Monday, September 26, 2016

September 2016 Staff Book Recommendations

Before the Fall
By Noah Hawley 

Have you ever considered what it would be like to be the center of a media firestorm? Before the Fall by Noah Hawley tells the story of painter Scott Burroughs, a struggling artist who accepts a ride on a private jet from Martha’s Vineyard to New York along with an influential media titan, his wife and young son, and a number of other wealthy and famous power-players. Minutes after take-off, the plane crashes and Scott and the young boy are the only survivors. Scott swims the young child miles to the beach and into instant media notoriety. 

The book interweaves a number of narrative threads, including Scott’s attempts to deal with his newfound celebrity, his dealings with the family members of the victims, and suspicion and personal attacks from a powerful news commentator who worked for the media executive. The book also includes flashbacks to the backstories of the people on the plane and describes the efforts of the detectives investigating the mystery of the plane crash. 

Hawley does an amazing job making the reader understand what it might be like to have overnight notoriety and the disorientation that it would bring. The characters are also interestingly flawed and compelling. Hawley has been a producer and writer for a number of television shows, including the excellent Fargo, and Before the Fall definitely has the feel of a really good drama in how it slowly lays out character and plot details piece by piece. 

As a word of warning, from reviews I’ve seen, it seems that how the mystery of the plane crash resolves has been polarizing to some readers. In fairness, Before the Fall has been compared by many to a mystery-thriller along the lines of Girl on the Train or Gone Girl, and that isn’t quite how I would describe it. Without getting into spoiler territory, I loved how the eventual explanation for the plane crash played perfectly into the themes with which Hawley layered his entire book. However, readers looking for a complex and convoluted solution should realize that Before the Fall is ultimately more about the psychology of the characters than the mystery of the plane crash. 

Anyone searching for a great character-based dramatic story would be well advised to check this one out. I highly recommend it.


Heat Exchange: Boston Fire
By Shannon Stacey

This is a lively, fast-paced, contemporary romance set in Boston that pulled me out of my prolonged book rut. Still, even though the book was engrossing,I found myself critiquing it more than enjoying it. 

Main character Lydia, who comes from a long line of firefighters, and Aidan, firefighter and best friends with Lydia’s brother Scotty, are not supposed to be together. Even though Lydia thinks Aidan is as hot as a stack of pancakes, she loathes being involved with a firefighter (her cheating ex-husband was a firefighter, and she spent her childhood feeling as though her father put his job and fellow firefighters above the needs of his own family). Likewise, Aidan, who is clearly smitten with Lydia, can’t even think of dating his best friend’s sister without the repercussions to his friendship, as well as the possibility of serious bodily harm if Scotty ever found out about their relationship. Thus, Stacey sets the stage for an intricately plotted, in-depth forbidden romance, with lots and lots of steamy sessions between the sheets (trust me, these were not lacking). So why the lukewarm review? 

The not so bad: 
  • I have never read a romance with a firefighter as a main character and it was really interesting to learn about the challenges and rewards of the profession. 
  • There is quite a lot of dysfunction among the families of the different characters which adds a different dimension to the plot and the story. Although I wished this could have been more central in the lives of the main characters rather than just background information, it did keep me more engaged than if it had not been part of the book. 
The not so good: 
  • The characters, while well-fleshed out, were not always particularly likeable. Lydia was often mean to Aidan and frequently forced him to see things from her point of view without ever dealing with her own hang-ups. Meanwhile, Aidan stood idly by while his best friend Scotty (who is pretty much an all-around scummy character) belittled and shamed a fellow firefighter for trying to rescue a dog from a burning house.. Although I have no point of reference for how challenging it is to be a firefighter, I can’t help but imagine that any decision to try and save a life (including the four-legged ones) has to be extremely heart-wrenching and not to be taken lightly. 
  • A very quick, unsatisfying wrap-up towards the end. Without giving anything away, I was very close to throwing my book across the room  and smacking myself on the head! (don’t worry, no paperbacks, or readers, were actually harmed!)
Hey, I’m just one reviewer! Give it a try and perhaps Heat Exchange: Boston Fire will be more enjoyable for you than it was for me. At the very least, you get to hang out in Boston for awhile.


The Power of Now
By Eckhart Tolle

Spirituality is a messy business. Every religious and spiritual tradition seems to have its own bewildering set of concepts, deities, and path to "enlightenment", whatever that is. Eckhart Tolle tidies up this mess in The Power of Now, breaking a jumbled pantheon of (mostly Eastern) spiritual traditions down into a simple Zen-like arrangement. 

Tolle’s arrangement centers on the Now, and how staying in the present moment can free us from pain and transform our lives. If you’ve read any Buddhism, Tolle’s concept of Now should sound familiar, but you may know it as ‘mindfulness’ or ‘awareness’. Tolle’s method of harnessing the power of Now will likely sound familiar as well, with Tolle asking us to watch the mind and connect to body sensations like breath. Where Tolle shines is in his ability to make these sometimes difficult and poorly explained concepts into something more easily grasped. 

The appeal of Tolle’s The Power of Now will vary depending on where you are on your path. For anyone already familiar with concepts like mindfulness and awareness, this book may give you another angle on these concepts, but may not help further your practice. Tolle’s own enlightenment experience was of the sudden kind, and it shows. Little mention is made of the long practice most will need to become proficient in staying present, the kind of practice that takes years to grasp. Imagine a virtuoso playing a sublime piece of music for you, then handing you her instrument, and asking you to play the same; you may feel inspired but a little dumbfounded. The ideas presented in this book are solid, but be warned: harnessing the power of Now may be harder than Tolle makes it seem. 

Not many books sell millions of copies without a good reason though, and there is much to be said for The Power of Now. If you tend toward the secular in your spiritual pursuits and avoid the conceptual and ritual trappings of religion, this may be the book for you. Tolle gives new words to a variety of concepts, helping to separate them from the baggage of their parentage. Likewise, if you are beginning a spiritual journey, looking for something to inspire you, or just want to dip your toe in the pool, this little tome may be what you need right now.


This One Summer
By Jillian and Mariko Tamaki

Are you in denial that school has started? Yeah, me too. I’m still in summer reading mode, so I’ve been lazing on the porch during these dog days with some breezy young adult graphic novels that capture the essence of summertime. (Technically, it’s still summer until September 22nd, so we’re good for now.) Sometimes, I get lucky with a story that has both the ease and flow of a beach read, and the heart of a timeless classic. 

In This One Summer, Rose is off to Awago Beach again, where her parents have a lake house. She spends most of her time with her BFF there, Windy. They spend their lazy days swimming, biking, and reading – but this summer’s different. For one thing, they’re “tweens” now, gazing from afar at the high schooler and resident bad boy who works at the video store, and predicting the bra sizes they’ll eventually need. Rose is definitely more worried than Windy, and more hung up on the video store guy and whether or not he has a girlfriend. Windy would rather just have fun. (The scene where Windy dances around Rose’s kitchen table is infatuating.) 

And it’s a good thing Rose has Windy to get her out of the house this summer, because her parents seem to be arguing nonstop. The arguing eventually turns into full-blown fights. She’s not sure what they’re even fighting about, but something must have happened long ago that traumatized her mom forever… Slowly, Rose realizes that with all the excitement of growing up, it also means leaving pre-adolescent innocence behind. 

I’m a relatively new reader of graphic novels and this one sets the bar pretty high. I read it in a day but when I say “day” I mean virtually all 24 hours because I lingered on every beautiful page. Long, refined strokes evoke the charm and nostalgia of summer camp and vacation cabins. The Tamaki sisters have created a perfect combo of simplicity and gravitas, both in art and story. The dialogue is delightfully random at times, a fairly accurate representation of the aimless, unstructured nature of summer vacation. I fell in love with both young female heroes. Rose has a quiet dignity about her, and no matter how hard she tries to fit in with the cool crowd, she can’t deny her independent spirit. Windy is far more unapologetic about her free-spirited nature, and she tells it like it is. 

The themes are heavy – teen pregnancy, miscarriage – but treated with delicacy and grace, so I’d say teenagers and even some of our more mature middle-schoolers would be able to handle it swimmingly. Bear in mind Rose and Windy often engage in trash talking, and like virtually all teenage girls, they use some colorful language. Highly recommended for ages 13+.


By Stephanie Danler
Restaurant folk, this book’s for you.  Author Stephanie Danler, member of the as-yet-unorganized but omnipresent League of Literate Waitresses (you know who you are), has made good with a captivating tale that is both a coming-of-age story and a sumptuous feast for the senses.
Sweetbitter, Danler’s debut novel, describes a pivotal year in the life of twenty-two year old Tess, beginning with her arrival in New York City where she knows not a soul. Determined to leave her small town past behind and “start” her life, she succeeds in charming her way into a job at one of Manhattan’s toniest, most respected restaurants as a back waiter.  Despite lack of experience, Tess’s potential rapidly transforms into knowledge and skill as she trains in fine dining service, fancy food, and, of course, wine.  While receiving this unparalleled hands-on education, “new girl” also falls in love with the familial yet sexually charged atmosphere of the famous restaurant, forming dangerously strong emotional attachments to both her mentor Simone and Jake, a mysterious bartender. 
Beyond Danler’s razor sharp insight, what shines about her writing is how she brilliantly captures the rhythms and theater of restaurant work:  the way time zooms during a busy shift, the physical pain and manic energy  incurred from lifting, standing, running, and serving for hours without a break that can take hours to dissipate, the strain of upholding the adage “the customer is always right,” and the intense communal dynamic that makes or breaks a night and makes you feel like you are in the center of the universe. Within the narrative, Danler provides a few poetic streams of overheard conversation from both guests and staff, illustrating how Tess isn't just a food server; she's immersed in the best and worst of humanity as she moves around the floor.
Despite a somewhat predictable conclusion, the arc of Tess’s sensual journey will keep you engaged. Salud!