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Staff Picks: Books

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.

The Girl on the Train

I don’t usually seek out psychological thrillers but I did enjoy The Girl on the Train, often compared to Gone Girl.

The story centers on Rachel who takes the train into London each day, traveling past the backyard of a happy-looking couple she names Jess and Jason. One day, Rachel sees “Jess” kissing another man and the next day “Jess” is missing.

The story is told through the eyes of three characters with plenty of inventive twists and surprising developments – at least to me. This is a page turner, perhaps to be saved for a summer beach read.

Siege Winter

I am a fan of historical fiction, so when Ariana Franklin’s newest title Siege Winter arrived, I looked forward to reading it. And with good reason, as it turns out.

The story takes place in 12th century England, around 1140, when King Stephen and his cousin, the Empress Matilda, are fighting over control of the country. Their armies and supporters battle it out, and a castle located on the Thames is considered to be a strategic location for both Stephen and Matilda. The castle, Kenilworth, belongs to 15 year old Maud, married against her wishes to a much older man. The story revolves around a long, brutal winter of siege, when mercenaries, soldiers, and a truly evil monk all scheme to achieve their own ends.

Sadly, author Ariana Franklin died while writing Siege Winter; the book was completed by her daughter. Franklin is also the author of a wonderful series set in medieval Cambridge, where an Italian woman doctor acts as a sort of medical sleuth. The first in that series is Mistress of the Art of Death, and I highly recommend that series.

Trigger Warning

In the introduction to this short story collection, Neil Gaiman wonders, “Are fictions a safe place?” and then, “Should they be safe places?” Certainly, many of his works explore dark and upsetting themes, and this collection is no different. However, there is also kindness inherent in these stories and some characters even have happy endings. I see this as a reflection of the real world, where there is always a mix of good and bad.  

As a storyteller, Gaiman’s mastery lies in his ability to create an immersive world, which then opens for the reader, encouraging them to follow along on an adventure within that world. His short stories deliver all of that depth and engagement in bite-sized pieces, and can be enjoyed in the little bits of free time life offers, or in one satisfying binge session on a lazy Saturday. This book also includes the background of how each story came to be, what inspired it, and perhaps Gaiman’s underlying purpose or intention. Some readers may prefer to imagine that great works are created by geniuses far removed from society, but I take comfort in the idea that even great authors are just people too.

Citizen: An American Lyric

Citizen: An American Lyric is a powerful meditation on race from author Claudia Rankine. It adorned many ‘best of’ lists in 2014 and was nominated for several literary awards. The slender book is an intense yet lyrical portrait of American racism in 2015 that explores both the veiled and unambiguous manifestations of this most insidious fact of life. Rankine possesses a spirited voice and expresses audacious candor in linking everyday racism with its corrosive impact upon the marginalized and powerless. Rankine’s book, characterized by a hybrid form that mixes prose, essay, memoir, and the occasional image investigates the relationship between race, invisibility and the notion of citizenship. April is National Poetry Month and for those who have not read this powerful, timely book, place it on your future reading list.

For Lizzie freedom means learning

 In Lesa Cline-Ransome's book Freedom's School, one day mama told Lizzie and her brother Paul that they “went to sleep ‘slaves’ and woke up free”. Mama said that being free means you have to work harder. “Real freedom means ‘rithmetic and writing.”

Lizzie was eager to learn but it was hard for her and Paul to leave their mama and daddy working so hard in the crop fields. Getting to school was not easy and sometimes they had rocks thrown at them. The first school was burned down. Daddy remarked that “at least they got a little learnin”. Lizzie and mama didn’t answer “Cause they knew that halfway to freedom feels like no freedom”.

Well, Lizzie got her wish. One day mama woke them up and said hurry up and get dressed and we’ll go check on Mizz Howard. They got there to see men working on rebuilding the school and Mizz Howard was ready to start lessons.