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Cynthia Webber

One glance inside Cynthia Webber's library tote and you will spot an assortment of reading materials, from obscure literary fiction and quirky memoirs to cozy mysteries that she consumes like comfort food. A former researcher, writer and book reviewer, Cynthia's ideal evening is spent by the fire with a piece of chocolate and a good book. Cynthia can often be found near the new book section in our Hereford Branch, where she is happy to suggest titles for customers looking for a good read. She particularly relishes the challenge of turning customers on to something new. Look for her next time you visit.

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Binding Broken Ties

Binding Broken Ties

posted by:
April 19, 2013 - 6:01am

The Burgess BoysElizabeth Strout is adept at creating flawed, ordinary characters mired in a changing, unforgiving world, and instilling in them traits that all can recognize. In her latest novel, The Burgess Boys, the highly regarded writer returns to a small town in Maine with an observant, tragic-comic story of a family as burdened by its past as it is overwhelmed by its messy present.  Clearly, navigating life and the human condition is never easy.

 

For Jim and Bob Burgess it is also complicated by family ties. Both New York attorneys, the middle-aged brothers fled long ago from down-on-its-luck Shirley Falls, where now Somali immigrants are changing the face of their hometown. Their divorced sister, Susan, has remained. When her lonely teenage son, Zach, is accused of a hate crime involving a Somali mosque, the brothers reluctantly return to Shirley Falls to obviate the legal crisis. It's hard to tell who is under more stress: the Mainers and immigrants who fret over what Zach's crime means for the community they now share, or the Burgess siblings who continue to define themselves by past demons. Jim, a celebrated defense lawyer with a big house and pretty wife, is revered by his siblings despite acting like a jerk to his younger brother. Nice guy Bob, who works for Legal Aid, drinks way too much.  Scarring everyone is a long buried family tragedy that continues to ooze close to the surface.

 

Strout, whose last novel was the Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge, has again drawn with polished prose emotionally untidy characters whose seemingly unremarkable lives yield the hallmark of  human character. With a reflective tone and pitch-perfect dialogue, Strout's fluid storytelling yields a simple, yet difficult message: connections matter.

Cynthia

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One Maryland One Book 2013

King PeggyAn American woman’s journey from embassy secretary to African royalty is this year’s choice for the One Maryland One Book selection. King Peggy: An American Secretary, her Royal Destiny and the Inspiring Story of How she Changed an African Village chronicles the story of Peggielene Bartels of Silver Spring, Maryland, who learns in 2008 she is the new king of Otuam, a poor Ghanaian fishing village of 7,000. This book was previously reviewed on Between the Covers last year.

 

Now in its sixth year, the Maryland Humanities Council program brings people together from across the state through a shared reading experience, book-centered discussions and other programming. A calendar of free public events will be available on the MHC website this summer. Last year’s book, The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway, attracted almost 7,000 readers in Maryland’s only statewide book club.

Cynthia

 
 

Higher Powers

Higher Powers

posted by:
April 4, 2013 - 7:01am

The Vatican DiariesTiming could not have been better for John Thavis's entertaining and candid new book, The Vatican Diaries: a Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities, and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church. While the long-time journalist stirs in lighter, less sacrosanct moments about life in and out of the Apostolic Palace, there is serious discussion of many aspects of this Vatican City-State visited by millions each year. 

 

Nearly three decades of experience covering the Holy See for Catholic News Service has provided the recently retired Rome Bureau Chief with a heap of material on the men in red. In ten highly readable chapters, Thavis traverses more territory in “arguably the world’s most hierarchical organization” than on his motorino throughout this ancient city. Intriguing chapter headings, like “Hemlines and Banana Peels” and “Cat and Mouse,” provide a fascinating peek at the culture behind the headlines.  In a chapter called simply “Bones,” Thavis highlights the difficulty of protecting and conserving the plethora of antiquities that come out of the ground while moving forward with modern development as mundane as a parking garage. Thavis calls it the “politics of the bones.”

 

No subjects are off limits either, as the Minnesota native seems to have witnessed it all firsthand.  He takes on the sexual abuse scandals and other controversies swirling around papal decisions, including provocative observations on the last two popes.  Lighter subjects, too, are explored, including free-speaking priests who get into trouble and the mindset of Vatican protocol where things shouldn't go wrong but often do. Even bell ringing has its own challenges. There is chapter on it. Thavis dispels the myth of "Vatican secrecy" in his introduction. "More than 3,000 people work in the Vatican's administrative machine, and many of them will share information if given the opportunity," he says. It is fortunate for readers that Thavis has opened up his reporter's notebooks.

Cynthia

 
 

The Nature of Harm

The Nature of Harm

posted by:
March 15, 2013 - 7:03am

The House GirlLawyer Lina Sparrow instantly knew she was staring at a drawing that transcended time. The young African American man at its center stood in a Virginia field with his hands at his side, waiting. More than 150 years may have passed, but Lina knew that the charcoal put to paper that day said as much about the subject as it did about the artist who created it. In Tara Conklin's shifting, stirring debut, The House Girl, two worlds coalesce, as the winds of past sins expose the fight for freedom and family identity that reach from present day deep into America's past.

 

In the plush law offices of Manhattan’s prestigious Clifton & Harp, first year litigation associate, Lina Sparrow, has just been handed the class action case of a lifetime involving historic reparations for slavery.  In locating a slave's descendant to act as lead plaintiff, she stumbles upon the story of artist Lu Anne Bell and her house girl, Josephine, who sometimes painted alongside her mistress. Josephine was seventeen in 1852 when she escaped from the failing Bell tobacco plantation. Now Mrs. Bell’s paintings are highly regarded for their sensitive portrayal of her husband's slaves, but recent speculation has questioned their authenticity. Lina, herself the daughter of artists, delves deeper into the searing plight of Josephine. In doing so, she begins to question her personal life and her own sense of place.

 

Conklin, a lawyer by training, exploits the double narrative as the means to weave together a historic time period with the legal perspective of twenty-first century restitution. As the prose expands, uncovered correspondences lay bare the horror of slavery. Readers of The Help by Kathryn Stockett and Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini  will enjoy this moving connection to the troubled past.

Cynthia

 
 

Hope Adrift

Hope Adrift

posted by:
March 4, 2013 - 7:55am

White Dog Fell from the SkyAcross the border it is a different world. Cruelty is not harnessed. A man’s limit is not tested. The line between life and death is not drawn in black and white. For medical student Isaac Muthethe, the brutality of apartheid is never so evident as when he escapes from its grasp in Eleanor Morse’s observant and beautifully crafted new novel, White Dog Fell from the Sky.

 

Forced to leave his family, Isaac is smuggled into Botswana after witnessing the brutal murder of a friend in South Africa. His only chance of survival was to flee the secret police. In the Naledi shantytown where he finds himself, Isaac encounters a mysterious white dog. The dog’s refusal to abandon him comes to symbolize hope amidst grief and suffering. While walking house to house in search of a job Isaac meets Alice Mendelssohn. The well-educated American woman, whose husband works for the government, does not care that Isaac is black and she is white. Isaac becomes her gardener. As their lives entangle, each travels a path toward their own heartbreak. For Alice, it is her crumbling marriage and regret at not fulfilling her own dreams. For Isaac, it is the knowledge that with each step he is shedding his old life and the family he left behind. When Isaac meets and briefly stays with an old classmate who works for a violent anti-apartheid group, it is an association that will nearly destroy him and changes the lives of Alice and Isaac forever. 

   

Morse, who lived in Botswana for several years in the 1970s, juxtaposes the political and racial turmoil of the period with an African landscape that is as alluring as it is austere.  Teeming with evocative observations about the country’s conservation practices, people and culture, Morse's multi-themed narrative leaves readers to ponder the price of betrayal and the capacity for friendship. Readers of Abraham Verghese, Edwidge Danticat, and Khaled Hosseini may find much to like here.

 

Cynthia

 
 

Bellwether for the Union

Rise to GreatnessAbraham Lincoln was an inexperienced president in 1862 when he faced his troubled country's most daunting crises to date. With the new year came the inescapable truth of a nation divided, broken, and at war. To realize his vision for the union would take patience, even-keeled fortitude, and the ability to draw in friend and foe alike. In David Von Drehle's terrific and highly readable book, Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year, the historian reconstructs in a dramatic but disciplined tone the year's greatest challenges for the self-schooled Illinois lawyer. Unfolding month by month, Lincoln's growth as a leader is as transformative for the 16th president as it is for the state and stabilization of the union.

 

There is no doubt that issues were burning for Lincoln and the country. Aside from a civil war and unabated "secession fever,” the president was facing a government overwhelmed, a treasury without money, and a war department reported in shambles. Europe was exhibiting impatient leanings toward the south. At home, Lincoln's domestic situation presented its own challenges and heartache. The moral crisis of slavery, which would eventually catapult Lincoln to greatness, was looming.   

 

Von Drehle's careful chronology of this tumultuous year begins with New Year's Day and concludes a year later with the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In captivating narrative guided by hefty research, layers of political, military and diplomatic maneuvering are peeled away as Von Drehle attempts to define the man Lincoln became as a result of the year's high stakes. Micro-biographies of the usual players add color, as do the plethora of Lincoln quotes, many poignant. Readers of Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough will recognize here the republic at a crossroads and the bellwether of a nation who saw beyond.

Cynthia

 
 

A Masterpiece Redux

A Masterpiece Redux

posted by:
January 25, 2013 - 7:01am

The Art ForgerBoston artist Claire Roth is slowly rebuilding her life after a scandal three years ago nearly derailed her painting career. Now working as a master copyist of famous works for an online art broker, she knows that it is only a crime to copy a painting if that painting is sold as the original. What happens when the lines blur, the craquelure appears authentic, and the stakes are high? In her taut, twisty tale The Art Forger, B. A. Shapiro  reveals the underside of the art world  that revisits one of the most famous art heists of all time and the daunting challenge proving art provenance.

 

When the posh, well-connected collector, Aiden Markel, approaches Claire about reproducing a painting "not quite on the up and up" she can't resist. In exchange, Markel promises to provide Claire with a large sum of cash and an opportunity for a one-woman show at his prestigious gallery. The painting in question is an Edgar Degas masterpiece stolen over 20 years ago from the Gardner Museum.  Before long Claire realizes that the painting, too, is harboring its own secrets, and her Faustian agreement may cost her more than her expertise.

 

Shapiro's prose is ripe for those who enjoy art world intrigue with a splash of romance. Narrated in Claire's painter voice, back stories shed light on Claire's past scandal and the eccentric collector Isabella Stewart Gardner. Sidelights about successful forgers throughout history and their techniques add interesting color, as do details of Degas' use of light and color.  Although Shapiro's painting and relationships are imagined, the 1990 Gardner art theft remains unsolved today. Readers looking to read fascinating, true art history should try Edward Dolnick's The Forger's Spell: a True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century or Ulrich Boser's The Gardner Heist: a True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft.

Cynthia

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Such is Life

Such is Life

posted by:
January 4, 2013 - 8:15am

It's Fine By MeIt was not a ghost thirteen-year-old Audun Sletten saw that day on top of the hill at the end of his newspaper rounds. It was his estranged father, who regrettably appeared to be back in town. For the troubled teenager it was just one more reminder of a gnawing past best forgotten and of a future, tentative and urgently beckoning. In Per Petterson's recently translated novel, It's Fine by Me, the Norwegian author revisits the cold, stark landscape of his previous novels with this quiet, coming of age story. Set in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, a story is told of a family chafed by family dysfunction and a young person's toiling for what is important.

 

Audun and his family have not had it easy. Escaping an explosive husband, his mother has started a new life for Audun and his siblings in a working class section of Oslo. On the first day at his new school he meets Arvid, an unlikely friend who is something of a political idealist and also loves books. In their growing friendship, Audun opens up about his past and his plans for the future. He wants to be a writer. Over the next five years, Audun sees his life change, his family slowly falling apart. His tough guy persona, fashioned after his favorite literary heroes, helps him cope when his own defenses are down.

 

Petterson, the author of the award winning Out Stealing Horses, reveals Audun's story at a leisurely pace. Alternating between a defining past and a present that are at times raw and emotionally charged, it is prose that also gives up streaks of hope. Readers familiar with J. D. Salinger's classic, Catcher in the Rye, will recognize in Petterson's protagonist the rebellion and alienation of youth and the unpredictable journey that awaits.

Cynthia

 
 

Dogs, Cats, and Facts

Paw Prints in the MoonlightI Want to Kill the DogWeirdopediaGood things come in small packages this time of year, as this delightful trio of recently published stocking stuffer-sized books demonstrates. From pondering the idiosyncrasies of domestic life with man's best friend (dog or cat) to a quirky collection of curious tidbits about our world, here are some lighthearted, quick reads to enjoy or give.

 

Feline lovers will cheer for Toby Jug, the enterprising black and white kitten in Denis O'Connor's  Paw Prints in the Moonlight: the Heartwarming True Story of One Man and His Cat. Set in rural Northumberland, O'Connor rescues the badly injured kitten one snowy night and brings it back to his 18th century cottage, where he keeps the kitten in a large cotton ball-cushioned pitcher. The kindhearted nature lover and his Maine Coon form an inseparable bond through many of Toby Jug's escapades. Lovely descriptions of the English countryside and delicate color illustrations enrich this poignant and charming tale for young and old.

 

Unfortunately, it’s not all domestic bliss for Richard Cohen when the family pet gets in the way. His new book, I Want to Kill the Dog, chronicles in jest the master-versus-canine tug of war. The author is married to television journalist Meredith Vieira, definitely the animal lover of this long married couple. Jasper is the “dog of many flavors," whose many annoying habits (ear splitting bark, for one) threaten marital harmony. Pet peeves aside, Cohen’s story belies what is really important: marriage and family come with good and bad and even the dog.

 

A potpourri of trivia awaits readers of Alex Palmer's Weird-o-pedia: the Ultimate Book of Surprising, Strange, and Incredibly Bizarre Facts about (Supposedly) Ordinary Things. For instance, did you know that mosquitoes prefer people with Type O blood, or that humming is good for your sinuses? In 12 humorous chapters, each containing alphabetized entries, Palmer focuses on food and drink, friends and family, work, play, and so forth. A useful list of sources is also included. Parents beware, though; some mature topics are presented. 

 

Cynthia

 
 

Outside Looking In

Brain on FireAs Susannah Cahalan waited in the doctor’s office the painting of Miro’s Carota, with its twisted, unnatural grin, seemed to smile down at her. She would revisit the colorful and distorted face over the next several months as she battled a mysterious neurological illness that almost permanently severed her connection with reality. In her candid and gripping new memoir, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, the New York Post reporter reconstructs in a riveting fashion the journey that carried her to the brink of lunacy.

 

For twenty-four-year-old Cahalan the illness crept up innocently enough. She believed her flu symptoms were the result of bedbugs in her Manhattan apartment. Once she began experiencing numbness she sought out a doctor. Soon she was missing deadlines at work, and her increasingly erratic behavior now included paranoia and hallucinations. Cahalan and her family worried she was having a nervous breakdown. It was her first blackout at her boyfriend Stephen’s house that “marked the line between sanity and insanity,” she recalled. Doctors were baffled, and on March 23, 2009 she was admitted to the hospital. Eventually, a prominent neurologist's hunch followed by a brain biopsy confirmed that she suffered from rare autoimmune encephalitis. Recovery would take months. Her zombie-like behavior scared people who wondered what was wrong with her. She described running into an old high school friend as a "soul crushing moment." Her rock remained her family, Stephen and her parents, who never wavered.

 

Cahalan admits writing her story was difficult. With only flashes of memory intact she relied on interviews, medical records, journals, and hospital video footage to complete the picture. Absorbing and fast paced, the book’s short chapters read like a medical mystery that takes an eye-opening look inside the misfiring of the human mind and its ability to repair and emerge from the abyss.

 

Cynthia