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Between the Covers / Shhhh... we're reading.   Photo of reading after bedtime
Cynthia Webber

One glance inside Cynthia Webber's library tote and you will spot an assortment of reading materials, from obscure literary fiction and quirky memoirs to cozy mysteries that she consumes like comfort food. A former researcher, writer and book reviewer, Cynthia's ideal evening is spent by the fire with a piece of chocolate and a good book. Cynthia can often be found near the new book section in our Hereford Branch, where she is happy to suggest titles for customers looking for a good read. She particularly relishes the challenge of turning customers on to something new. Look for her next time you visit.

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Bloggers

 

Hope Adrift

Hope Adrift

posted by:
March 4, 2013 - 8:55am

White Dog Fell from the SkyAcross the border it is a different world. Cruelty is not harnessed. A man’s limit is not tested. The line between life and death is not drawn in black and white. For medical student Isaac Muthethe, the brutality of apartheid is never so evident as when he escapes from its grasp in Eleanor Morse’s observant and beautifully crafted new novel, White Dog Fell from the Sky.

 

Forced to leave his family, Isaac is smuggled into Botswana after witnessing the brutal murder of a friend in South Africa. His only chance of survival was to flee the secret police. In the Naledi shantytown where he finds himself, Isaac encounters a mysterious white dog. The dog’s refusal to abandon him comes to symbolize hope amidst grief and suffering. While walking house to house in search of a job Isaac meets Alice Mendelssohn. The well-educated American woman, whose husband works for the government, does not care that Isaac is black and she is white. Isaac becomes her gardener. As their lives entangle, each travels a path toward their own heartbreak. For Alice, it is her crumbling marriage and regret at not fulfilling her own dreams. For Isaac, it is the knowledge that with each step he is shedding his old life and the family he left behind. When Isaac meets and briefly stays with an old classmate who works for a violent anti-apartheid group, it is an association that will nearly destroy him and changes the lives of Alice and Isaac forever. 

   

Morse, who lived in Botswana for several years in the 1970s, juxtaposes the political and racial turmoil of the period with an African landscape that is as alluring as it is austere.  Teeming with evocative observations about the country’s conservation practices, people and culture, Morse's multi-themed narrative leaves readers to ponder the price of betrayal and the capacity for friendship. Readers of Abraham Verghese, Edwidge Danticat, and Khaled Hosseini may find much to like here.

 

Cynthia

 
 

Bellwether for the Union

Rise to GreatnessAbraham Lincoln was an inexperienced president in 1862 when he faced his troubled country's most daunting crises to date. With the new year came the inescapable truth of a nation divided, broken, and at war. To realize his vision for the union would take patience, even-keeled fortitude, and the ability to draw in friend and foe alike. In David Von Drehle's terrific and highly readable book, Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year, the historian reconstructs in a dramatic but disciplined tone the year's greatest challenges for the self-schooled Illinois lawyer. Unfolding month by month, Lincoln's growth as a leader is as transformative for the 16th president as it is for the state and stabilization of the union.

 

There is no doubt that issues were burning for Lincoln and the country. Aside from a civil war and unabated "secession fever,” the president was facing a government overwhelmed, a treasury without money, and a war department reported in shambles. Europe was exhibiting impatient leanings toward the south. At home, Lincoln's domestic situation presented its own challenges and heartache. The moral crisis of slavery, which would eventually catapult Lincoln to greatness, was looming.   

 

Von Drehle's careful chronology of this tumultuous year begins with New Year's Day and concludes a year later with the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In captivating narrative guided by hefty research, layers of political, military and diplomatic maneuvering are peeled away as Von Drehle attempts to define the man Lincoln became as a result of the year's high stakes. Micro-biographies of the usual players add color, as do the plethora of Lincoln quotes, many poignant. Readers of Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough will recognize here the republic at a crossroads and the bellwether of a nation who saw beyond.

Cynthia

 
 

A Masterpiece Redux

A Masterpiece Redux

posted by:
January 25, 2013 - 8:01am

The Art ForgerBoston artist Claire Roth is slowly rebuilding her life after a scandal three years ago nearly derailed her painting career. Now working as a master copyist of famous works for an online art broker, she knows that it is only a crime to copy a painting if that painting is sold as the original. What happens when the lines blur, the craquelure appears authentic, and the stakes are high? In her taut, twisty tale The Art Forger, B. A. Shapiro  reveals the underside of the art world  that revisits one of the most famous art heists of all time and the daunting challenge proving art provenance.

 

When the posh, well-connected collector, Aiden Markel, approaches Claire about reproducing a painting "not quite on the up and up" she can't resist. In exchange, Markel promises to provide Claire with a large sum of cash and an opportunity for a one-woman show at his prestigious gallery. The painting in question is an Edgar Degas masterpiece stolen over 20 years ago from the Gardner Museum.  Before long Claire realizes that the painting, too, is harboring its own secrets, and her Faustian agreement may cost her more than her expertise.

 

Shapiro's prose is ripe for those who enjoy art world intrigue with a splash of romance. Narrated in Claire's painter voice, back stories shed light on Claire's past scandal and the eccentric collector Isabella Stewart Gardner. Sidelights about successful forgers throughout history and their techniques add interesting color, as do details of Degas' use of light and color.  Although Shapiro's painting and relationships are imagined, the 1990 Gardner art theft remains unsolved today. Readers looking to read fascinating, true art history should try Edward Dolnick's The Forger's Spell: a True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century or Ulrich Boser's The Gardner Heist: a True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft.

Cynthia

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Such is Life

Such is Life

posted by:
January 4, 2013 - 9:15am

It's Fine By MeIt was not a ghost thirteen-year-old Audun Sletten saw that day on top of the hill at the end of his newspaper rounds. It was his estranged father, who regrettably appeared to be back in town. For the troubled teenager it was just one more reminder of a gnawing past best forgotten and of a future, tentative and urgently beckoning. In Per Petterson's recently translated novel, It's Fine by Me, the Norwegian author revisits the cold, stark landscape of his previous novels with this quiet, coming of age story. Set in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, a story is told of a family chafed by family dysfunction and a young person's toiling for what is important.

 

Audun and his family have not had it easy. Escaping an explosive husband, his mother has started a new life for Audun and his siblings in a working class section of Oslo. On the first day at his new school he meets Arvid, an unlikely friend who is something of a political idealist and also loves books. In their growing friendship, Audun opens up about his past and his plans for the future. He wants to be a writer. Over the next five years, Audun sees his life change, his family slowly falling apart. His tough guy persona, fashioned after his favorite literary heroes, helps him cope when his own defenses are down.

 

Petterson, the author of the award winning Out Stealing Horses, reveals Audun's story at a leisurely pace. Alternating between a defining past and a present that are at times raw and emotionally charged, it is prose that also gives up streaks of hope. Readers familiar with J. D. Salinger's classic, Catcher in the Rye, will recognize in Petterson's protagonist the rebellion and alienation of youth and the unpredictable journey that awaits.

Cynthia

 
 

Dogs, Cats, and Facts

Paw Prints in the MoonlightI Want to Kill the DogWeirdopediaGood things come in small packages this time of year, as this delightful trio of recently published stocking stuffer-sized books demonstrates. From pondering the idiosyncrasies of domestic life with man's best friend (dog or cat) to a quirky collection of curious tidbits about our world, here are some lighthearted, quick reads to enjoy or give.

 

Feline lovers will cheer for Toby Jug, the enterprising black and white kitten in Denis O'Connor's  Paw Prints in the Moonlight: the Heartwarming True Story of One Man and His Cat. Set in rural Northumberland, O'Connor rescues the badly injured kitten one snowy night and brings it back to his 18th century cottage, where he keeps the kitten in a large cotton ball-cushioned pitcher. The kindhearted nature lover and his Maine Coon form an inseparable bond through many of Toby Jug's escapades. Lovely descriptions of the English countryside and delicate color illustrations enrich this poignant and charming tale for young and old.

 

Unfortunately, it’s not all domestic bliss for Richard Cohen when the family pet gets in the way. His new book, I Want to Kill the Dog, chronicles in jest the master-versus-canine tug of war. The author is married to television journalist Meredith Vieira, definitely the animal lover of this long married couple. Jasper is the “dog of many flavors," whose many annoying habits (ear splitting bark, for one) threaten marital harmony. Pet peeves aside, Cohen’s story belies what is really important: marriage and family come with good and bad and even the dog.

 

A potpourri of trivia awaits readers of Alex Palmer's Weird-o-pedia: the Ultimate Book of Surprising, Strange, and Incredibly Bizarre Facts about (Supposedly) Ordinary Things. For instance, did you know that mosquitoes prefer people with Type O blood, or that humming is good for your sinuses? In 12 humorous chapters, each containing alphabetized entries, Palmer focuses on food and drink, friends and family, work, play, and so forth. A useful list of sources is also included. Parents beware, though; some mature topics are presented. 

 

Cynthia

 
 

Outside Looking In

Brain on FireAs Susannah Cahalan waited in the doctor’s office the painting of Miro’s Carota, with its twisted, unnatural grin, seemed to smile down at her. She would revisit the colorful and distorted face over the next several months as she battled a mysterious neurological illness that almost permanently severed her connection with reality. In her candid and gripping new memoir, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, the New York Post reporter reconstructs in a riveting fashion the journey that carried her to the brink of lunacy.

 

For twenty-four-year-old Cahalan the illness crept up innocently enough. She believed her flu symptoms were the result of bedbugs in her Manhattan apartment. Once she began experiencing numbness she sought out a doctor. Soon she was missing deadlines at work, and her increasingly erratic behavior now included paranoia and hallucinations. Cahalan and her family worried she was having a nervous breakdown. It was her first blackout at her boyfriend Stephen’s house that “marked the line between sanity and insanity,” she recalled. Doctors were baffled, and on March 23, 2009 she was admitted to the hospital. Eventually, a prominent neurologist's hunch followed by a brain biopsy confirmed that she suffered from rare autoimmune encephalitis. Recovery would take months. Her zombie-like behavior scared people who wondered what was wrong with her. She described running into an old high school friend as a "soul crushing moment." Her rock remained her family, Stephen and her parents, who never wavered.

 

Cahalan admits writing her story was difficult. With only flashes of memory intact she relied on interviews, medical records, journals, and hospital video footage to complete the picture. Absorbing and fast paced, the book’s short chapters read like a medical mystery that takes an eye-opening look inside the misfiring of the human mind and its ability to repair and emerge from the abyss.

 

Cynthia

 
 

Checking out for Good

Heads in BedsAs a cog in the wheel of an industry that survives on its image, Jacob Tomsky knows a thing or two about hotels. His new book, Heads in Beds, a Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality, takes a sassy, insightful look inside the lodging establishments that employed him for over a decade. Humorously eye-opening and slightly bawdy, Tomsky's take on the hospitality business is everything you ever wanted to know (maybe) but were afraid to ask (really) about what goes on in the “heart of the house.” Little in Tomsky's background prepared him for his career path. Armed with a philosophy degree, he ends up working the valet stand at a newly opened luxury hotel in New Orleans, where he quickly moves from parking cars to front desk clerk to overnight housekeeping manager. Fifteen hour shifts come with the territory, as do lying, finessing, and bartering, all in the name of good customer service. Eventually he hits the big time when he is hired by an upscale Manhattan hotel, where for fun he and coworkers race down hallways on a power scooter at three a.m.

 

There are plenty of anecdotes that make this part-travel memoir, part-industry exposé a brisk, entertaining read. Some of it is disturbing, like knowing the housekeeper may be spraying furniture polish on your drinking glasses for that spotless shine. The author is also happy to share helpful insider tips, like how to get that coveted room upgrade and techniques for disputing mini-bar, also known as "fridge of joy" charges. Naturally, tipping figures prominently. Tomsky's honest introspection about the coworkers who form this closed society extends his writing to more than just a tell-all. With a clear-eyed wit, he deftly peels away layers of the hotel trade and its practices in order to enlighten even the most frequent traveler. Don't be surprised when the amusing and helpful appendices at the book’s end bring a wide smile.

 

Cynthia

 
 

Upward Mobility

Upward Mobility

posted by:
November 26, 2012 - 9:05am

NWNegotiating life outside of London's Caldwell council estate is a little like surviving a video game for the sympathetic characters in British writer Zadie Smith’s most recent novel, NW. The NW stands for the gritty northwest corner of London, where this story takes place. Just like a video game, cantilevering to the next level involves luck, mobility, chance encounters, and the ability to beat perceived demons. The fictional housing project known as Caldie to locals is ground zero for Smith's thirty-something survivors who now cope with the vagaries of their life beyond their rough beginnings. At its core are Leah and Natalie, longtime best friends whose divergent paths belie their internal struggles to thrive. While Natalie in her dogged fashion goes about shedding her old life (she becomes a lawyer), Leah appears stuck in a morass of her own making. Their march toward college, adulthood, and marriage is not without the hardship of merging the past with a present that is strewn with self-doubt, regrettable decisions, and misguided envy. Along the way, their messy lives entwine with others from the old neighborhood, including likeable Felix, a recovering addict whose desire for a respectable life proves illusive.

 

No stranger to literary rebellion, Smith’s brassy tinkering with narrative style asks a lot of her readers. She divides the story into sections, with the largest given over to Natalie and conveyed in 185 snapshots, some only a sentence long. The author of several highly regarded novels, including White Teeth, Smith is adept at drawing out the heart and soul of her characters and sandwiching them between the rough edges of a diverse, violent, and modern city. In this case, it is a world too layered to fully understand and too fluid to remain still.

 

Cynthia

 
 

Sand in the Wound

Sand in the Wound

posted by:
November 5, 2012 - 9:30am

A Hologram for the KingRecession-weary businessman Alan Clay lives in a maelstrom of uncertainty brought about by his own self-doubt and poor decisions in A Hologram for the King, the trenchant new novel by National Book Award finalist Dave Eggers. Divorced, broke, and obsessed with a lump on his neck, the fifty-four-year-old arrives in Saudi Arabia with an opportunity to redeem his mundane self in a ruthless global economy. He is greeted by a strangely out of place vinyl party tent where he and his team wait, and wait some more, for their one chance to impress the elusive King Abdullah and his newly built city of the future. 

 

As far as mirages go, there are plenty here. King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC)  is referred to as the "city to be in the desert by the sea"  when Clay and his team of young techies from Reliant Systems Corporation show up to demonstrate holographic teleconference systems. At stake is a citywide technology contract for their company and an emotional and financial turn-around for Clay. When Clay is not getting drunk, the former bicycle salesman is worrying about his daughter's fractured relationship with his ex-wife and how he will pay her next college tuition bill. He spends his free time writing her in a heartfelt voice several unfinished letters that he never mails.

 

Social commentary is nothing new for the multi-accomplished Eggers whose previous books include Zeitoun and What is the What. In the complex, somber Alan Clay, Eggers has created a wry character whose attempts to remain relevant and connected mirror America's own efforts to stem a decline of its own making. A pitch-perfect capture of the repercussions of today's international economic climate and the chicanery of the manufacturing industry, this solid and spare, quote-less novel is a reflection on how we live and work in a changing world.

 

Cynthia

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Lost Connections

Lost Connections

posted by:
October 16, 2012 - 7:03am

The Distance Between UsWhile America continues to debate immigration reform, Mexican-born author Reyna Grande has placed a human face on her own family’s painful struggles to emerge from the shadows. In her moving memoir, The Distance Between Us, the physical journey of illegally emigrating from one of the poorest states in Mexico to a Los Angeles Latino neighborhood a quarter century ago extracts a high emotional cost in the quest for a better life. As a young child in Iguala, Mexico, Reyna Grande believed that the country on “the other side” gobbled up parents. When Reyna’s own parents leave for “el otro lado” to find work, she and her older siblings are left behind with a cruel grandmother. Reyna depends on her older sister, Mago, who becomes the “little mother”--understanding too well the breach in trust that has occurred. They ache helplessly for their absent alcoholic father and indifferent mother, who returns only to leave again.

 

The author never forgets her roots, nor does she make excuses in telling this coming of age story. She examines with sharp focus and a renewed compassion the actions of her flawed parents and the life-altering repercussions for all involved. Through the grim realities of her early life and the "broken beauty" of her native country, she captures her own voice as a young child with matter of fact clarity.  When her father finally returns for her and her siblings, the border crossing on foot is perilous. "We became lizards, rubbing our bellies against the cold, damp earth, trying to find a place to hide," she recalls. Sadly, entry into the U.S. brings its own hardships, brought on by living with an explosive father. Readers of Angela’s Ashes and The Glass Castle will recognize the familiar, true theme of a family's breakdown, and the resilience and tenuous steps that lead to understanding and forgiveness. Teen readers of memoir will benefit from gleaning a perspective on a modern immigrant experience so close to home.

Cynthia