Ron's Book Review for the Steamboat Pilot: Last week, those of us who attended Literary Sojourn were delighted by Emily St. John Mandel’s description of the writing of her most recent book, "Station Eleven," nominated for this year’s National Book Award.
#The story starts in the present, but travels back and forth between now and 15 years into the future, where a catastrophic pandemic has nearly destroyed the world. Sounds frightening and strangely familiar, right? Well, we hope not exactly, but in our worst nightmares, most of us have considered this possibility especially given the recent Ebola crisis.
#In "Station Eleven," Mandel takes us into a post-apocalyptic world that is both fairy tale and horror story, we are introduced to a traveling theater and music group that moves from settlement to settlement, carrying what Mandel described as something that would survive, when most of everything that we depend on is gone.
#She asks, “What can we not live without, and what can survive when the infrastructure that defines our world is gone?”
#The narrative leads us to ponder what it is we value. With elegance, the prose weaves back and forth, looking for links between future and present, but forever focused on the story and where it is leading us.
#This is a book review where the more that is said, the worse it will be for the reader, and so I will stop. Suffice to say, pick this one up. You will be thinking about it long after the last page.
#I would be remiss without mentioning Mandel’s previous books. I met Emily at the first book show that I attended after purchasing Off the Beaten Path Bookstore.
#An independent press, Unbridled Books, published her first three books. We became very fond of the gentlemen who ran this press, as they seemed so skilled at finding incredible writers.
#Emily’s first book, "Last Night in Montreal," haunts me to this day — the sight of the ubiquitous hotel room Gideon Bible brings the story flooding back.
#Next was "The Singer’s Gun," an international thriller, from start to finish.
#Then came "The Lola Quartet," a tale that follows a failed journalist through the economic disaster of Wall Street and back into his southern childhood, where his high school music group and his history collide.
#While all three of these books prove Mandel’s considerable talents, and all three take us on an adventure involving detectives and crimes, this was a genre that the author did not want to define her work, so "Station Eleven" is a very different work.
#Sought by many of the biggest presses, Random House/Knopf Publishing have delivered a gem and brought Emily St. John Mandel’s blossoming talent national attention.
#Start with "Station Eleven," and when you become a fan, read her previous books. You will not be disappointed.
Ron's Book Review for the Steamboat Pilot: "The Director" is, in contrast, fiction — a typical David Ignatius spy novel.
#The intrigue focuses on a new director of the CIA, tasked with bringing a bureaucratic, staid agency into the digital age, confronted within his first weeks in Langley with a hacker who has, apparently, cracked the agency’s networks.
#While the writing, plot and characters are formulaic, this story is thoroughly researched, credible (sort of) and has its share of heart pumping moments where you will turn page after page.
#If you’re a spy novel reader, this one will not disappoint, and even if you’re not, you’ll find yourself pondering whether what we’re told about how the world works is anything like reality.
#Both books ask some difficult questions.
#Annie Jacobsen: Should a person who’s done bad be forgiven on the promise of future good? How should we regard a person who has achieved much but has a past marred by unforgivable crimes? Did the end of the space program and America’s biological and chemical warfare programs justify forgiving a Nazi past? And maybe most importantly, just what should be kept from the American people in the interest of national security?
#David Ignatius asks about secrets, too, but a central theme of the "The Director" is the origin of the CIA and America’s relationship with Britain. He asks whether America’s intelligence community is really a pawn of the UK, in service of a new kind of colonialism?
#"Operation Paperclip" is a superior work of journalistic history, marred only by Jacobsen’s occasional inability to avoid expressing her bias. "The Director" is the classic spy novel that does more than excite, it makes you think.
Ron's Book Review for the Steamboat Pilot: The secrets our government keeps, or tries to keep, clearly haunt Annie Jacobsen. In "Area 51," her first book, she sought to find what our military and intelligence agencies have been hiding on the restricted access Nevada air force facility from which the book’s title was taken.
Now in "Operation Paperclip," she chronicles the bizarre history of the extraction to the United States of 1600 German scientists at the end of World War II, focusing on 21 who were ardent Nazis, were aware of or responsible for activities that caused the deaths of countless Allied civilians and concentration camp workers, and, against all conventions of the time, created the backbone of chemical and biological weapons that became the Cold War.
It is common knowledge that Wernher von Braun, the father of the US space program was a Nazi, but did you know that Arthur Rudolph, project manager for the Saturn V rocket that took Americans to the moon, was in charge of slave labor at the Nordhausen V-weapons assembly facility? Or that laborers were worked to death and replaced by prisoners from Auschwitz? And that Kurt Debus, the first director of the Kennedy Space Center, was a member of the SS?
Ron's Staff Pick (June 2014): This book was published late last year, but now is the time to read it. Badluck Way is the account of the author’s one year spent as a cowhand on the Sun Ranch in Montana. The Sun Ranch is a huge spread north of the Yellowstone, nestled in between two mountain ranges, and home to huge herds of elk, summer grazing cattle, and wolves. For Andrews the mostly repetitive work of the ranch hand is a canvas upon which he paints the otherwise invisible struggle to survive, and the land and its creatures become part of his soul.
Ron's Staff Pick (May 2014): Looking for a tense, can’t put it down, read, coupled with some straight up beautiful writing? Look no further – read The Painter. Jim Stegner is a tortured man, an extraordinary painter, consumed by the physical act of painting, trying to find himself in a life of loss. Fly fishing is his solace. Here he is fishing at night, working his way upstream among the boulders of a running stream:
I followed them. Lost myself and followed them. Sometimes I saw the bushy little fly hit and drift, sometimes I lost it in a silvering of current. When I got a strike – sometimes I heard it first. In the calm places. A gulp. A blip, the double note, nose and tail. And the rod tip bent hard, the shiver. And then the old euphoria.
Jim is impulsive, and this book explodes. What happens surprises, over and over again.
Don’t miss it.
Ron's Staff Pick (May 2014): In Flash Boys, Michael Lewis exposes the world of high frequency trading, a world where milliseconds matter and fortunes are made on the backs of the common trader. This is not a pretty story – the “stock market” the average person understands is no longer the fair and equal market she assumes. There is downright theft going on, and we are it’s victims. Read all about it, before your next trade!
Ron's Staff Pick (April 2014): A collection of short stories about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Redeployment follows in the wake of Matterhorn (Karl Marlantes) and The Yellow Birds (Kevin Powers). But this book is not a follower, it is a powerful, compelling expose of the suffering soldiers experience for doing the horrible things that are their job. These stories cry out to be read, and you will cry reading them.
Ron's Staff Pick (April 2014): There have been a lot of books written about the Manhattan Project and Los Alamos, but none from the perspective of the wives. These women who took their families to this “nowhere land” because their men and country said “go” gave so much, and now Tarashea Nesbit gives voice to their experience. Nesbit does something quite unique in this her first novel. She writes this story in the first person plural, and as a result the story reads like poetry.
Ron's Staff Pick (December 2013): In 1983, rainfall and an epic snowmelt raised the water behind the Glen Canyon Dam to record levels at the same time as it became clear that the Dam was failing. The only solution – a massive increase in the release of water downstream, doubling then tripling the flows of the Colorado through the Grand Canyon. The result was catastrophic for rafting trips already in the canyon, and the Emerald Mile tells that story, alongside that of three daring young men who defied law, nature, and odds and launched a dory – called the Emerald Mile – into the torrent to see if they could set the record for the fastest trip through the canyon.
The story of this epic ride would have made a good book on its own, but it’s greatly enriched by Fedarko’s recounting of the history of the river and how humans have tried to tame it.
So not only do you get a great adventure story, one that reads as fast as the flows of the river that month in 1983, but you get a fantastic history, too.
Ron's Staff Pick (December 2013): This first novel for this talented writer is a rich, luscious memoir of the fictional marquis Jean-Marie d’Aumant, who pens his story as he awaits the mob of the French Revolution that will spell the end of his life. His life story spans most of eighteenth century France, the last days of privilege for the aristocracy. Jean-Marie’s life has been characterized by a compulsive exploration of taste, from beetles to snake to wolf heart and women. His legacy is a truly unique collection of recipes and a tender and sometimes sad love story.
Ron's Staff Pick (December 2013): A Classic Craig Johnson story, and will become a classic Christmas story. A World War 2 B-25 airplane blasts through a horrific snowstorm on a Christmas Eve mission of mercy. Told in the present day, the story takes us back to Walt Longmire’s first days as sheriff. A warm, fuzzy, suspenseful tale, something for everyone.
The classic Christmas story: a World War 2 B-25 airplane blasts through a horrific snowstorm on a Christmas Eve mission of mercy.
Ron's September 2013 Staff Pick: This is the best book I’ve read in years. Hands down best.Years ago, Alma’s beloved sister Ruby, was killed, along with 39 others, in an explosion at the Arbor Dance Hall. No one has ever been brought to account, but Grandma Alma knows who is to blame, and now she tells her grandson.Woodrell takes a lifelong mystery, and his cast of extraordinary characters, and writes an absolutely stunning story. Rich, complex, gritty, earthy and real – all things one expects from Woodrell – this book has some of the most gorgeous writing I’ve read in years. This book deserves awards. This review is mine.
Ron's September 2013 Staff Pick: Memorial Hospital, “Baptist” to native New Orleans residents, survived the near disastrous hurricane of 1927, and identified all kinds of improvements it should make to survive another. Over the years, memory and will faded, and almost none of those improvements were made. When Katrina struck the loyal hospital staff found itself without electricity, no plan for evacuation of patients, no air conditioning, overflowing toilets, tired, hungry, and improvising to care for its sickest patients. When evacuation of terminal patients looked impossible, the physicians administered medicines that ended their lives. Was this merciful; or murder?
Sheri Fink’s thoroughly researched account of those five days, and the two years that followed, is a provocative, sobering read. Are there actions one shouldn’t do even in the most extraordinary circumstances?
Ron's August 2013 Staff Pick: Where is your girlfriend, Johnny? What did you do? These are the questions, spoken and unspoken, hurled at Johnny when his popular and beautiful, if overly attentive, girlfriend disappears in the middle of a Wisconsin snowstorm. What happens to Johnny’s family, indeed to the entire community, is the subject of this striking first novel by Paula DeBoard. Told from the perspective of Johnny’s 9 year old sister, the story has a sense of innocence and complicity that compels you to keep reading, so much so that I read this book in three big chunks. Simply a great story, told by a skilled writer.
Ron's August 2013 Staff Pick: An absolute must-read for students of the American Revolution, Philbrick recounts the history of Boston from the British invasion, through Lexington-Concord, the Battle of Bunker Hill, to the ignominious departure of General Gage and his armies. Besides recounting, in his usual thorough fashion, the history of the events that fueled America’s declaration of independence, Philbrick paints a vivid picture of the principals – a collection of remarkably courageous and clever individuals.
We marvel today at the ability of social media to galvanize revolution, but we don’t appreciate the power of the pen in 1775-6 and the incredible network of communication among the towns of Western Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire that allowed the Americans to raise an army equal to the challenge of the British. We also fail, I suspect, to appreciate the painful divide between loyalists and rebels that tore Boston in half in these crucial months leading up to the Declaration of Independence.
Ron's June 2013 Staff Pick: “Chiseled and carved. That’s how I remember my father. Tall, lean, and muscular. Hair colored by the midday Nevada sun and styled by a strong Spring Valley wind. Skin like sandstone washed repeatedly by rain leaving behind the delicate traces of its travels. Beautifully nicked-up working hands. A fine piece of art”
This is the story of three generations of women, each hopelessly attached to the man who was their husband, father and grandfather, who together with the Baxter Ranch and Omer Springs, Nevada, has woven a spell on them even though he’s been gone for more than 30 years. Now Cassie, the granddaughter, has to break the spell.
She does, and the telling of this story, in the first person, is a true delight. Don’t miss it.
Ron's June 2013 Staff Pick: This is the story of Willa and Zeb, brother and sister, bound together by their childhood, inseparable even though apart as adults. Zeb has grown fiercely independent, tormented by what he knows or doesn’t know, and is at one in one place, outdoors, in the mountains, among the scent, rhythm, feel of the mountain’s trees, plants, earth and, most of all, animals. Willa has become a tracker of wolves, and now Zeb is gone, and she knows she must turn her skills to find her brother again.
“The first snowfall of the season came on the night Zeb set out from Gnarly’s. Not the spitting kind of snow that usually comes between fall and winter, but the kind when huge, wet flakes looked like stars taking their last breath before hissing and dissolving into the earth.”
Loren’s story unfolds the mystery of Willa and Zeb’s bond under the covers of some of the most beautiful images of the West I’ve read in a long time. Well worth the read.
Ron's June 2013 Staff Pick: Will Testerman, Will Testerman, Will Testerman! Who are you, Will Testerman? Boleto is Alyson Hagy’s answer. Will is a 23 year old man, raised on a ranch, comfortable on a horse, learning to be comfortable in his skin; quiet, polite, formal, striving to prove he knows.
Stacie M. Williams said of Boleto “it has the warmth of smooth, copper-colored whisky running through every page.” I couldn’t agree more:
“He rode in the very early morning sometimes. His saddle creaked like an old trapdoor in the autumn cold, and its leathers were unyielding and slick. The saddle fit like a stranger’s saddle until he warmed it. But it was a pleasure to nudge Hawk through the shadowed canals of fir and spruce, both of them making noise to alert foraging bears. Hawk’s hot breath came out in white clouds that condensed into frost on the buckles of his headstall. Will’s own nose went numb, and he had to wipe it dry with a bandanna whenever he could. But it was good to ride atop the hills and see the sun hammer its first hot spikes into the long, dark rail of the valley.”
Know what it’s like to know a horse, to ride the ranges and mountains of Wyoming and Colorado and Texas; and live and breathe the stables and taste the oats, and you have Boleto.
Ron's June 2013 Staff Pick: On February 10, 1918, Tom and John Powers, their father Jeff, and ranch hand Tom Sisson rose to the sound of gunfire. They were under attack. Minutes later three of them were on the run, down into Rattlesnake Canyon, on into the Dragoon Mountains of Arizona, working their way to the Chimichura Mountains, and from there, hopefully, to Mexico. John had a splinter in his eye, the casualty of a bullet that missed him but hit the doorjam to his left. Tom’s left eye was blind, too, glass splinters from a blown out window. Off they rode, sure to be pursued, for the men who’d attacked them were the law.
If Boleto is smooth and quiet and sober, With Blood in Their Eyes is a wild and dangerous chase, raw and muscular.
“He gave himself over to the race, pushing farther down, laying his shoulder into the horse’s lowered neck. His body was tense, nearly horizontal, and his heartbeat sped up to match that of his horse. There was no controlling the horse now. The horse was in full run, operating on a combination of terror of whatever was behind them and the desire to outrun the other horses. The horse was far beyond any commands a human might give it, and that suited John fine. He pressed himself into the horse, trying to make himself one with the animal.”
Want an old-fashioned western told well, With Blood in Their Eyes is for you.
Ron's Staff Pick: Willie Sutton, the famous bank robber who supposedly answered the question “Why do you rob banks” with the riposte “Because that’s where the money is,” was released from prison for the final time on Christmas Eve, 1969. JR Moehringer recounts his life by imagining that Sutton is released into the custody of a reporter, who has 24 hours to find out the one remaining secret of Sutton’s crime spree. Sutton takes them on a tour of New York City, chronicling his life and career. Moehringer cleverly weaves Sutton’s memories with cutting dialogue with the reporter, and in doing so unravels the mystery of Willie Sutton.
Ron's Staff Pick: We owe Edward Curtis a debt of gratitude for leaving us a photograph record of Native Americans at the turn of the last century, as they were living out the vestige of their tribal life. Now Timothy Egan returns the favor, giving us classic Egan-esque portrait of the photographer. By telling Curtis’ story, Egan also tells us about the Native Americans he photographed, about Washington politics, culture and attitudes towards the original inhabitants of our country, and even of the early days of the founding of Seattle, Curtis’ hometown. Another stunning work by Egan.
Ron's Staff Pick: Talmadge, a middle age craggy man, lives alone, as he has since the age of ten or so, on an orchard in central Washington state in the early 1900’s. A man of few words and fewer friends, he finds himself visited by two young feral teenage girls. What unfolds is an unexpected story, frightfully inevitable, sad and beautiful and real.
This is an unusual piece of writing. The characters, perhaps responding to Talmadge’s paucity of speech, say little, yet say so much. Coplin writes rich descriptive prose like layers and layers of oil paint on canvas.
Ron's Staff Pick: Other members of our staff picked this book when it first appeared, but I didn’t read it until it came out in paperback. What a delight! Imagine 3 sisters, each 3 years apart, born to an English professor father who is a Shakespeare expert and who speaks almost entirely in the voice of Shakespearian characters. The girls have grown up in a household of books and reading, and words, especially written words, are the family currency. Now the girls are women, each long gone from home, each facing a crisis. One by one they return home, and together must forge new lives.
This is a superb piece of writing: clever, witty, funny. I dogeared more pages and underlined more sentences in this book than any I’ve read in years. And ultimately it’s a happy story – perfect for the holiday season.
Ron's Staff Pick: Budo is the imaginary friend of 8 year-old, somewhat different, Max. Max’s imagination has endowed Budo with unusual skills for an imaginary friend, and when Max goes missing, Budo must bring all those skills to bear to save him.
A wonderful, insightful and uplifting tale that gives one insight into the mind of a mildly autistic boy through the eyes and ears of the companion he imagines. Well told, well imagined.
Ron's Staff Pick: A deeply compelling, moving and tragic novel of the Iraq war. Like Marlantes’ Matterhorn and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, this story captures the gut-wrenching, anxious, overwhelming experience of soldiering, and the imponderable loss, the regret, the sorrow. This book has haunted me for weeks. As I write this The Yellow Birds has been nominated as a finalist for this year’s National Book Award. I’m no judge, but this book’s writing, and the power of its words, make it my choice.
Ron's Staff Pick: Are there things money shouldn’t buy? This is the question Sandel, noted Harvard Professor, pursues in his latest book. Sandel observes that over the last 30+ years a pervasive political and economic belief in the purity of markets has led to intrusion of markets into spheres of our
lives we used to value in other ways. He argues, convincingly, that there are things that are corrupted when they are valued only as objects to be bought and sold. And he calls for a public discourse about our value systems as essential to preserving who we are.
Sandel’s writing is so clear, so straight, even this potentially “dry” subject flows off the page. In
this election season, when many will argue over the very essence of how we decide, Sandel’s latest work is ESSENTIAL reading.
Ron's Staff Pick: If you like Mark Spragg’s An Unfinished Life and Bone Fire, I need say no more than read The Bird Saviors. Ruby counts birds, cares for her daughter, ministers to Lord God her father, and seeks a “good life” for herself, all in the big spaces of a barren western sky. The Bird Saviors is a tender read, one that will haunt you for weeks, but leave you smiling.
Ron's Staff Pick: Wendy’s review nails this book perfectly. A steamy, sensuous, wonderful story of intrigue. Music and art are the color create the richness of this story. Piet Barol’s keen, almost intrusive, observation of human behavior fascinates.
Ron's Staff Pick: Short stories require exquisite economy of words, and Woodrell is the consummate practitioner. Each story finds you embedded in a unique place, faced with a horrible event among strong, passionate actors. These stories are not for the faint of heart, but reward the reader with unforgettable tales told superbly.
Ron's Staff Pick: Amy Auker has lived her life on the caliche of southwest Texas ranches. She writes an intimate memoir, filled with poetic, gorgeous descriptions of the big sky land she can’t get enough of. It’s Thoreau in the southwest, written “…while holding hands with the dirt and grass and sky and wind.”
Ron's Staff Pick: How do we mark the end of life? How do we know? Harold Bloom has collected 100 poems that are the last written, or were expected to be the last, or mark the end of a poet’s work. He’s done so because “Lastness is a part of knowing.”
Bloom’s short biographies of these, the greatest of poets, introduces their final words, and together these words make a haunting anthology.
Ron's Staff Pick: At 6:00PM every day President Obama's staff hands him his briefing book for the next day. At the front of that book is the purple folder. In the purple folder are 10 letters and emails, carefully selected from the thousands he recieves every day to represent the mood of his mail. He reads these letters before anything else, and sees them as his lifeline to the people he governs. Eil Saslow has selected 10 of these letters, interviewed the writers and their families, and painted a portrait of 2010-11 America by telling their stories. This is a unique work, sensitive, revealing, at times heart-wrenching. By telling why people choose to write their President, Saslow reveals the heart and soul of America today.
Ron's Staff Pick: I rarely read Stephen King – I don’t like being scared to death – but my fascination with the Kennedy assassination made it impossible for me to ignore this title.
So what’s the plot? Jake Epping, a 40 something school teacher, finds a stairway back in time that drops him from present day into the year 1959 and takes on the challenge to change history by stopping Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating the President. But history is obstinate to change; and Jake is drawn to the 60’s. King’s account of Oswald, and his take on history, makes this worth the read, even if it’s longer than necessary.
Ron's Staff Pick: Yes, there are still manned LookOut towers whose residents spend their summers watching for forest fires. Phillip Connor is one of them, and in Fire Season he tells us the intimate story of one summer spent as a Lookout in the Gila Wilderness, the largest protected wilderness and forest region in the United States.
In this account, Connor recounts the history, ecology and politics of forest fire, intertwining it with an introspective account of what a Lookout does, sees and is. The result is an Edward Abbey like read, rich, informative, peaceful, provocative. This is today's Desert Solitaire.
Ron's Staff Pick: This is a must read debut novel by “one of the 5 best authors under the age of 35.”
Natalia is a 20 something young doctor on a trip to vaccinate children in an orphanage when she learns that her grandfather has passed away, unexpectedly and under mysterious circumstances. The Tiger’s Wife is the story of Natalia’s very special relationship with her grandfather, and her search for meaning in his life and death.
Obreht’s writing and story has the surprise and insight of Yann Martel, and the mysticism of Toni Morrison. Read the introductory paragraph and you’ll immediately recognize her ability to write imagery and characters.
Don’t miss this one!
Ron's Staff Pick: It's been a long time since I read a war novel, and I've never read one about the Vietnam War, so it was with quite a bit of trepidation that I opened Matterhorn. Having consumed it - and it is a lightning fast read - I have to say it paints a picture of war that it is horrific, scary, and messy. Guts and lives pour out from page to page, but so do souls and promises and hopes and dreams. By the time you finish this novel, you know its characters as men, full of flaws, trying to survive; and the machinery of war -its army - as wickedly willing to expend its greatest resource in service of careers, politics, self-perpetuation. Or is it honor.
Ron's Past Picks
Ron's Staff Pick: Wow! One of my favorite books of the last five years is Black Swan Green, David Mitchell’s story of a 12 year old boy growing up in small town England. Now he appears with a most different novel, the story of a Dutch clerk assigned to his country’s trading outpost in Nagasaki Japan at the end of the 18th century.
This story is nothing short of remarkable. Mitchell captures the essence of the Dutch and Japanese cultures, dancing across a narrowly drawn boundary that is the product of Japan’s staunch refusal to allow any intrusion into its society. When Jacob De Zoet pushes on that boundary, he unleashes events that are unimaginable.
Mitchell’s writing here is remarkable. His mastery of both the Dutch and Japanese dialect, and his portrait of the life, smells, sounds and habits of his characters is astounding. This is a masterpiece.
Ron's Staff Pick: When Rebecca Skloot took a human biology course as a teenager she learned of the classic HeLa cells, immortal cells that spawned the science of molecular biology. She asked the simple question, where did these cells come from. This led her on a 10 year quest to learn about Henrietta Lacks, whose cervical cancer was the source of these cells, and Henrietta’s family. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is her account of this family, and these cells, and the intertwining of medicine, science and ethics in the lives of these people. The science is approachable, and the story is a touching, endearing story that makes us all so much more aware of the injustice so unfortunately carried out in the name of progress. This is an important book – it must be read.
Ron's Staff Pick: Wow! This is a great story, a fantastic novel that is dying to be read.
Elise Blackwell is a wonderful writer, a crisp, elegant, pithy writer. Listen to this passage:
There is no black on the right side of her closet, the side of her days. The clothes there are gray, white, blue, green and tan. On hangers are a purple blouse, a red tee-shirt, and a pair of maroon pants – a gift from Petra she has worn only once.
The left side of her closet is monotonous night: solid black, the attire of performance. Like a widow in eternal mourning, Suzanne has pairs of black trousers, black skirts, black jackets, and black shirts. She has a black sweater, long and short-sleeved black dresses, the formal black dresses of the soloist and plain orchestra dresses, black dresses designed to be seen from the opera boxes and those seen to best advantage from the floor…
Suzanne distributes water glasses, and they take their usual seats around the food. Adele lifts her glass, leaving behind a wet circle she traces with a fingertip. She looks at the food, at each of them. Had they been a household of three, which for a while it seemed they might be, family dinners would have been shaped by sound. Rising or falling, or stalled, but always sound or its absence. But Ben and Suzanne’s baby did not arrive, and after Petra and Adele made them a quartet, they worked to make a world defined by sight, touch, smell, taste rather than by sound and not sound.
And this one:
The grief is for Alex, mostly, but it bleeds into the sadness she feels every time music is made and then gone – something real and loud in the air that disappears from all but memory. Sometimes Suzanne strains to imagine the music still living, playing on in some version of reality not organized by time, all its notes together like colors in black paint or white light. It might be a place, she thinks now, in which you can love two people without diminishing either.
With this wonderful prose Elise Blackwell tackles a tough subject: fidelity. Her story asks the question “What do you owe?” to your child, your best friend and her child, to your lover, your husband, yourself, your colleagues, your art. And she does so while telling a compelling story, a mystery, full of tension and surprise.
This is a story embedded in music. But you don’t need to love or understand music to love this book. The characters bring the music alive and make An Unfinished Score sing!
Ron's Staff Pick: 6 years ago Mark Spragg released An Unfinished Life to critical acclaim. Now Griff, Einar, and Crane are back, creating another story of wildlife and land in Bone Fire. Griff has come home from college and finds an aging Einar, unable to do the things that define him. Sheriff Crane battles his strangely failing body while he tries to solve a frightening crime. And Griff struggles with her loves, her art and her self. And they all, forever entwined, make choices that define their lives.
Spragg has done it again, written a mysterious, deep and dark story of renewal. It’s a story that is and of the land. It’s a book that’s worth the read.
Ron's Staff Pick: Brady Udall's latest work, The Lonely Polygamist, has been described as Dickensian, a rich evocative character study. A most unusual story of what might be described as the mid-life crisis of a man with four wives and 28 children, Udall skillfully crafts a surprisingly emotional story. Torn by the expectations of his Church, his wives, his children, his peers, Golden Richards fights to keep "it all together," or at least to keep it from failling apart. It is a poignant story about people you come to know intimately. Hearing Brady talk about how he conceived these characters, and this story, will be unforgettable.
Ron's Staff Pick: In this first of a trilogy, Justin Cronin writes the story of post-apocalyptic America, a world where few human beings have survived. This world emerged from the escape of a virus, whose evolution is made possible by human’s seeking to use the virus for their selfish ends; and the survival of the remaining normal humans depends on their ingenuity and bravery in the face of a world now inhabited by a millions of distorted, vampire like beings.
This is a can’t put down read – it races, and you race – to find out what happens. And when it ends, you are left wanting for more.
Ron's Staff Pick: Robin Olds Lived the last years of his life in Steamboat, in the mountains he came to love. But before that he was the quintessential fighter pilot, and Fighter Pilot: the Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds is his memoir. He left the pieces of his memoir to his daughter to edit and publish, and she has done so brilliantly, creating the story of a most unusual and dedicated man. Robin Olds enrolled in West Point in World War II, graduating in time to fly P-51s over Europe, escorting bombers and engaging in air to ground combat. Twenty years later he went back into combat flight in Vietnam, leading more than 100 missions over North Vietnam. He was a brilliant flyer and a devoted military commander, a true one of a kind spirit. That spirit comes through loud and clear in this riveting account of his life.
Ron's Staff Pick: Once every few years – if you’re lucky – you read a book that you know you’re going to remember all your life, a book that you miss dreadfully now that it’s done, that reaches a part of you you don’t often get to feel, and you like. For me, Cutting for Stone is one of those books.
Maybe it’s because I’m a doctor, and this book is about doctors and patients and medicine. Maybe it’s because I know the author Abraham Verghese, deeply respect his practice of medicine, and found his first book ,My Own Country, an extraordinary story of the early days of the AIDS epidemic in rural America.
But I don’t think so. I think it’s because this is a rich, deeply personal and elegantly told story, dreadfully sad and yet incredibly fulfilling. And the writing, the writing is magical and efficient. Listen to this paragraph, as this infant, perhaps six months old, tells you about his caretaker Rosina, while being held in her arms:
Rosina’s forehead is a ball of chocolate. Her braided hair marches back in neat rows, then flies out in a fringe that reaches her shoulders. She is a bouncing, rocking, and humming being. Her twirls and turns are faster than Ghosh’s. From my dizzy perch her pleated dress makes gorgeous florets, and her pink plastic shoes flash in and out of sight.
Or this one:
I believe in black holes. I believe that as the universe empties into nothingness, past and future will smack together in the last swirl around the drain. I believe this is how Thomas Stone materialized in my life.
You smell and taste and hear this story as much as you see it:
In the lobby I registered coriander, cumin – the familiar scents of Almaz’s kitchen. On the stairs I inhaled the very brand of incense that Hema lit each morning. I heard the faint drone on the second-floor landing of “Suprabhatam” sung by M. S. Subbulakshmi and the sound of a bell being rung, as someone in some other room, in a different direction did their puja.
Follow this family from India to Ethiopa to America and back as the main character is born, raised, educated, experiences love and pain, happiness and anger, satisfaction and grief, and chooses between the “perfection of the life, or of the work.” This is a journey, and these are people, you will remember always.
Ron's Staff Pick: Twelve year old Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet is a self declared “mappist” – one who captures information through visual representation (my definition!) - who lives on Coppertop Ranch in Divide, Montana. He is the son of a devoted, meticulous, methodical zoologist and beetle scientist (his mother) and a distant, silent rancher. TS has a gift – a precocious scientific mind and the ability to draw. Secretly, his friend and mentor, has submitted TS’s portfolio to the Smithsonian Institute. The book begins with a telephone call from the Director of Smithsonian telling TS, whom he assumes is a University Professor, that TS has won a prestigious award and will be honored at a gala in Washington, DC, two weeks hence. The book is the story of TS’s journey to Washington to claim this award.
There is mystery in the Spivet family and along his way to Washington, TS begins to unravel that mystery. The story is beautifully crafted and cleverly “mapped.” Larsen writes wonderful insight into the workings of the young boy’s mind, the way he sees the world. The book is witty and imaginative and clever.
Readers who enjoyed Special Topics in Calamity Physics will like this book.
Ron's Staff Pick: This is the story of two men who have known each other since childhood and whose lives remain intertwined despite decades of distance. It is a dark and brooding tale, for neither man has come to grips with much of anything except his relationship to the other, and yet now, they are torn apart. Eli Gottlieb, trained as a poet, has written a lyrical and haunting story.
Ron's Staff Pick: This is a must read. Period. We are in the midst of reforming healthcare in the United States, and nowhere, let me repeat, nowhere, will you find a more cogent, simple expose of why we must, and how we can. It’s not that big an investment – maybe 6 hours – but when you’ve finished, you’ll know where you stand, and why. You’ll be able to enter the healthcare debate informed, and influence its outcome. This is a must read.
Ron's Staff Pick: In the style of Terry Tempest Williams and Wallace Stegner, Rick Collignon has been writing novels of the great American Southwest for nearly 20 years. This his latest steps forward a generation in the history of Guadalupe, New Mexico, and grasps the history of his prior work and pulls it into the present.
This is a story of two old, old men, men who have lived, but not proudly, and who have secrets even as they approach their deaths. It is the story of how they try to unburden themselves, and what happens when they do, and how the truth emerges. It is a story of relationships, and of the land and the water, and how these all are woven into a life.
Collignon is a gifted writer, concise, mean, imaginative. His characters are scary real. And as a result, this book is a rewarding read.
Ron's Staff Pick: This is the first of ten books, a mystery series targeted at 4th to 6th graders, each book written by a different author. It is the story of a brother and sister, with complementary personalities and skills, who seek the secret of their ancient family, a secret that will bring them “power beyond belief” – if they can find the answers to 39 clues. In the Maze of Bones, Dan and Amy chase the first clue from Boston to Philadelphia to Paris, learning the secrets and puzzles of Benjamin Franklin.
Besides being a well written, fast paced mystery, full of intensity and surprises, this is also a real education about Ben Franklin, his writing, politics and penchant for puzzles. Not just a good read, a learning read! And there is more. Accompanying the book is a set of clue cards that start the reader on an online treasure hunt with real prize money.
Ron's Staff Pick: We are the beneficiaries of Dan Tyler’s discovery of this wonderful correspondence between two people in love in 1871, she in Iowa, he in newly minted Greely, Colorado. In these letters we rediscover not only the art of letter writing, but of the love letter. We watch as the couple, first tentative and shy, open up to the possibility of a life together in this new city abutting the Rockies, become playful and even mischievous. Tyler’s wonderful annotation reveals the history against which this courtship matures, making these letters much, more than a love story.
Ron's Staff Pick: Ramona Montoya has returned home from the funeral of a loved one, freshly burdened with the task of raising her seven year old nephew alone. But when she opens the door there to great her is her grandmother, and then her grandfather, both of whom have been dead for many years. Over the next several days, Ramona’s house is gradually taken over by her family, dead and alive, as they shower her with love and attention and stories of her past. And oh yes, they lead her to the journal of her grand uncle, and through it to an understanding of the mysteries of her past and the meaning of her presence.
Collignon wrote this book, one of the Guadulupe series, in 1996, and it has been re-released to accompany the publishing of Madewell Brown this year. It is a real treat that Unbridled Books has brought the series back in print. The Journal of Antonio Montoya is a magical, mystical work in the mold of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Reading it you realize the constraints of our concept of time and begin to sense the presence of the past and future in our daily existence.
Ron's Staff Pick: What would it be like if you only existed as a character in a novel? Your life, meaning and very existence depends on hearing the scratching of pencil on paper, telling you to go into action, that finally you are “being written?” Such is the life of Daniel … and when he hears the scratching this time it is louder than ever before, and tells him to get busy and intervene, change this story, fix everyone’s problems. And so he does, creating order and havoc in this race to the finish work that you won’t be able to put down! Unusually clever writing makes this novel one not to miss.
Ron's Staff Pick: In 1870 more than 40 million buffalo roamed the American plains. Just ten years later, there were none. Those who had hunted them, for their fur, their skins, their fat and their meat, were mystified – where had they gone?
American Buffalo is at least three stories. First, it is the story of the buffalo from the Pleistocene era to today, its evolution, its migration, its relationship to the land. It is also the story of the relationship between humans and the buffalo, how each people, in its own way, has accorded status to what might otherwise have just been another food source. And finally, it is the story of the author’s hunt for his own buffalo in the wilds of Alaska, reliving and recreating his own relationship with hunting and those he hunts. Steve Rinella may be an outdoorsman, but he writes a historical work of reverence.
Ron's Staff Pick: This is the story of Addie, a wildly talented artist who discovers love and purpose in the mystery of birds. Her life is driven to extremes, yet like the birds she paints, it hovers on one edge, then another, creating a tension that both excites and exhausts those near her. This is a deeply passionate book:
“And many of the stories were ones that Tom had told Addie first, when they’d met and fallen in love, there in that beautiful corner of upper Bucks County, in the woods above and below Burnham Ridge, during a spring spent observing birds, and, when they finally lowered their field glasses, one another.”
In her first novel, Joyce Hinnefeld creates characters you come to know deeply, feel deeply about, and find yourself worrying about many days after the story is done.
Ron's Staff Pick: John Wilkes Booth committed the most heinous crime of the 19th Century, but how did he do it, and could he escape Washington? James Swanson has written a detailed and exciting account of the days leading up to and following Lincoln’s assassination for the young adult reader. Could Booth stay ahead of the news of the killer on the loose? Who would help him? What happened to him? For the young history buff interested in the Civil War and Lincoln, this is a revealing and thrilling story.
Ron's Staff Pick: Here is the story of Edgar Sawtelle, a young boy who cannot speak, his mother, father and uncle, and most of all, the dogs they breed – the Sawtelle dog. Edgar is possessed by a special sensibility, perhaps resulting from his inability to speak, that makes him see in others, the humans and the dogs, what even they themselves cannot see. Underneath the surface of this young boy’s growing up is a deep, dark mystery, headed for conflagration. In the meantime, David Wroblewski writes the beautiful landscape of rural Wisconsin, and of the special bond between dog and humans when dogs are bred and trained well. Yes, this is an Oprah pick, and yes, we are very happy this work is receiving the kind of recognition it deserves.
Ron's Staff Pick: Cesar is a 17 year old gang member living, maybe surviving, in Los Angeles, the son of an absent father, and a mother who is a native Alaskan. His brother has just been sentenced to life imprisonment for murder. Recognizing she must do something to try to save Cesar, his mother moves them back to her home town, Unalakleet, Alaska, a village of maybe 500, surrounded by water, a barren, colorless, place where everybody seems to be a relative.
On his arrival, Cesar is adopted by his cousin Go, who tells him that he’s wrong, he will still be in Unalakleet in a year, that in fact, he will become part of Unalakleet, and Unalakleet will become part of him. What follows is the story of that year, and the deep and mutually important relationship between these two boys, that leads them to become one – “same-same.”
This is Mattox Roesch’s first novel, and it is skillfully written. He draws us into these complex characters and this foreign life and culture, and you get to know them so that you almost know what they are going to do. Without being aware of it, you also feel like you are there with Cesar and Go in the weather, land and sea of Unalakleet, and it becomes a very real place, a place you already know.
This is a great first novel. Readers who liked Black Swan Green and the The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time will like this book.
Ron's Staff Pick: This is a touching story whose title couldn't be more apt. Henry is Chinese. Having recently lost his wife to a long battle with cancer, he is investing, perhaps for the first time, in his relationship with his son, and recalling his relationship with his own father. But in his heart, he is yearning for his first love Keiko, who when they were 12 was sent away to a Japanese detention center. He relives this long lost love as he begins to reshape his own - alone? - life.
Ron's Staff Pick: Set in the depressing white of the long, rural Wisconsin winter of 1908, The Reliable Wife tells a tale of discovered love. Ralph Truitt has buried himself in work since the loss of his wife and children, and twenty years later seeks the love and companionship he has so defiantly denied himself. He awaits the arrival of Catherine Land, who has agreed to marry him, sight unseen. Catherine cannot, will not “live without love or money,” and is prepared to compromise all else. And she plans to do so, cruelly.
In this first novel, Robert Goolrick, author of The End of the World as we Know It, weaves a plot that is deep and dark, that peels away all else to reveal the souls of two persons lost in lives of their own doing. I found myself wanting to know what they would do, and couldn’t put this trim novel down. It is a good read.
Ron's Staff Pick: Maaza Mengiste's first novel is a tough read, not because it's not well written, but because it tells a painful story of lost trust, suspicion and real and present danger during and after the Ethiopian revolution that brought an end to Haile Sailassie's reign. A young idealistic college student rebels against his father and family, participating in a revolution that he believes will deliver Ethiopia from corruption. But when the revolution he so believed in turns against him, he again rebels, threatening the lives of those dear to him. This is a frightening story; but one you can't put down.
Ron's Staff Pick: On the morning of June 29, 1860, the Kent family, living in the Manor House of Road, England (a five-hour train ride from London) awoke to find four-year-old Saville, the darling of the house, missing. A desperate search ensued, and later that afternoon, young Saville’s body was discovered in the latrine; he had been brutally murdered. When after two weeks no murderer had been found and no one had confessed to the crime, Detective-Inspector Jonathan Whicher of the London Police force was dispatched to Road. This book is the story of his investigation.
Kate Summerscale tells how this crime captivated all England, shone a spotlight on the new and controversial “detective” force that would become known as Scotland Yard, stimulated the emergence of a new genre in writing – the detective novel and ultimately, how the personality of Whicher shaped the personalities of the first English fictional detectives. Meticulously researched, this account is a fascinating insight English civil life in the mid-19th century.
Readers who enjoyed Devil in the White City will like this book.
Ron's Staff Pick: The unseasonably dry spring and summer of 1910 left the new “National” Forest of Idaho and Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains dry, brittle, and crackling, dying to burn with the first August lightning. Determined to stop it were a few, brave, adventuresome, but raw, newly minted Forest Rangers, spirited on by National Forest Service founder Gifford Pinchot’s conviction that man could control forest fire, that nature could be tamed. Timothy Egan tells the story of the biggest forest fire in hundreds of years, one that consumed a forest equal to the size to the state of Connecticut. Along the way, he writes a portrait of the main characters, Gifford Pinchot, Teddy Roosevelt, the Forest Service rangers in the Bitterroots, and the industrialists, lumberman, miners and railroaders whose money and corruption stymied the Service every step of the way until all each cared for burned. It is the story of the beginning of conservation. This is an action paced story of history that educates while it entertains. Anyone who liked American Buffalo or Undaunted Courage or has enjoyed the writings about the National Parks will find this a rewarding read.
Ron's Staff Pick: It's been a king time since I read a war novel, and I've never read one about the Vietnam War, so it was with quite a bit of trepidation that I opened Matterhorn. Having consumed it - and it is a lightning fast read - I have to say it paints a picture of war that it is horrific, scary, and messy. Guts and lives pour out from page to page, but so do souls and promises and hopes and dreams. By the time you finish this novel, you know its characters as men, full of flaws, trying to survive; and the machinery of war -its army - as wickedly willing to expend its greatest resource in service of careers, politics, self-perpetuation. Or is it honor.
This is a good story, but its not for the faint of heart.
Ron's Staff Pick: I can’t say enough about this first novel by Marisa Pessl. This is the story of Blue’s (yes, that’s her name) senior year in high school, told in the form of a course of study, as she enters her freshman year at Harvard - hence the title. In this year, Blue not only discovers herself, she discovers the secrets of those many years of her childhood and adolescence when year after year she invented a new life in a new town, driven by her college professor father’s annual decision to take a new and temporary teaching position.
It isn’t the story that makes this work special, it is the author’s execution. This novel is deeply funny, elegantly crafted, expertly researched: overall a real tour de force, an unique, one of a kind read. When you finish this book, go back and reread the first chapter. You’ll see what I mean.
Ron's Staff Pick: What are our obligations to others? Is it ever right to lie, steal, or harm another person?
All of us have answers to these questions, most driven by instinct. But have we ever pursued where these instincts come from, the implications of our answers in one setting to another?
Havard Professor Michael J. Sandel brings his famous Harvard course between to the written page, tracing the constructs of justice from Aristotle to Bentham and Mill, to Kant and Rawls. For as difficult a subject as this one, Sandel achieves a readable and fascinating formulation. His use of “problems” keeps the reading alive and meaningful. In short, this is a thought provoking read for anyone who asks the question “what is the right thing to do?”
Ron's Staff Pick: Gottlieb grabs us in the first chapter, pulling us into the deep suspense of an inevitable disaster. A cunning, deceitful character is made more real by the quasi-scientific and fascinating knowledge of how to read faces. What does it mean when your left eyebrow arches?