the dismay of her husband Neal.  Georgie’s inability to get a hold of her husband after he leaves town makes her wonder if he’s left her for good.  It isn’t until Georgie makes a call from the landline in her childhood bedroom and reaches Neal 15 years in the past that she realizes what she’s potentially lost.

The plot of Landline sounds like a cheesy romantic comedy, but Rainbow Rowell has a talent for creating believable characters with realistic dialogue.  I’ve found it to be an enjoyable read thanks to the very relatable characters.


Take a Chance with a Couple of Kooks

Miranda July is a Renaissance woman; she’s a fearless explorer in multiple artistic mediums: a filmmaker, a writer, and a performance artist. I’ve been a fan of hers since I saw her movie Me and You and Everyone We Know, an idiosyncratic independent film that addresses loneliness and human connection in contemporary society.  Loneliness and connection are common topics in her work, and her latest artistic venture, the novel The First Bad Man, is no exception to that.  Cheryl Glickman is a middle-aged single woman who has her life organized to virtual non-existence; she has an elaborate system set up (this includes having just enough dishes for one person for one meal) to avoid devolving into a depressed, hoarding, non-bathing mess.  But there wouldn’t be a story here if her life just continued on lonely and tidy—things change drastically when her bosses’ 21-year-old daughter moves in with her.  The First Bad Man is weirdly wonderful. The characters appear odd at first, but really their thoughts, emotions, and illogical natures are so utterly human. I’d recommend this to anyone who’s a fan of Miranda July or who likes eccentric, well-developed characters.


Get in Trouble: Stories

This book was recommended to me by a friend who understands my love for short stories that involve an element of magical realism. Watching a story move from mundane and everyday activities into the fantastical always grabs my interest. For example, the story “Summer People” starts exploring the life of a teenage girl who helps her father maintain the summer homes of the well-to-do. However, one house contains guests that are always just out of view and are certainly more magic than the average human, if they are human at all.

After reading these stories, I almost feel like my totally normal life may suddenly take a magical turn. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) that hasn't happened to me yet. But there is always tomorrow, right?


Broken Monsters

Recently I stumbled upon a great list from Paste Magazine, “Required Reading: 30 of the Best Horror Books.” Being a huge fan of the genre, I decided to see which titles I have not yet read and almost immediately discovered Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes. This critically acclaimed book was on a ton of “Best of 2014” lists and I had read that Beukes is quickly becoming a heavy hitter in the genre. The story is perfect for fans of HBO’s True Detective series, dark and creepy with a setting that will evoke goosebumps - modern Detroit. 

This tale told from the perspectives of many different characters, including the “Detroit Monster,” will drag you through the dirty and scary streets of the Motor City. Beukes expertly weaves the recent fascination of the city’s “ruin porn” with a malevolent force trying to piece together humans and animals. Is the city worth saving? Who exactly are the “broken monsters” in the story? The end is not only rich and well-crafted, but also forces you to think even beyond the final page. This book is destined to be a classic and not just in the horror genre.


The Children's Crusade

Despite the fact that I have the opportunity to read early reviews of upcoming fiction books, I don’t often end up reading those that interest me immediately upon publication, but rather months or years after they “hit the street.” This one was different. Something in those early reviews just struck a chord with me and caused me to place a hold on it as soon as I knew it had been ordered. And I wasn’t disappointed.

This work of realistic fiction chronicles the life of a family—husband, wife, and four children—from the time of the parents’ courtship until the death of the father and beyond, examining along the way each unique personality and the relationships that developed between siblings, between parent and child, and between spouses. The point of view changes often as does the chronological setting but I liked that. It helped me feel, by the time I was done reading it, as if I had known these characters for a long time and had actually witnessed the family’s struggles over time. Theirs is not altogether a happy story, but what family story is?


Remembering Ivan Doig

Ivan Doig has been one of my favorite writers since I first discovered his books 10-15 years ago. I was sad to read he passed away earlier this month.

Doig wrote primarily of the western landscape and people, usually with a Montana setting where he was born in 1939 and grew up, often accompanying his father on ranch jobs along the Rocky Mountain Front. His use of language, development of the characters, and description of the land stayed with me long after I’d finished each book.

He wrote both fiction and nonfiction; three Montana novels – English Creek, Dancing at the Rascal Fair, and Ride With Me Mariah Montana, form a trilogy covering the first century of Montana’s statehood from 1889 to 1989.

Tributes to him mention his final book to be published later this year: Last Bus to Wisdom. I’ll be watching our new books for it and in the meantime plan to reread some of my favorites.