Friday, May 27, 2011


The "Top picks"are books that a critical mass of our contributors recommend.

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff Biography. “Not one I would have picked up but given to me by a friend. I devoured it in a few days." … “Great read, great history as biography.” … “Read this on your Kindle or with dictionary at your side. A light rompy read, this is not... however, it is a very interesting and well researched story about the mesmerizing Cleopatra.”

Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College by Andrew Ferguson. Non-fiction. “Ferguson's book about college admissions makes you scream, ‘WHAT are we DOING?’ The book’s narrative focus -- Ferguson’s son’s journey through college admissions – stands alone in depicting the utter madness that defines the process of trying to get a kid into college (and then, somehow, paying for it). But Ferguson reinforces the sense of lunacy with interesting history and analysis. And Ferguson is SO funny. To wit, Ferguson, having been told his son should ‘dig deep’ and talk about his ‘innermost thoughts’ when writing his essay, Ferguson observes ‘seventeen-year-old boys do not have innermost thoughts – and if they did, neither you nor I would want to know what they are.’)” As the Washington Post put it, ‘It may seem strange to say that a book so full of heartache is a pleasure to read, but Ferguson's storytelling is irresistible. ’ Ferguson only begins to touch on the question that is probably at the heart of the higher ed bubble - is a Bachelor's degree truly worth a quarter million dollars and an unspeakable hassle? - but he does get you thinking.”

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin. Murder mystery/thriller. Black Silas Jones and white Larry Ott were childhood friends, though they kept their friendship quiet in 1970s Mississippi. A girl disappears after a date with Larry, who is universally suspected (though not convicted) of the crime. Flash forward to present times. Silas is now the constable and another girl disappears. Larry, an outcast all these years, is again a suspect. The story of their old friendship and mysteries – old and new – unfold. Contributor comments: “Compelling with great southern Mississippi atmospherics. Larry Ott is a truly pathetic character (in the real meaning of the word) -- heartbreakingly so. I read the book in a couple of days.” … “A reasonably simple story of murder and friendship set in Mississippi, beautifully told, with real character development even for the supporting roles, and a few twists - no huge surprises, but nicely woven together.”

One Day by David Nicholls. This novel, published in 2009, has gone a little viral, perhaps because of the impending movie adaptation. Contributor comments: “It should be called ‘One Date,’ as it's about a whole bunch of July 15ths, over a period of 20 years in the lives of Dexter and Emma. I liked peeking into the window their lives, one day (date) at a time, and felt the novel worked well structurally. I had a rooting interest in the outcome, and appreciated their witty exchanges.” … “Great read, well written, good characters.” … “Picking up this book was like reliving 20 years of time with two best friends I didn't even knew I had! Dexter and Emma meet at Edinburgh University on July 15 1988 and every chapter is a glimpse into their lives on July 15 for the next 20 years.” ... "This would be a fantastic book to read on the beach. So engaging, you love the characters, well-written but v accessible."

The Paris Wife by Paula McClain. I think I might be the only one who has not yet read (and loved) this novel, so this may be a review in service of just me. In fact, it got so many recommendations that I had to winnow down the comments (which I did at random): "A simple, but nicely told story of Hemingway and his first wife during their time in Paris. The story comes across very real the entire time, you feel for Hadley, know that it all will not end well - and so does she pretty much, but totally understand her choices and her acceptance of the consequences. The writing is kind of lyrical.” …. “Interesting from two perspectives: historical and a love story. Liked because Hemingway is such a fascinating person. His huge self-confidence and adventure seeking persona are intriguing.” … “You'll want to reread Moveable Feast when you finish.”

Room by Emma Donohue. Novel. “A riveting story, told entirely from the perspective of a five-year-old, which you would think would get tiresome but somehow doesn’t. It becomes clear quite early in the novel that the whole of the young narrator’s life has been spent in one room, though due to the absolutely heroic efforts of his mother to protect him, he doesn’t know what he is missing. Through the child’s eyes, the circumstances that led to their living in ‘The Room’ unfold, and events ensue.” … “Overall, do not be put off by the subject matter - the strength of the first half of this book makes it worth reading." Several of you commented on the relative weakness of the second half of the book, but all agreed that it's a page-turner.

The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon. Several of you mentioned this new release. From Amazon: “It is 1968. Lynnie, a young white woman with a developmental disability, and Homan, an African American deaf man, are locked away in an institution, the School for the Incurable and Feebleminded, and have been left to languish, forgotten. Deeply in love, they escape, and find refuge in the farmhouse of Martha, a retired schoolteacher and widow. But the couple is not alone-Lynnie has just given birth to a baby girl.” Reviewers have used words like "enthralling" and "captivating."

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. By the author of Seabiscuit: An American Legend, this is a biography of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic runner who wound up an Air Force Lieutenant and prisoner of war in WWII. By all accounts I’ve seen, Unbroken reads like fiction – a “breathless” narrative style, in the words of the New York Times. Contributor comments: “I am not usually a nonfiction fan but this story is too amazing not to read. Laura Hillenbrand's story is pretty interesting as well. She lives DC and suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome.” … “Definitely not my usual pick but impossible to put down.”

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Each chapter in this novel, which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is told from a different character’s point of view –friends and associates of a music producer/former punk rocker. Contributor comments: “Smart, modern, and well-written book dealing with the aging of a generation of hip youngsters.” … “This is a fun but thoughtful book about...well...about a whole bunch of people who all have some connection to each other, some more than others, all dealing with different stages of life, and we meet several of them over again as they age or in their past. Confused? You won't be. I never felt out of place or out of time in this book. Egan does a great job of quickly establishing where you are at and with which character and then you fall completely into their story.”

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