Books and News to Give You Paws

Staff Picks

This month, Jen, Sally, and Ann discuss half the books presented at Night In last month.
(The other Night In titles were featured in the February newsletter.)

Page One | Staff Picks | Youth Yak | Book Groups News

Jen Jen  

Shylock is My Name
Howard Jacobson
The Gap of Time
Jeannette Winterson
Vinegar Girl
Anne Tyler
Margaret Atwood

A publisher named Hogarth is doing something that I think is brilliant. They’ve contracted contemporary, well-known authors to write re-tellings of Shakespeare. The series is called the Hogarth Shakespeare series and there will be 13 titles in the series. Right now, four of them are available. What I like about this is that readers are given exposure to Shakespeare in a very accessible way. Each book has a synopsis of the play it is based on that you can read if you like, but for the most part, each of these books stands on its own regardless of whether or not you are familiar with the original Shakespeare. This has inspired me to create a new book club, which I plan to start this spring. I’m going to call it the Sort of Shakespeare Book Club. It will be open to men and women. We’ll only read the books in the Hogarth series plus the original Shakespeare if we feel like it and maybe I can pull in some English teachers who have taught Shakespeare to shed light for us. So far in the series are: Shylock is My Name by Howard Jacobson, a re-telling of The Merchant of Venice; The Gap of Time by Jeannette Winterson, a re-telling of The Winter’s Tale. Anne Tyler wrote a re-telling of Taming of the Shrew called Vinegar Girl and this is very well done. Even though Tyler is a master writer, I was a little hesitant to read this one because I was afraid of how she would handle the end of the story – I’ve always sort of liked Kate pre-tamed, but fear not—Tyler is in fact a master. In Vinegar Girl, Kate lives with her brilliant scientist father and her fluffy headed sister Bianca. She works at a day care even though she is not particularly fond of children. Her father hires an assistant, a genius named Pyotr from Russia who lacks a visa. Kate’s father desperately does not want to lose Pyotr and I think you can guess what happens next. My absolute favorite book in the series is Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood. Now granted, Atwood is one of my favorite writers, but this is brilliant! It’s a re-telling of The Tempest. I had never read The Tempest and honestly didn’t know a lick about it and it didn’t matter. In Hag-Seed, Felix is fired from his job as the Artistic Director of a prestigious theater. He is also a widower and his only child, a daughter, died at a very young age. Once fired, Felix sulks in the woods for years. Until, he sees an ad that the local prison is looking to hire someone to start a theater program with the inmates. I don’t dare say more, but I promise you, it’s amazing.  Shylock and Gap of Time are currently available in paperback. Vinegar Girl is only in hardcover right now but the paperback will be out at the end of the month.



Life We Bury
Guise of Another
The Heavens May Fall

Allen Eskens

Allen Eskens, a Minnesota who writes mysteries, is a fairly new author. His first book, The Life We Bury, came out in 2014 and has won all kinds of awards. It was short-listed that year for the Minnesota Book Award in the genre category. In The Life We Bury, Joe, a college student is assigned to write a biography of an older person. He doesn’t know any and so he goes to a nursing home and talks his way into interviewing one of the residents. He ends up with Carl Iverson, a war vet, who is fairly new to the nursing home because until recently, he’s been on Death Row. He is now dying of cancer and will finish his life at the nursing home. A sub-plot in this book is that Joe is raised by, to say it nicely, an awful mother. Joe has a younger brother who is autistic. While Joe is anxious to earn an education and get away from his mother, he is protective of his brother and feels guilty about leaving him alone with his mother. This book is very well written and great fodder for book groups. So why am I telling you about a book that is not brand-new? I think any of Eskens books stand alone and would be great for book group BUT, if anyone plans to read more than one Eskens book, I would read them in the order they were published, which is Life We Bury, Guise of Another, and The Heavens May Fall. For those of you that I told it didn’t matter which order you read them in, my apologies.


Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter
Kate Larson

This is a biography about a little-known Kennedy. If you don’t already think that the Kennedy family was messed up, you will after reading this book. Rosemary was the third child and first daughter of Joe and Rose Kennedy.  As a baby, she was much slower to learn than her older brothers, but tellingly, it was assumed that was because she was…you know, a girl. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Rosemary does not start with Rosemary herself, but her family—her grandparents and parents. I admit when I started, I thought why are we not starting with Rosemary? The history of the Kennedy family and the lead-up to Rosemary’s birth is important to understanding the whole picture. As a child, Rosemary was sent to numerous boarding schools, with little success. By success, I mean her instructors did not feel she made sufficient academic progress and struggled with her emotional outbursts. Rosemary, on the other hand, likely often alienated those around her. This book provides a lot of fodder for discussion about disorders, mental health, family decision making, and how society treats “others.”



The Light of the World
Elizabeth Alexander

At Barack Obama’s first inauguration, poet Elizabeth Alexander performed her poem “Praise Song for the Day.” Two years later, she became a widow at the age of 49. Her husband, an artist and chef, collapsed and died unexpectedly four days after his 50th birthday. He was in seemingly good health – in fact, he was running on a treadmill when he collapsed. Elizabeth’s husband, Ficre, was born the sixth child in a family in East Africa. Elizabeth was born two months later to an American family. They met in New Haven in 1996. While you know from the outset that there will be heartbreak in this book, you would be hard pressed to find a more lovely love story. The writing is efficient, mystical, and breathtaking. Ficre left behind a wife and two sons. This memoir is relatively short, about 200 pages, but it is bursting. Every single one of us has either suffered grief so deep as to think survival is impossible or we know someone who has suffered that kind of grief. This book is for all of us. If your book group discusses this book, I urge you to look at the website dedicated to Elizabeth’s late husband. It includes his artwork.


Sally Sally


City of Thorns
Ben Rawlence

Many of us read Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo’s book about life in the slums of Mumbai. City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence is a similar book. It’s set in the remote Dadaab refugee camp, located in the desert of northern Kenya. Many of its residents have fled from the unstable situation in Somalia.

Dadaab is a world unto itself. All that grows there is thorn bushes, and the buildings are built from its sticks, as well as mud and plastic. The economy is entirely gray. Residents barter rations and fill their days scrambling to eat and survive.

Rawlence tells the stories of nine people in the camp. Kheyro is a schoolgirl determined to get an education. Guled was kidnapped and forced to become a child soldier. He made his way to Dadaab after escaping. His passion in life is football—what we call soccer. Nisho gets by moving goods throughout the camp, hoping to someday be rich. These stories put a human face on the camp while Rawlence also describes the sociopolitical forces involved in creating the camp.

Too often, we are unaware of situations outside our borders which affect the whole world.  Dadaab is undoubtedly a humanitarian crisis. Is it a superb setting for the development of terrorists? Perhaps. Is it something we need to know about? Absolutely. This book is an excellent choice for a group ready to learn about and be challenged by current events.


Voices in the Stones  
Kent Nerburn

The last time we had Kent Nerburn in the store was in the fall of 2013, just after The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo was published. He and his wife were in the process of leaving Bemidji, but they hadn’t decided where their new home would be. He seemed exhausted from the writing of The Girl, and somehow untethered.

When I read Voices in the Stones, I realized Kent has gotten his groove back!
Nerburn is regarded as one of the few white Americans able to respectfully bridge the gap between Native and non-Native cultures. His many books deal with spirituality and/or Native themes.
In this latest book, he reflects on stories which show how Native Americans live, believe, die,
and know. These stories aren’t the result of superficial conversations or chance encounters. They come from deep reflection on thirty years of living and working with Native people. He doesn’t appropriate these stories and practices for himself. Rather, he quietly sits with them, seeking understanding and showing great appreciation for them.

One tender story involves Kent being invited to share in a feast. He went, even though he wasn’t sure what he was getting into. It was a simple, festive potluck, honoring a young boy who had received an award for a poem which he had written. Such meals are perhaps commonplace—but in this culture, the sharing of food has deep spiritual significance. While at the feast, a friend told Nerburn that the oldest and youngest members of the community were valued as closest in their nearness to the Creator. Kent watched as a group of girls about 8 or 9 years old tenderly served elders before eating themselves. It was a very simple act in a simple setting, but Kent reflects on it in ways that illuminate deep pools of meaning.

This is a book to be read slowly and savored. There is much here to ponder.


Inheriting Edith
by Zoe Fishman

Maggie Sheets was a single mom who cleaned houses in New York City for a living. Her life changed overnight when she learned that a former employer left her a huge inheritance—a house in the tony community of Sag Harbor, and the money to maintain it. There was just one little catch—the former employer’s mother, 82-year old Edith, lived in the house. She had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and Maggie would be responsible for caring for her.

Maggie chose to accept the inheritance, although both she and Edith were very wary of each other.

As the story progresses, more background information is revealed. Slowly, the circle of characters broadens to include friends, neighbors, children, and former lovers, as well as information about Edith’s daughter, Liza.

There are lots of books about people with Alzheimer’s, but that’s not really the focus of this story. In some ways, Edith reminded me of the main character in Flowers for Algernon. Am I dating myself? At its heart, the book is about all kinds of relationships and all kinds of family. It’s about caring for one another, about secrets, about trust.

And we can always imagine how we’d respond to a receiving a huge inheritance out of the blue!


The Guest Room
Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is a familiar name to many book groups. His books include Midwives, The Buffalo Soldier, and Sandcastle Girls, and each book tells a story totally different from the one before.

In The Guest Room, Richard Chapman offers to host his younger brother’s bachelor party. He anticipates that the party will be wild and crazy, and encourages his wife and their daughter to go to his mother-in-law’s for the week-end. Richard thought there would be drinking and maybe even a stripper at the party. The actual drunkenness and licentious behavior went beyond what he expected and the stripper turned out to be two women who killed their Russian bodyguards and drove off into the night. I’m not giving anything away—this is all laid out by the second page of the book.

Richard’s life became a nightmare—the police took over his home as a crime scene, his firm put him on leave, and his marriage was in a precarious state. Oh, and the friend of his brother’s who hired the women attempted to blackmail him.

On the one hand, the book is a thriller. On the other, it’s a book about family, trust, relationships, and how fragile they are. And on the third hand, the book explores the underground world of sex slaves and trafficking girls and women.

Our Senator, Amy Klobuchar, has been working against sex trafficking. When I’ve heard her talk about it, it’s compelling, and I think, what a terrible thing. However, that’s so different from reading about the process of manipulating a girl into life as a sex slave.

This book made me uncomfortable. I didn’t like the language, I didn’t like many of the characters, I didn’t like the subject matter. And yet it’s timely and examines a prevalent international issue. I think it’s an important book to read.


The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper  
Phaedra Patrick

Arthur Pepper is a 69 year-old widower, living in a village outside York, in northern England. In the year since his wife, Miriam, died, he’s established a pretty regimented schedule for himself. On the one-year anniversary of his wife’s death, he is scheduled to go through her closet. For some reason, he put his hand inside one of her boots, and discovered a heart shaped box hidden there. The box was red leather, and was secured with a tiny gold padlock. The lock was no problem for Arthur, who had worked as a locksmith for 40 years. Once he’d picked the lock, he opened the box to see a beautiful antique bracelet with eight charms. Arthur had never seen the bracelet before. When he looked carefully at the charms, he found a telephone number engraved on a little elephant with set with an emerald. Uncharacteristically, Arthur dialed the number, and that call changed his life. Arthur discovered that Miriam had, before their marriage, been a nanny for a family in India. He was stunned by the discovery! Eventually, he decided to track down the story of each charm on the bracelet. The bulk of the book is the story of his journey to discover his wife’s past. He did learn about experiences which she’d never told him about. More importantly, though, Arthur learned about himself, and his life opened in ways he couldn’t have imagined. The book is charming, humorous, and filled with delightful characters.



Winter Journey
Diane Armstrong

When forensic dentist Halina Shore is recruited to take part in a war crimes investigation in a small Polish village, she is hesitant at first. Ultimately, she decides to join the team, having no idea about what she will learn and how the experience will change her life. Halina describes the
site being investigated as a place where "criminology intersected with history, religion, sociology, and psychology.” Winter Journey is a work of historical fiction based on an incident that happened in Poland in 1941. The story is a compelling mystery and at the same time a commentary on good and evil and what motivates human beings to make the choices that they do. Readers who are drawn to stories about World War II will not want to miss Winter Journey.

Note: Winter Journey was a Night In pick.



A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of the Queen of the Desert Gertrude Bell
Gertrude Bell, Georgina Howell, Georgina Howell

Gertrude Bell, known as the female Lawrence of Arabia, was a phenomenal Victorian woman who went her own way. We first meet her as she climbs a number of peaks in the Alps. Then she discovers the Arabian desert and exploring becomes the love of her life. She was instrumental in shaping the Middle Eastern countries as they are today. The book, a collection of Gertrude's writings, has mystery, romance and intrigue.  If you're looking for something different, try A Woman in Arabia.

Here's the trailer for the 2015 movie, Queen of the Desert. It stars Nicole Kidman and was based on the life of Gertrude Bell.



Blue Shoes and Happiness  
Alexander McCall Smith

MMa Ramotswe, owner of the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency has a new set of problems to solve. A local doctor may be falsifying blood pressure readings and the game reserve manager feels unrest among his workers-perhaps witchcraft? This is number seven of the series by author Smith and the fun part is that the stories are set in Botswana. I enjoyed the way our detective solves her cases with African know-how.


What the Lady Wants: A Novel of Marshall Field and the Gilded Age  
Renee Rosen

The title of the book is taken from Marshall Field’s motto as he opened his first dry goods store in Chicago in the 1870's: "Give the Lady What She Wants". This historical fiction grabs our attention as it opens with a description of the Great Chicago Fire. We meet Delia Spencer who tells her story.  Delia was Marshall's mistress in the book and also in real life.  The descriptions of how these very wealthy people lived is fascinating. The author takes a few facts and weaves a great story of the growth of Chicago, including the 1898 Columbian Exposition World's Fair. Marshall Field was one of the men instrumental in making the World’s Fair happen. If you liked Loving Frank, the story of Frank Lloyd Wright, you will enjoy this one, too.




The Watchmaker of Filigree Street
by Natasha Pulley

Most of the book is set in London in the days of Gilbert and Sullivan... and Irish bombings. A telegraph operator finds a marvelous watch on his pillow. A female student at Oxford dresses as a man because women aren't allowed in the library. The friend who lends her his jackets is Japanese, as is the mysterious watchmaker in Filigree Street. The magic in this book reminds me of The Night Circus. I found the book a delight and hated coming to the end.



by Julian Fellowes

Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, takes us to 1841 London and lets us see more of the complicated lives of different English classes. I thought the novel started a little slowly, but I was very glad I stuck with it. By the end I found it impossible to put down.



The Murder of Mary Russell
Laurie R. King
One of best of the fine series of stories about the brilliant Mary Russell, who met Sherlock Holmes after he retired to Sussex. Well, of course he couldn't really retire, and Mary has become his partner in fighting crime. In this latest book we learn Mrs. Hudson's back story: what a surprising life she led! (If you haven't read any of this series, start with The Beekeeper's Apprentice.)


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