Staff Picks for Adults and Teens

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My Sunshine Away

(2015)
My Sunshine Away

 

While I could not put My Sunshine Away down, I had to summon the courage to read the last few chapters.  I could feel the anxiety in my chest grow. The narrator relives his adolescent memories as he wrestles with the part he may or may not have played in the rape of the quintessential girl next door.  His childish obsession with the victim, Lindy Simpson, steers his life in astonishing ways.  The dark mystery surrounding the event that changed everything propels this engrossing book. The most vivid character might very well be the lovingly described Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  As a coming of age story, My Sunshine Away confronts the confusion and agony of adolescence.  This story has been written with so much care, read it and be impressed. 

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My Sunshine Away

(2015)
My Sunshine Away

 

While I could not put My Sunshine Away down, I had to summon the courage to read the last few chapters.  I could feel the anxiety in my chest grow. The narrator relives his adolescent memories as he wrestles with the part he may or may not have played in the rape of the quintessential girl next door.  His childish obsession with the victim, Lindy Simpson, steers his life in astonishing ways.  The dark mystery surrounding the event that changed everything propels this engrossing book. The most vivid character might very well be the lovingly described Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  As a coming of age story, My Sunshine Away confronts the confusion and agony of adolescence.  This story has been written with so much care, read it and be impressed. 

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Will Not Attend

Lively Stories of Detachment and Isolation (2014)
Will Not Attend by Adam Resnick

Adam Resnick has pulled together hilarious tales from his life that illustrate his reluctance to interact with people and the belligerence that raises its head when he is forced into social situations. He “refuses to be burdened by chores like basic social obligation and personal growth, living instead by his own steadfast rule: I refuse to do anything I don’t want to do.” Resnick is an Academy Award-winning author for NBC’s “Late Night with David Letterman,” so his self-deprecation is no surprise. Though many will view his behavior and thinking process as outrageous, his is a very likeable and enjoyable voice. Will Not Attend is full of laugh-out-loud funny stories told by an eccentric friend.

A note for readers: profanity is widespread throughout the book, and some may find his stories rude and offensive. (Amazon reviews)

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October Mourning

a song for Matthew Shepard (2012)
October Mourning

I am not usually a fan of poetry, but this book is an exception. Many forms of poetry are used to tell the story of Matthew Shepherd, the University of Wyoming student who was brutally beaten and left to die on a fence post in October 1998, merely because he was gay. The poet, Lesléa Newman, writes poems from the perspective of various people involved, as well as inanimate objects (ie. the fence, the road). The result is incredibly moving. Have a box of tissues nearby, I literally had tears streaming down my face at points. Powerful, raw, and incredibly important. A "must read".

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Catherine the Great

Portrait of a Woman

 

In 1745, an obscure, low-ranking, 16 year-old German princess named Sophia was married off to Peter, heir to the Russian throne.  Just six months after Peter became Tsar, Sophia (now renamed Catherine) overthrew her husband and assumed the crown for herself.  Though she had not a drop of Russian blood, for the next 34 years she was the undisputed ruler of Russia, the world’s largest nation, and one of the towering figures of the age.

 

 

 

In this book, historian Robert K. Massie brings the same superb scholarship, eye for detail, and graceful prose that marked such earlier works as Nicholas and Alexandra, Peter the Great, and Dreadnought.  Catherine comes alive as a vibrant character.  We read not only of palace intrigue, military campaigns, and jealous lovers, but of her joy in philosophy and art, and of her sincere desire to improve the lives of her subjects.  (Well, as long as their improvement didn’t curtail her power.)  Despite her sometimes appalling behavior, the Catherine of this book remains a mostly sympathetic and always intriguing subject.

 

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Last-Minute Survival Secrets

2015

When I originally saw a preview for this book, I thought, “My ten year old son is going to love this”. What science-minded kid doesn’t want to know how to make a burglar alarm with potato chips or how to open a padlock with a tin can? Unfortunately, once I actually got a chance to take a look at the book myself, I found that due to some of the content, it may be better suited for a more mature audience.  That being said, I found the book quite funny and entertaining. In fact, if you were ever a fan of the old TV series, The Red Green Show, you may enjoy this author’s humor. In a matter of minutes you can learn how to prevent heat stroke with a diaper, how to use a bra to make knee pads or even how to start a dead car battery with an aspirin! If you are in the mood for a little tomfoolery, then take a peek at this book.

 

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The Nightingale

(2015)

Redemptive love and courage under extraordinary circumstances are primary story themes in "The Nightingale" by Kristin Hannah.  Two sisters, Vianne Mauriac and Isabelle Rossignol, learn that life is not always what one may wish it to be when World War II invades hearts and souls during the German Occupation of France.  The older sister is a cautious, responsible wife and mother, who makes choices based on what feels safe and less consequential.  The younger sister is an impulsive, idealistic free spirit who believes she can save a broken world from its own self destruction.

After the death of his beloved wife, Julien Rossignol abandons their daughters.  He denies them the love of a father, and withdraws into alcohol and Paris where he dedicates himself to the operation of his bookstore.  Vianne finds love and the happy family she desires in her husband Antoine and daughter Sophie.  In contrast, Isabelle struggles to feel part of a family and sets out to establish an identity far removed from her past disappointments.  

The unravelling of Vianne's comfortable life begins when Antoine is called to war.  She leans on her friendship with fellow school teacher and neighbor Rachel de Champlain.  They raise children side by side without their husbands at home to help provide basic necessities like food or protect them from the depravities of war.  Meanwhile, Isabelle heads to Paris where she assumes risks that far outweigh those taken by most women of her time.  She dares to try love with the elusive insurgent Gaeten whose response is limited by his doubts for a free France.  As hope dwindles, the War occupies the minds of both sisters.  Honesty, once valued during peace time, is replaced by elaborate lies necessary to survive the Nazi Occupation.           

"The Nightingale" opens with an old, dying woman reflecting upon the past during the last days of her life.  Memories and a dusty trunk in the attic are reopened, and the look back is both painful and cathartic.  In her latest offering, Hannah shares a riveting example of storytelling rich with superb character development.  The author also uses her gifts of descriptive narrative to immerse readers directly into the raw emotion of the story.  And while Vianne and Isabelle are front and center, the ugliness of war serves as the catalyst for unfortunate transgressions and ultimate redemptions.             

      

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Letters of note

an eclectic collection of correspondence deserving of a wider audience (2014)
Letters of Note

This fabulous selection of letters provides a glimpse of a wide range of personalities who changed history as well as the personal side of both famous and not-so-famous people.  There are letters by presidents, businessmen, school children, criminals, musicians, artists, and soldiers from the 1340 BC to modern times.

Each letter tells a story.  Some are part of famous events we learned in history class:  Queen Elizabeth sends a recipe for scones to President Dwight Eisenhower after he visits Balmoral Castle in Scotland, a letter from twelve-year-old Fidel Castro asks President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for a ten dollar bill, a telegram that was sent from the Titanic as it sank, Hitler’s nephew pleads with FDR to let him enter the US military to fight against Germany in WWII, and the message John F. Kennedy carved into a coconut shell when his PT boat was sunk.

Others are from ordinary people:  poignant letters from mothers who had to leave their children at the Foundling Home, an ex-slave replies to his former master politely rejecting a job offer and asking after those who lived on the plantation, a series of letters from the State of Michigan to and from a landowner they thought was building “unauthorized” and “hazardous” dams (the dams were being built by beavers) and replies (many of them thoughtful and detailed) sent to teens from people they admired.

It makes a great coffee table book, to be dipped into whenever you would like a window into other worlds.  Compiler Shaun Usher has made a great effort to provide a photo or facsimile for each letter which adds a visible dimension to the words.  So take a peek into different worlds, and read Letters of Note.

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The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger

2009

When Alec Wilkinson approached Pete Seeger about writing his story Seeger asked him to write something that could be read in one sitting. This book fits the bill. Wilkinson covers the influence of Seeger’s parents who were classically trained musicians, his brief time at Harvard University, days and nights with the Almanac Singers where he was introduced to Woody Guthrie, his performances with the Weavers and his affiliation with the Communist Party. There are stories of his early train hopping days where he broke the neck off his ever present banjo and his love of living in the woods with his wife and small children. Seeger was a down to earth activist who was passionate about the Bill of Rights. He truly loved America. He remained strong while giving testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee on August 18, 1955 and ultimately disavowed his support of Communism.  In later years, Seeger became an environmentalist after being inspired by a reading of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Readers will gain an understanding of who Pete Seeger was and how he became a folk hero in America.

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Flirting with French

how a language charmed me, seduced me & nearly broke my heart (2014)
Flirting with French

William Alexander loves the French language, the music and landscape of France, French food, French history, French politics; in fact he loves everything about France.  At the advanced age of 57 he decides to overcome his horrible memories of Madame D., his high school French teacher, and attempts to become fluent in French over the period of thirteen months.

He begins the process by attending a seminar on language acquisition, taking a college-level placement test, and undergoing a functional MRI so he can compare his brain at the beginning and end of the process.  He spends the next year in daily work with with Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur audio courses, TV courses, immersion classes including two weeks in France, reading dual-language books and skyping with a French woman.

Along with humorous anecdotes and hilarious slips of the tongue, you will read about development of the French language, how the mind changes when you learn a second language, and what not to say when in France.  His enthusiasm and ardor despite the odds are infectious.  If you would like to speak a second language but have been afraid to try, you will certainly enjoy reading about the process and perhaps gain the courage to enroll in a class.  Anyone who roots for the underdog (try translating that into French!) will enjoy this humorous, touching and informative book.

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Etta and Otto and Russell and James

(2015)
Etta and Otto and Russell and James

I felt as though I read this book from a distance.  I watched this heartfelt story play out from across the broad and dusty farmlands of Saskatchewan and through the dense Canadian wilderness.  Early on, this story casts a spell.  83 year-old Etta sets off on a cross-country walk with the mere goal of seeing the ocean.  She leaves behind her husband Otto to bide his time until she returns, if in fact she remembers to return.  The novel unfolds the couple's history, binding them through letters, sent and unsent.  Though the aging Otto gently accepts Etta’s mission,  Russell, a close friend, is inspired and pursues his heart’s desire.  James, walking companion and coyote, adds to the surreal nature of the tale. Lives are shown to be precious and fragile, meaningful and tragic.  The sorrow in the book is beautiful in its vulnerability.  

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