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Golden Age

posted by: December 18, 2015 - 7:00am

Golden AgeThe saga of the Langdon family continues with the much-anticipated third volume of the Last Hundred Years trilogy, Golden Age by Jane Smiley. Resuming the story in 1987, the youngest generation comes of age at a time of high-stakes finance, political intrigue and new ways of farming that challenge the family homestead. Complacently assured, Congressman Richie Langdon does just enough of his political homework to be consistently reelected. His twin brother Michael, ever the financial wizard, sees opportunities in every weakness. Charlie, the newly discovered nephew, faces life with unconquerable optimism regardless of his struggle for a purpose. Guthrie, once the inevitable heir to the family farm, fights in Afghanistan instead. Meanwhile, the whole world faces an insidious new enemy determined to destroy.
 

As tragedies both domestic and international test this family, their one foundation rests solidly on the family farm. While the globe rages with anger, in the end, it becomes apparent that not all enemies are far from home.
 

Smiley weaves the profound events of the late 20th century through her characters’ lives with a deft hand. The chronicle of so many lives is an ambitious undertaking, and yet each character remains genuine and unique. She begins with a family gathering, which serves as a refresher of the broad cast of characters. A helpful family tree is also included. The chapters are organized by each year, moving through the lives of each individual, young and old.
 

Jane Smiley is the author of several novels, including A Thousand Acres, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. The first entry in the Last Hundred Years trilogy is Some Luck, followed by Early Warning. Reading these titles in order is strongly recommended. Spending time with the Langdon family is highly enjoyable.
 


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Oyster

posted by: December 17, 2015 - 7:00pm

Cover art for OysterIn Oyster: A Gastronomic History (with Recipes), Drew Smith delves into everything you ever wanted to know about the briny bivalve, and then some. Smith takes a fascinating, in-depth look at the oyster's place in history — important in the diet of many cultures throughout the years but also to their economies. You would be hard pressed to find a better source of overall nutrition than the oyster. Low in fat and calories, it’s high in protein, calcium, vitamin B12, thiamine, riboflavin vitamin C and zinc, with trace amounts of other vitamins. Oysters eventually became an important industry in the colonies, with jobs for harvesting, opening, washing, measuring, selling and, eventually, canning. These jobs often went to those who would otherwise have had difficulty finding employment, including African Americans, women, immigrants and children. While people think of crabs when they hear Baltimore, we have been an oyster mecca for far longer. Baltimore was the first to become a canning center (way before any other city) in the early 1840s, where the stock was also labeled and shipped.  

 

Oysters have long been celebrated in writing as well as art — and of course they have a long-standing reputation as an aphrodisiac. Smith has included numerous color illustrations, photographs and maps to enhance the reading experience. There are recipes throughout the book, and even recommendations on what to drink with oysters. This scholarly yet entertaining and accessible look at oysters would make a great gift for the foodie and/or historian on your gift list. Fans of Mark Kurlansky’s microhistories Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World or Salt: A World History will be entranced by Oyster.

 


 
 

Above the Waterfall

posted by: December 17, 2015 - 7:00am

Above the WaterfallRon Rash’s new novel Above the Waterfall is a reflective story about Appalachia today — the juxtaposition of beautiful mountains and solitude with crime, poverty and meth addiction. Rash knows those mountains, those people, their language and their world and manages to portray it in a way that never condescends, but shows the complexity and the beauty.
 

Les is just a few short weeks from retirement. His replacement as sheriff in their rural North Carolina community has begun taking over most of the daily tasks, and Les is pondering how he will fill his days. One more meth raid, then all he has left to do is choose the flavor of his retirement cake. He has grown up in this town, and in his own way he has tried to make it a better place.
 

His plans of quiet transition to painting watercolors on his porch are scrapped when tensions rise between a wealthy fishing resort owner and Gerald, the neighboring mountain man who can’t quite give up fishing for speckled trout in the streams he has fished since boyhood. Gerald’s unlawful fishing includes the resort’s catch-and-release stream, and the owner wants him charged for poaching the rare trout. When the pool is poisoned, Gerald becomes the main suspect, though he insists he would never harm the stream. This story shows readers some of the many ethical dilemmas a small town sheriff faces in trying to do what is right.
 

It is a character-driven story that illustrates how everyone in a remote community is connected in one way or another. Les has a complicated relationship with Becky, a park ranger who has retreated to the mountains to find solace after the traumatic events from her past. Becky is also the only person checking in on Gerald, and she is convinced he couldn’t have committed this crime. Through Rash’s lyrical writing, the mountain itself becomes a character, impacting the lives of those in the story in profound ways. It is a thing which some find comfort in as much as others want to flee from its grasp. As Les tries to find the real culprit, the author lets readers see the inner workings and dark secrets of this small, guarded community.
 


 
 

The Incarnations

posted by: December 16, 2015 - 7:00am

The Incarnations“Finding your soulmate” takes on disastrous meaning as repercussions echo through the centuries in Susan Barker’s The Incarnations.
 

Wang Jun’s life as a Beijing taxi driver is dictated by the monotony of routine, until the day he finds in his taxi cab a letter addressed to him. The letter comes from an anonymous sender calling themselves Wang’s “soulmate.” This person has been searching for Wang to tell him that they are two souls that have been reincarnated together into different, yet connected, lives for a thousand years. More letters follow, all appearing mysteriously, all recounting the events in these past lives ranging from the time of the Tang Dynasty to Chairman Mao’s regime, all detailing in blunt and brutal language how their past lives ended in betrayal and violence.
 

Wang is disturbed by the letters and becomes determined to find out who is stalking him and stop them once and for all. But can he successfully determine who is behind the letters? Is the mysterious letter writer someone he knows or are they a total stranger? And if he succeeds in finding his soulmate, what will the consequences of his actions be?
 

The Incarnations is a novel of interwoven narrative layers, from the letters written to Wang to the five past lives described in detail by the soulmate narrator, with Wang’s quest the thread tying them all together. Mixing historical fiction with aspects of magical realism, Barker captures snapshots of Chinese history in brilliant and ruthless clarity as she blends them into Wang’s search and into each account of the past lives.
 

A caveat:The Incarnations is also a violent novel. Barker candidly details the acts of violence – physical, sexual and psychological – each incarnation experiences or inflicts. But it is a thought-provoking story about obsession, loyalty and betrayal as well, raising questions about humanity’s fallibility and the cyclical nature of time. Without giving too much away, this book makes you reconsider what reincarnation may involve and makes you wonder about the people in your own life. Readers who enjoy exploring the darker side of history or humanity, or who appreciate books that are a bit of a mind twist should check out this book.


 
 

Furiously Happy

posted by: December 15, 2015 - 7:00am

Furiously HappyAs if the cover featuring a deliriously excited raccoon wasn’t enough to get you laughing, every vignette in Jenny Lawson’s new memoir Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things will certainly do the trick. Based on her wildly popular blog The Bloggess and follow-up to her New York Times bestseller Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Lawson’s thoughts about living with mental illness have touched readers who identify with her daily struggles.
 

Chock-full of helpful advice on how to properly approach the Australian government with a request to hug a koala while wearing a koala costume and featuring chapters titled things like “Things I May Have Accidentally Said During Uncomfortable Silences,” Lawson’s sense of humor never overshadows the fact that dealing with mental illness is difficult, but rather celebrates her uniqueness and tenacity in getting through the toughest days.
 

Recently, Lawson made international headlines by admitting to her hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers that she replied, “You, too!” to an airport cashier after being told to enjoy her flight. What followed was an avalanche of embarrassing moments, tweeted in by thousands of people, which started trending worldwide. The particularly cringe-worthy tweets are available on her blog. In Lawson’s world, we may all be crazy and flawed, but at least we’re not alone.
 

Devoted fans may also want to check out It Sucked and Then I Cried by Heather Armstrong or Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh.
 


 
 

Away in a Manger

posted by: December 14, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for Away in a MangerRhys Bowen conjures all the ambiance and bustle of New York City at Christmastime in her newest mystery Away in a Manger. Just barely heard above the crowd, a high, sweet voice sings the old Christmas carol. Molly Murphy and her ward Bridie discover the source; a little girl of no more than six, huddling in a doorway, holding a tin cup and hoping the holiday spirit will make people generous. For in 1905, there are no laws or agencies to protect children in need. Deeply touched, Molly and Bridie speak to the girl and soon realize she is intelligent and well-mannered. Both the girl and her older brother have been cast out into the street to make money any way they can by a cruel aunt who barely keeps them alive.

 

Inquisitive Molly cannot keep herself from getting involved. It seems the children’s mother has disappeared and their father has died. All they have left of their old life is an obviously valuable brooch. If the mother had means, why are her children reduced to begging? Do the children have other relatives who would care for them? Molly resolves to unravel their past and provide them with a better future.

 

Away in a Manger is a sweet and simple account of children no one will welcome, paralleling the traditional story of Christmas. Rhys Bowen brings to light the plight of children before principled people took a stand in their defense. While this is the latest in a long running series, this title can be read independently. This lucid and powerful tale reminds us that generosity and goodwill triumph over greed and evil, a thought even more compelling in this day and age.  
 


 
 

The Immortal Nicholas

posted by: December 14, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Immortal NicholasIn The Immortal Nicholas by Glenn Beck, a simple farmer named Agios supplements his meager earnings by harvesting precious frankincense. Following a series of tragic events, he gives up on life and wanders aimlessly, numbing his sorrow with alcohol. When he meets Caspar who is searching for frankincense, Agios’ life is changed forever as he starts on a journey to meet the newborn baby that Caspar and his friends, Melchior and Balthazar, are seeking in the town of Bethlehem. Soon Agios learns that this child, Jesus, is destined to be the King of Kings, and he feels compelled to protect Jesus and his parents as they try to avoid capture by the evil King Herod.

 

Beck’s premise for this book is to try and give Santa Claus a Christ-centered reason for being. Agios represents Santa but he is more of a misguided soul doomed to wander eternally through the world than the jolly man most of us know. Until Agios fulfills his mission, he remains immortal and goes through many personal tragedies. While he does eventually change his name to Nicholas and begin handing out gifts to deserving people, the core of the story is about Agios and his struggle to find meaning in life. 

 

The historical portrayal of Biblical era life seems accurate and even compelling, but the story is not a warm and fuzzy Christmas tale for children. Beck is aiming at adults here, and trying to bring the message of Christ into Christmas without the typical commercialization of the holiday season. Whether or not you are a fan of Beck, The Immortal Nicholas is an interesting alternative to traditional holiday stories.  
 


 
 

It's. Nice. Outside.

posted by: December 10, 2015 - 7:00pm

Cover art for It's. Nice. Outside.Jim Kokoris’ It’s. Nice. Outside. is a road trip novel unlike any other. Fifty-something John Nichols (former college basketball player, high school English teacher and author) is on his way from the Chicago suburbs to his oldest daughter's wedding in South Carolina in a minivan. His companion? His developmentally disabled, autistic 19-year-old son Ethan who is afraid to fly.

 

The family is fraught with issues. Nichols is divorced, due to an affair with a wildly inappropriate woman (he blames it on the stress of parenting a special needs son). Now that woman is repeatedly calling again out of nowhere. Despite this, he still loves his ex-wife and holds out hope of reconciliation. Meanwhile, no one likes his daughter's husband-to-be. His middle daughter, a famous sketch comedian, has been feuding with her older sister and may not show up for the wedding.

 

Nichols makes his way south, using up his frequent stay points at Marriott properties that have pools (swimming calms Ethan) and eating at Cracker Barrels (Ethan likes routine). All the while, he’s trying to sort out what happens next in life for both him and his son. A trio of stuffed bears along for the ride provides Nichols with a cathartic outlet, as he runs them through outrageous comic routines tailored to entertain himself as much as they do Ethan.

 

Kokoris does a great job fleshing out believable, empathetic characters as he portrays the dysfunctional family dynamic. He shows sensitivity in his depiction of Ethan while spotlighting the everyday challenges of parenting a special needs adult. This novel is both laugh out loud funny and poignant, and will appeal to readers who enjoy books by Jonathan Tropper or Jonathan Evison.


 
 

All-New Captain America

posted by: December 9, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for All-New Captain AmericaAttention all Captain America fans, Falcon fans, Marvel fans and fans of superheroes! Just in case you didn’t get the memo, I am pleased to inform you or remind you that there is a new captain in town that is ready and able to lay a smack down on members of Team Hydra with his handy-dandy red, white and blue shield. With that said, I present to you Sam Wilson, also known as Falcon, who was chosen by his trusted friend and colleague Steve Rogers to become the new Captain America. This story can be found in the Marvel Now series, All-New Captain America, Volume 1: Hydra Ascendant with Rick Remender as the writer and Stuart Immonen as the penciler.

 

So, how exactly does Sam fare as the new red, white and blue hero? Pretty good. Sam is on a mission to save the world. Steve Rogers, who no longer looks youthful after being restored to his natural old age, sends Sam off to stop Hydra, an international subversive organization, from carrying out a terrorist attack. Hydra’s current goal is to make the world secure for themselves by preventing overpopulation by any means necessary. They hope to accomplish this task by spreading across the U.S. a child’s blood that contains a pervasive toxin capable of making people infertile. This is a personal problem for Sam because not only does he wants to make the world a safe place, but he also wants to start his own family. While Sam battles his foes, he also battles what people think of him and what his parents would think of him if they were alive. In the All-New Captain America, Volume 1: Hydra Ascendant, Sam contests against members of the New Hydra: Sin, the daughter of Red Skull; Zemo; Batroc; Crossbones and Baron Blood. However, Sam does not fight solo. Fighting by his side are: his partner Redwing; sidekick Nomad, who happens to be Steve Rogers’ adopted son, and Misty Knight, who claims to work for S.H.I.E.L.D.

 

Does Sam complete his mission? Does Hydra succeed? Does Sam get sterilized by the toxin to prevent him from having his own family? Read the All-New Captain America, Volume 1: Hydra Ascendant to find out what happens. There is a bit of a cliffhanger at the end. Therefore, if you want to know what happens next, you’ll have to stay tuned for more of the All-New Captain America. Visit Marvel.com to check out the latest news on your favorite characters, comics and graphic novels.
 


 
 

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