SDPL Recommended Books

Staff Picks 2017


 
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz ChastReviewed by Jason Rogers
Librarian II, Humanities Section, Central Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, June 11, 2017
 
Chast’s graphic memoir allows her to deal with the issue of aging parents with both humor and sadness. The book starts with an overview of Chast’s early life and her relationship with her parents, but the bulk of the story deals with her parents in their later years. As their health begins to fail and independent living becomes more of a struggle, Chast must learn both how to care for them and how these changing family dynamics will affect her relationships. The cartoon artwork allows for moments of much-needed levity to be injected into the story, although the pictures can also pack an emotional wallop – the portrait of Chast’s father welcoming his wife home from the hospital is one such panel. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant is a quick read, but one that will leave the reader thinking about important issues.
 
The Good Soldier Svejk and His Fortunes in the World WarReviewed by Jason Rogers
Librarian II, Humanities Section, Central Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, May 28, 2017
 
The Good Soldier Svejk is an epic of the First World War – of a kind. This is not a book of military victories and heroism in battle, but rather a rambling, comic look at the absurdity of a war that few understood the causes of. At the outbreak of the war, Svejk volunteers for the Austro-Hungarian army, though his own enthusiasm causes him some difficulties in acclimating to military life. The plot of the book follows Svejk and his regiment through their military preparations, although more time is spent on side stories, anecdotes and misadventures than actual training. The book is often laugh-out-loud funny, although you may have trouble deciding whether Svejk is the dumbest character in the book or the smartest.
 
Fifty-Nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had by Edward AchornReviewed by Jason Rogers
Librarian II, Humanities Section, Central Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, May 14, 2017
 
Baseball is considered a traditional game, but it has changed tremendously since its early days. The formative years of major league baseball are often overlooked today, but featured some fascinating characters. Edward Achorn takes a close look at one of them, Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn, possessor of not just a colorful nickname but also an eye-popping record: 59 wins in the 1884 season. Achorn recounts that season’s pennant races, Radbourn’s efforts in it and the possible reasons behind it. A journalist from Rhode Island, Achorn gives the reader context for the colorful characters and rough-hewn world of baseball in that era. Anyone interested in baseball history or that era in general will be interested in this book.
 
The Sports Gene by David EpsteinReviewed by Jason Rogers
Librarian II, Humanities Section, Central Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, April 30, 2017
 
David Epstein, a journalist and former college athlete, takes a clear-eyed look at the science behind greatness in sports. This book examines how genetics affect athletic performance in sports ranging from track and field to volleyball to dogsledding covering topics including eyesight, endurance and work ethic. He uncovers some surprising genetic traits – and finds some that seem obvious but turn out to be more complicated. Epstein takes the science seriously and doesn’t shy away from complicated areas, but has the gift to explain them clearly. The book is engaging and the topics flow well from one to another, keeping the book moving at a nice pace and allowing readers to make sense of the big picture. Like good science, the book provides as many questions as answers, but is a fascinating look at the science of athletics.
 
Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age by Susan Jacoby Reviewed by Robin Frame
Library Aide, Central Library, San Diego Public Library
San Diego Union Tribune, April 16, 2017
 
Most humans are extremely interested in how long they will live and what quality of life will be like in their elder years. For Boomers, what is being old really like these days? “Never Say Die” offers up a reality check on important perspectives on aging. Amidst a culture of heavy marketing towards ideals such as longevity, anti-aging, and the comfort of leisure in our final twenty years, “Never Say Die” examines half-truths such as the miracles of modern medicine, the ‘wisdom’ of old age, the industrial complex we call Medicare, and making our money last. The book also discusses the single-sex, female culture of old age. Then of course there is dementia! Ouch! Depressing? Rather, “Never Say Die” encourages us to face this time of life with eyes wide open.
 
The Hike by Drew MagaryReviewed by Pete Miesner
Manager, Art, Music, and Recreation Section, Central Library
San Diego Union Tribune, April 2, 2017
 
From a witty and somewhat irreverent protagonist’s view we see what was meant to be a weekend business trip to a remote hotel detour to a twisted parallel dimension. Magary wastes no time to put the hooks in his reader. On an innocent afternoon walk in the woods surrounding his hotel, Ben finds himself thrown into a world with homicidal dog-faced humans, demons, man-eating giants, a talking crab and much more. Relying on his wits, magical resources, and a host of unlikely alliances, he must make this uncertain journey of discovery in order to make it back to his real world where hopefully his wife and children are still waiting for him. In this endeavor, Ben examines his own life and realizes what and who is important to him. Maybe we call this a “literary fantasy”? Whatever the case, it is a thoroughly funny and emotional thrill ride.
 
The Giving Quilt by Jennifer Chiaverini Reviewed by Helene Idels
Librarian II, Central Library, San Diego Public Library
San Diego Union Tribune, March 19, 2017
 
The Elm Creek Quilts series by Jennifer Chiaverini provides engaging reading in print or audiobook format.  By chance, I began with “The Giving Quilt” and followed with “The Union Quilters” to satisfy my history-buff interests.  “The Giving Quilt” is especially endearing as it follows the stories of students at the fictional Elm Creek Manor Quilt Camp in rural Pennsylvania during the Thanksgiving holiday season for the “Quiltsgiving” winter session.  Ultimately the student’s quilts are donated to the actual Project Linus organization for children in need. “The Union Quilters” is a historical fiction that follows several families during Civil War era Water’s Ford, PA, home of Elm Creek Manor.  The reader is drawn in as tragic and heartwarming stories unfold thus laying the groundwork for future generations of Elm Creek quilters.  One can enjoy the books in any order in this series while developing a fondness for the many charming characters.
 
Mr. Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult by Bohumil HrabalReviewed by Jason Rogers
Librarian II, Central Library, San Diego Public Library
San Diego Union Tribune, March 5, 2017
 
This book presents short stories from the early career of Hrabal, a master prose stylist. The stories depict daily life for people in newly Communist Czechoslovakia. The tales include stories of the workdays and off nights at a large steelworks; the evolving internal life of a ticket-taker; construction workers creating or destroying statues; and the efforts of a beleaguered artist, among other quirky characters. The stories range in tone from absurd to prosaic to beautifully melancholic, sometimes within the same story. What holds the collection together is Hrabal’s gift for finding the surreal in the reality of everyday life. The characters in these stories are all struggling, in different ways, to come to grips with their new reality and trying to define what meaning their lives hold. Hrabal, and translator Paul Wilson, renders this through almost musical prose, particularly in the final story, “Beautiful Poldi.”
 
First Women by Kate Andersen BrowerReviewed by Julie K. Wong 
Library Assistant, Carmel Valley Branch, San Diego Public Library 
San Diego Union Tribune, February 19, 2017
 
This fascinating book explains how each of these modern First Ladies, from Jacqueline Kennedy to Michele Obama, approached this unique role. The author interviewed the inner circles of staff and friends to make comparisons to each predecessor and to reveal the admiration, friendships, or disdain that developed among the First Ladies. It is not all glitz and glamour. Public and media scrutiny leave few opportunities for privacy. The family quarters of the White House give the most privacy, but even there the Secret Service and numerous staff are a constant reminder that it is not only the First Family's home but also a public museum and a favorite tourist attraction. It will be interesting to see what the future will bring in how the definition of the President's spouse will not be confined to gender. The term First Ladies needs redefining as the role continues to evolve. 
 
KooKooLand by Gloria Norris Reviewed by Kristina Garcia
Librarian II, Central Library, San Diego Public Library
San Diego Union Tribune, February 5, 2017
 
Often biographies of dysfunction in families are viewed from the outside, from a retrospective view or as a survival story. You know what you are dealing with going in. In “KooKooLand”, the full extent of dysfunction crossing into real danger unfolds as the author, Gloria Norris, matures. When she is five years old, Gloria’s father is the center of the world – letting her be his sidekick for his questionable business dealings while always showing himself as the fastest, smartest, and strongest. She absorbs his lingo and his worldview. As time goes on, however, Gloria comes to the realization that what she knows as “normal” life is actually the opposite. A riveting description of a man that in the past might have been described as macho, charming, or powerful, but would be characterized quite differently today.
 
Singing School by Robert PinskyReviewed by Bobbie Xuereb
Librarian II, Kensington-Normal Heights Branch
San Diego Union Tribune, January 22, 2017
 
If you are like me, you like some poetry but are not exactly sure why. Should we just try to glean the meaning of words we don’t recognize in a poem through context or look them up?  “Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters” by U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky is a readable classroom with bite-size pieces of information. The book is broken up into 4 section headings: 1. Freedom - poetry without rules. 2. Listening - is there music in the word structure? 3. Form - how is the poem arranged? 4. Dreaming Things Up – what is in this poem that you cannot explain and yet respond to. Pinsky brings a wide selection of poets to present.  Pick a poet and read in any order that suits your mood, while your path is guided by the Poet Laureate who wants the reader to relax and enjoy. 
 
Singing Bones by Shaun TanReviewed by Katherine Wolf
Librarian II, Central Library, San Diego Public Library
San Diego Union Tribune, January 8, 2017
 
This remarkable book uniquely illustrates the Grimms’ tales with sculptures created by an artist and illustrator who excels at visual storytelling. Photographs of Shaun Tan’s artworks are paired on facing pages with extracts of Grimms’ tales written by folklore expert Jack Zipes. Tan believes that “what matters above all else are the hard bones of the story” and each of his small sculptures capture the essence of a familiar tale. The three-dimensional figures bring new life to the stories with a stark simplicity of form and sparing use of color. Tan acknowledges his inspiration from Inuit stone carvings and Neil Gaiman’s foreword notes the similarity: “They feel primal, as if they were made in a long-ago age of the world, when the stories were first being shaped.” The book can be enjoyed on its own for the extraordinary artwork, but also for the enduring appeal of the stories themselves. 

Staff Picks 2016

 
The Boy in His Winter - Norman LockReviewed by Melissa Martin
Branch Manager, University Community Branch Library
San Diego Union Tribune, December 25, 2016
 
Norman Lock reimagines the timeless adventure of Huck Finn and Jim on the raft over the course of nearly three hundred years down the Mississippi River. The fantastical journey centers around a forever youthful Huck who stops at various places and points in time along the river. He meets up with an adult Tom Sawyer, observes the Siege of Vicksburg in the Civil War, and tragically loses his companion Jim during a stop in the 1960s. Eventually, Huck steps off the raft into 2005 during Hurricane Katrina and begins a real, and not so idyllic, journey toward adulthood. Huck’s reminiscences of his life living as his alter ego are very contemporary and real, but his narration is imbued with the carefree charm and personality which brings the reader back again and again to Huck Finn as the beloved literary character loved and remembered by readers everywhere.
 
The Trespasser - Tana FrenchReviewed by Brenda Wegener
Branch Manager, Carmel Valley Branch Library, San Diego Public Library

San Diego Union Tribune, December 11, 2016

The sixth and arguably the best of French’s Irish detective novels featuring the Dublin Murder Squad. Detective Antoinette Conway is still feeling on shaky ground as part of the Murder Squad. It’s clear that her male colleagues are not happy to have her. So when a beautiful young blonde is found murdered in her apartment, Antoinette is assigned to the case and soon begins to feel like obstacles are being put in her way from within the department. Everyone wants the case wrapped up quickly but Conway and her partner, Moran begin seeing inconsistencies that no one else will acknowledge. And if this weren’t enough, the case begins to look like a detective’s worst nightmare—an inside job. A cleverly plotted book that will surprise you right up to the end.

 
H is for Hawk - Helen MacdonaldReviewed by Katherine Wolf
Librarian II, Central Library, San Diego Public Library
San Diego Union Tribune, November 27, 2016
 
On the surface, this is a memoir about the year that English scholar and falconer Helen Macdonald spent training a hawk after the sudden death of her father, a London photojournalist. Told with a poet’s insight and gift for language, Macdonald’s personal journey through grief expands to include history, myth, literature, and a fascinating view of the traditionally male sport of falconry. Her story unfolds alongside that of author T.H. White (“The Once and Future King”), who also tried to train a hawk during a difficult period of his life. Macdonald’s account will resonate with anyone who has ever been gut-punched by grief or sought solace in nature. A literary exploration of human psychology and animal behavior, “H is for Hawk” is ultimately about the bonds between living beings, whether human or animal.


Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald's Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away - Lisa Napoli 

Reviewed by Bobbie Xuereb
Librarian II, Kensington-Normal Heights Branch, San Diego Public Library
San Diego Union Tribune, November 13, 2016
 
San Diegans know the name Joan Kroc very well. We might see it while driving on University Avenue passing The Salvation Army Kroc Center or visiting the University of San Diego campus for a lecture at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice or listening to KPBS. But, do we really know about the complicated and intertwined lives that created these landmarks? Journalist Lisa Napoli brings Ray and Joan Kroc to life for the reader. Ray as a man who was powerful in many ways including his influence over his wife, and Joan who left a major philanthropic legacy. Lisa Napoli shows herself as both a storyteller and a journalist as she pulls back the curtain and we meet the man behind McDonald’s, and follow the transformation of his wife Joan from “Wretched City,” South Dakota to benefactor.
Night Work - David C. TaylorReviewed by Melissa Martin
Branch Manager, University Community Branch Library, San Diego Public Library
San Diego Union Tribune, October 30, 2016
 
Taylor’s sequel to “Night Life” (2015) opens on the eve of the Cuban Revolution, when Detective Michael Cassidy rescues his former lover and KGB spy Dylan McCue, who is scheduled for execution in a Cuban prison. Upon his return to New York, Cassidy is assigned to the security detail when Fidel Castro visits the city. His life is further complicated by a plot to kill Castro, a murder with ties to Cassidy’s family and a liaison with a beautiful woman. Taylor has written a satisfying police procedural with a solid plot and a cast of characters that showcases life in New York City in the late 1950s.


My Family and Other Animals - Gerald Durrell 

Reviewed by Katherine Wolf
Librarian II, Central Library, San Diego Public Library
San Diego Union Tribune, October 16, 2016
 
Gerald Durrell’s sense of wonder and infectious enthusiasm for nature’s diverse creatures, including his eccentric family, make this account of his childhood adventures on the Greek island of Corfu a pleasure to read. Written with dry wit and keen observation, Durrell blends scientific details of native fauna and descriptions of the island’s natural beauty with entertaining family anecdotes about their close encounters with local animals and insects. In 1935, ten-year-old Gerry arrived on Corfu with his widowed mother and three older siblings, including brother Larry the novelist (Lawrence Durrell). They stayed five years until WWII forced their return to England. The budding naturalist’s boyish compulsion to capture animals and insects for study and companionship grew into an adult passion for wildlife conservation. In 1959, soon after writing this book, he founded his own zoo on the island of Jersey, the Durrell Wildlife Park, exclusively for the care and protection of rare and endangered species. 
 
Reviewed by Jennifer Geran
Branch Manager, City Heights/Weingart Library
San Diego Union Tribune, October 2, 2016
 
A self-help book based on the life of the laziest man in literature, the author presents Proust’s lifelong search for beauty and meaning and attempts to answer such questions as: “How to Love Life Today,” and, “How to Suffer Successfully.”  Entertaining and informative, with side trips into Edwardian era exercises for young girls, a typogram of a Proustian sentence winding around a wineglass 17 times, and a Monty Python reference, this book distils ideas about expanding the details of the story in order to appreciate the moment, finding beauty in everyday objects; also that examining suffering can mitigate pain, that only your unique voice can express truthful emotion, and that unvarnished truth has no place in friendship. De Botton unpacks it all with the fascination and enthusiasm of a favorite college professor; reading the original is not necessary, but he might just make you want to. 
 
Reviewed by Bobbie Xuereb
Librarian II, Kensington Branch Library
San Diego Union Tribune, September 18, 2016
 
This is a very unique book! It doesn’t fit neatly into any category. Is it young adult or adult? Is it a Holocaust story? Historical fiction? Magic realism? Folklore? Debut author Savit is a masterful storyteller. The story begins in Poland with 7-year-old Anna whose linguistics professor father has been taken away by the Germans for being an intellectual. Anna is left to fend for herself and gravitates towards an odd man who communicates with birds. Additionally, this is a great book for book clubs and teachers as it is ripe for discussion and students will love the tragic nature of the Anna’s story and her surrogate father. The bonus is that it can be read and listened to. The audio book narrated by Allan Corduner is mesmerizing. This is a perfect marriage of story and narration. A story that is haunting, beautiful and hopeful. 
 
City of the Lost by Kelley ArmstrongReviewed by Kristina Garcia
Librarian II, Central Library, San Diego Public Library
San Diego Union Tribune, September 4, 2016
 
This book is a multi-layered mystery with a bit of horror movie action thrown in as murder creeps into an isolated Yukon Territory village. This village is purposely insulated, however, being populated entirely by people who “need to disappear” from their previous lives for varying degrees of time. Author Armstrong has created a perfect recipe for secrets to abound in the background of each citizen, the unidentified council that controls admission of residents, and in the surrounding wilderness that both shields and threatens their safety. The first secret is unpacked upon meeting our main character, the young but hardened detective, Casey Duncan. A nagging question is introduced: can transgressions ever be excused by their circumstances? As the background stories unravel for various characters, outright lies and true corruption mingle with fallout from human emotion, mental illness, and just plain bad choices. A page-turner full of covert motivations.

The Rope Swing: Stories - Jonathan Corcoran

Reviewed by Melissa Martin
Branch Manager, University Community Branch Library
San Diego Union Tribune, August 21, 2016
 
Corcoran’s collection of stories opens in a small unnamed town in Appalachia, at a ceremony honoring the last run of the railroad train connecting to the city, and marking the end of an era. But even as the world grows and changes around them, the town and the residents remain the same. This theme of change flows through each of Corcoran’s stories, and as the characters reach milestones in their lives, they are faced with choices which have them reflecting on a past alternating between nostalgia and melancholy. The choice: stay with the known and familiar, no matter how limiting or stifling, or take the risk of moving forward into a new and unfamiliar world beyond their experiences in a small town. Corcoran’s descriptions of small town America and its inhabitants – playing in rivers, talking with the neighbors or driving through town at night – will be familiar to many.

Family Life - Akhil Sharma

Reviewed by Brenda Wegener
Branch Manager, Carmel Valley Library
San Diego Union Tribune, August 7, 2016
 
This gorgeously heart-rending novel which won this year’s Dublin/IMPAC Literary Award, tells the story of eight year old Ajay, his older brother and parents. It opens as they are trying to immigrate to the United States in the early 1970s as India has fallen under emergency rule. Despite political troubles, their lives are easy there but the father, Mr. Mishra longs for the modernism of the new world. When the family arrives they are delighted with their apartment in Queens complete with an elevator. Ajay’s brother, Birju settles in particularly well and when he passes his entrance exams for the Bronx High School of Science, the family is elated. All this changes one afternoon when Birju dives into a swimming pool, hits his head and suffers irreparable brain damage. Related in unsentimental yet moving narration, we see the different ways grief and misfortune affect husbands, wives and children. A deeply touching portrayal.
 
Reviewed by Christina Wainwright
Branch Manager, Pacific Beach/Taylor Branch Library
San Diego Union Tribune, July 24, 2016
 
San Diegans used to weathering droughts by reducing the frequency of watering lawns or washing cars will relish this dark look at what could happen if the drought doesn’t recede. “The Water Knife” explores a future where Texas has been abandoned and the wealthy live in high-tech Chinese-designed arcologies that efficiently recycle water while the poor drink gratefully from Clearsacs that filter their own urine. Southwestern state officials will use assassins when the courtroom can’t protect their rights to what is left of the Colorado River. Bacigalupi seamlessly weaves futuristic elements into a classic hard-boiled crime novel rife with dead bodies, betrayals, and protagonists who stay true to their own moral code while making choices that those with abundant water can afford to condemn.
 
Reviewed by Steve Wheeler
Branch Manager, Mission Hills Library
San Diego Union Tribune, July 10, 2016
 
The third mystery novel in a series featuring laidback private investigator and guitar player Rolly Waters, “Desert City Diva” is set in San Diego and the squatter community Slab City in Imperial County. Waters is hired by young club DJ Macy Starr to find a woman who may be her mother, and the main clue is an unusual one-stringed guitar with a photograph on the back. Rolly’s investigation turns up a connection to a 20-year-old mass death near an Indian reservation. Although the plot involving a cult obsessed with aliens gets a little weird, the quirky main characters are engaging. The author is a San Diegan and former professional musician, and the local settings and music play prominent roles in the story. It’s a fun, quick-paced read.
 
Reviewed by Kristina Garcia
Librarian II, Central Library, San Diego Public Library
San Diego Union Tribune, June 26, 2016
 
Fictional memoir based on facts surrounding the lives of pioneering behavioral psychologist, John B. Watson, and his second wife, Rosalie Rayner. Through the lens of hindsight on the nature vs. nurture debate, author Romano-Lax creates a first-person narrative of events as Rosalie might have experienced them. Graduating from Vassar College in 1919, Rosalie goes to work at Johns Hopkins University as a research assistant, where she falls intractably in love with the dynamic and influential John Watson. From this pivotal choice, we see Rosalie navigating her life against the backdrop the 1920's feminist culture in general and Dr. Watson's narcissistic hubris in particular. The book’s factual basis makes the characterizations richer and provides avenues for further reading into the history of psychology as well as the lives of those who figured in it. The multiple topic threads would make this an interesting choice for a book group discussion.
 
Reviewed by Jennifer Geran
Branch Manager, City Heights/Weingart Library
San Diego Union Tribune, June 12, 2016
 
Dillard’s perspective on nature is Zen and existential, macro- and microscopic, scientific fact, poetry. A fighting tomcat sneaks in her window at night and she wakes in the morning, “covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses.” A giant water bug can, “shoot the poisons that dissolve the victim’s muscles, bones, and organs…,” and suck it all, “reduced to juice,” through a single puncture wound in a frog. She contrasts the limitations of her own abilities to see, “A nightmare ganglia…cuts and splices what I do see, editing it for my brain,” with the fact that, “the sense impressions of one-celled animals are not edited for the brain,” therefore they can see the universe as it is. Mind blown. Also good for geek cocktail party conversation starters and rabbit hole internet sessions. Just try searching for the song of the male mouse.
 
Reviewed by Katherine Wolf
Librarian II, Central Library, San Diego Public Library
San Diego Union Tribune, May 29, 2016
 
When the title story of this collection, “The Paper Menagerie,” was first published, it hit the science fiction community by storm, sweeping up the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards. It tells of a Chinese mail-order bride and the magical origami animals she creates to connect with her American-born son, alienated and ashamed of his mixed heritage. In Ken Liu’s sensitive and brilliant hands, the story goes beyond the immigrant experience to explore universal issues of isolation and identity, love and loss. Some stories are inspired by historical events and bear witness for victims of war and political violence. In “The Literomancer,” a Chinese war refugee during the Cold War shares his fortune-telling magic with a young American girl in Hong Kong, who then continues his legacy. The collection demonstrates the full range of Liu’s talent for incorporating future technology and past events into stories that show human beings at their vilest and most noble.
 
Reviewed by Brenda Wegener
Branch Manager, Carmel Valley Library
San Diego Union Tribune, May 15, 2016
 
This stunning debut novel sheds light on the power of ordinary people to cope with tragedy. On the eve of her daughter’s wedding, June Reid’s house is filled with loved ones. Her entire family including her boyfriend and ex-husband are staying there in preparation for the wedding. But then a faulty gas stove explodes while June is out for an early morning walk and in a terrible instant everyone she loves is dead. Told from alternating points of view, each person that was involved in the lives of June and her family discloses what they knew about the accident and what steps they take to move on while June takes off for the West Coast leaving no word.
 
Reviewed by Trevor Jones
Librarian IV, Scripps Miramar Ranch Library
San Diego Union Tribune, May 1, 2016
 
The Possessed is a memoir, but instead of memories relayed from the past, its memories of a passion still very much alive in the present moment. Batuman depicts her younger self at a something of an existential crossroads, and for the slimmest of reasons, she goes to graduate school to study Russian literature. What follows is at turns moving, hilarious and heartfelt. From tales of Tolstoy, Dosteoevsky and company in between travels to Uzbekistan, and meeting like-minded lovers of literature in the states and across the globe, The Possessed is not just for eccentrics who love Russian novels (full disclosure, I count myself as one!). The book reads more like a love letter to passion itself, passion as in obsession, but more importantly passion as a life’s overall direction and compass. You may end up feeling possessed yourself after reading this one!
 
Reviewed by Jennifer Geran
Branch Manager, City Heights/Weingart Library
San Diego Union Tribune, April 17, 2016
 
Flanagan offers her selection of well-chosen items in a slightly curmudgeonly, tongue-in-cheek fashion. For example, linen bedsheets are worth the investment, after all, it was the wrapping of choice for mummies and, “ancient Egyptians expected it to last well into the afterlife.” Regarding trash in places where “recycling is a municipal art form,” the author accuses residents of creating artisanal garbage. “Residents of those sensitive places don’t really trash their trash. Mindfully, they rinse their bottles…and bow tie their newspapers.” Interesting history and little known facts are sprinkled throughout. Making a case for thin, but absorbent waffle textured towels, the author blames the popularity of the 66 inch bath sheet, an “absurdly heavy, double-sided carpet woven with…the densest possible nap of loops,” on the “1980’s era of excess and shoulder pads.” Pick this up for the sly writing style, but keep pen and paper handy for a shopping list.
 
Reviewed by Brenda Wegener
Branch Manager, Carmel Valley Branch Library
San Diego Union Tribune, April 3, 2016
 
A biographical novel by one of Hungary’s preeminent authors. The main character is a writer whose work has only recently begun to be appreciated due to a new political climate in Hungary. She and her professor husband have moved into a large apartment and are in need of a housekeeper. Magda hears about a woman in the town named Emerence whom she contacts about the job. But instead of interviewing Emerence, it is made clear that Emerence must decide whether to accept Magda and her husband. Finally she agrees to work for them though relations between them are exceedingly formal. Emerence wears a headscarf and in other ways completely shields her private life as well as her past. No one is ever allowed past the front door of her cottage. When Emerence falls ill, she and Magda engage in a psychological battle of wills that tests their loyalty and affection.
 
Reviewed by Jennifer Geran
Branch Manager, City Heights/Weingart Library
San Diego Union Tribune, March 20, 2016
 
Why? Told through a (Nick and Nora Charles-like) gin soaked, but highly functioning lens, these mostly true, mostly crime and law enforcement stories from the thirties, forties, and fifties are presented with a precision of detail and adroit contextualizing metaphor that is as entertaining as it is informative. Whether he is explaining the concept of money (counterfeit money was invented after money, but only by a few minutes) or the reasons why it is obvious that a bookkeeper was never actually trusted by his employer (bonds for employees are similar to a series of wagers against the house), no matter what the papers say after said model employee is caught embezzling, you come away with an authentic understanding of why things happen the way they do and how ridiculous it all is.
 
Reviewed by Steve Wheeler
Branch Manager, Mission Hills Branch Library
San Diego Union Tribune, March 6, 2016
 
Although this biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich is aimed at young adults, adults who are interested in classical music or Soviet history will also enjoy it. With over 50 pages of source notes, it provides a well-researched portrait of the hardships and perils that Russians faced during his lifetime (1906-1975). After a Shostakovich opera was denounced as “a mess instead of music” in the newspaper Pravda, he lived in fear that he would be imprisoned or shot, as were many of his compatriots. During World War II, he was in Leningrad for much of the catastrophic period that the city was under siege by German forces. The symphony that he composed at this time became a source of hope and national pride and earned acclaim around the world.
 
Reviewed by Jennifer Jenkins
Supervising Librarian, Central Library
San Diego Union Tribune, February 21, 2016
 
Exploring the raw and intimate adventure that is motherhood, this collection of essays thoughtfully curated by the editors of Salon.com is as poignant and honest today as it was when originally published nearly two decades ago. At the intersection of feminism and parenting we find ourselves engulfed in stories that shed light on everything from the daily caffeine fueled struggles of a single mom to coping with the death of a child. Interspersed throughout are nuggets of humor like Ann Lamott’s treatise on dealing with her own temper in the face of unrelenting offspring or Susie Bright’s ode to self-love and sensuality post-baby. Timeless and relatable, these true stories of intelligent women navigating the ups and downs of motherhood are ultimately a celebration of womankind.
 
Reviewed by Trevor Jones
Branch Manager, Scripps Miramar Ranch Library
San Diego Union Tribune, February 7, 2016
 
If the writing of a book and a book itself can be deemed ‘brave’, then certainly a recent title I would esteem with such praise would be Åsne Seierstad’s One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway. In 2011, Breivik murdered 77 people, targeting primarily politically liberal teenagers at a summer camp. Without flinching, Seierstad charts Breivik’s descent into rightwing extremism, the lives of his victims, and the larger questions posed by mass shootings as they occur in psychological as well as social contexts. While readers in the U.S. will undoubtedly notice the prose is in the translator’s hands (Sarah Death), Seierstad’s moral compass, storytelling ability and humanistic inquiry shines through, and never bogs down into sensationalism or cheap sentimentality.
 
Reviewed by Katherine Wolf
Librarian II, Central Library, San Diego Public Library
San Diego Union Tribune, January 24, 2016
 
A literary thriller that is perfect for readers missing the layered intrigue and atmospheric streets of Barcelona in “The Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, which was the 2015 selection for the One Book One San Diego reading program. Similarly, this debut collaboration between Barcelona-born author Rosa Ribas and Frankfurt philology professor Sabine Hofmann (writing together as Sara Molina) revisits fascist Spain in the 1950s. However, their story focuses on the women of Barcelona. Young newspaper reporter Ana and her older cousin Beatriz, an outcast linguistics scholar, risk their lives to uncover the truth about the murder of a widowed socialite. Both single women are hard-pressed to survive the brutal Franco regime while avoiding police scrutiny, due to Beatriz’s subversive writings and Ana’s blacklisted journalist father. This vivid tale of Barcelona society, politics, crime, and literature, including a pivotal scene in the National Library of Catalonia, entertains on many levels.
 
Reviewed by Brenda Wegener
Branch Manager, Carmel Valley Library
San Diego Union Tribune, January 10, 2016
 
In this slim volume beautifully illustrated by Yuko Shimizu, Cunningham transforms eleven classic fairy tales. Some are given a modern retelling and others are turned into something wholly different. The title story, “A Wild Swan” is based on the Hans Christian Anderson story. Cunningham conceives of several new twists to the familiar tale making it more human yet tinged with magic. A more haunting story is “Little Man” which is a variation on “Rumpelstiltskin”. The story opens not with the greedy miller and his daughter but with a gnome-like creature whose sole desire in life is for a child. His initial offers to the girl to spin her straw into gold carry no ulterior motive but as he helps her night after night the idea dawns that this could be a way for him to obtain a child.