Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen
Lee Lien is back home in west suburban Franklin, Illinois, working at a Vietnamese restaurant with her mother and grandfather after college. She has finished her Ph.D. in American Literature but hasn’t yet landed a teaching job. Her mother is never satisfied, while her brother Sam wants money and freedom instead of taking over the restaurant. Lee’s grandfather tells stories about life in Vietnam, and of an older American lady named Rose who visited the café there and left behind a gold pin engraved with a house on a lake.
Lee has always been fascinated with the pioneer stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder, especially as her family moved frequently around the Midwest, and wonders if the lady was Rose Wilder Lane. Maybe the pin really is the one mentioned in These Happy Golden Years. She impulsively decides to look into the writings and life of Rose and her mother Laura, and travels from Iowa to Missouri, San Francisco to Connecticut, looking for answers about Rose, and about her own dysfunctional family. She meets a man who may be the (fictional) grandson of Rose. There is much about Vietnamese food, Asian buffets, and the life of a young academic who’s finding her place in the world. Having recently read another well-researched novel about Rose, Wilder Rose by Susan Wittig Albert, it was fascinating to read about other parts of Rose’s life and her writings. The author, a Vietnamese immigrant who goes by Beth, is married with two children and has written two other books, but clearly remembers well the uncertainty of life after college, wondering about future careers, family, and home. I’m putting her memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, on my list of books to read.
I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira
If you enjoy reading about art or Paris, this book may be appealing. To begin with, I found the title a bit misleading. The main characters are Impressionist painters Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas, and I was expecting a grand romance. Degas gives Mary painting advice, and they are friends from time to time, when he isn’t being excessively critical or rude. Occasionally they are more than friends, but mostly not. The author’s focus is on painting, the artists’ community in 19th century Paris, Paris itself, and the illnesses and vision problems of the characters. Berthe Morisot and her brother-in-law Édouard Manet have a shared past, and Mary’s parents and sister Lydia, subject of many of Mary’s paintings, are the other featured characters, especially after they move from Philadelphia to live with Mary in Paris. The summary of the last forty years of Mary Cassatt’s life and work and the lives of her family and colleagues at the end was too compressed, but overall the book really kept my interest.
Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen
A year after her husband’s death, Kate Pheris realizes that she’s been all but asleep, and that her mother-in-law Cricket is taking over her life, and her 8-year-old daughter, Devin. Packing after selling their house, Kate and Devin find an old postcard from Kate’s Great Aunt Eby, inviting her to visit again. Not yet ready to move in with Cricket, Kate and Devin head for Lost Lake, a resort camp in Georgia, where Kate spent a memorable childhood summer. The author of Garden Spells and three other novels likes to put a touch of magic in each of her books. An alligator “speaks” to Devin at Lost Lake, perhaps with the voice of a boy who died long ago. Kate’s Aunt Eby is planning to sell Lost Lake, which is run down, but with cabins full of antiques she used to collect. Her cook, Lisette, communicates only in writing, and makes it clear that she’s not leaving the lake. Summer regulars return for a farewell visit and party, including Selma, who can charm men into marrying her, at least for a while, and Lisette’s very shy suitor. Jack, the boy from Kate’s summer at Lost Lake, now runs a pizzeria and a handyman business. Lots of quirky characters, an appealing southern Georgia setting, and a hint of magic make for an appealing read.
The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis
This is a big book, 713 pages. But it is a fantastic read if you are willing to put in the time and effort. It took me six weeks to read it. I could take another six weeks and get just as much out of it. The novel consists of five books. The first book is set just after the events of the Humanitarian US invasion of Haiti, in 1995. Dottie (Dorothy) Chambers is the eponymous woman of the title. She believes that she has lost her soul or “conscience” after all the dark deeds that she has committed, during her many activities as a covert spy, working mainly for her father, Steve Chambers, who is a spy master with a dark past and intimately complicit in the transformation of Dottie from doting daughter and star student to undercover spy and rouge agent. She is in Haiti to consult with a famous “Shaman” about whether through some dark Voodoo ritual she can be made a whole person again. Of course we know better. Dottie is the most interesting and tormented female character I have encountered since reading “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”
We learn through the rest of the other four books about the backstory of Dottie and her father. We visit World War II ravaged Bosnia, the mysterious city of Istanbul in 1986, and finally Haiti. There is also a lot of stuff here about CIA misdeeds and Special Forces shenanigans.
Bob Shacochis was a contributing editor to Harper’s, which sent him to Haiti in 1994 to cover the uprising against Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the island nation’s first democratically elected President, and the subsequent intervention by U.S. Army Special Forces, with whom Shacochis traveled for nearly a year covering the invasion.
Booklist 2013 Top of the List “Editors’ Choice Award”.
In March, the Tuesday Morning Book Group will discuss The Art Forger by B. A. Shapiro on March 18 at 10:00 a.m. in Group Study Room 2. The Art Forger is contemporary fiction, set in Boston. Painter Claire Roth was working on her master’s degree when her boyfriend Isaac got painter’s block. With a deadline looming, Claire painted a picture in Isaac’s style to inspire him. Three years later, Claire is asked to copy a painting stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1990. Claire suspects the Degas painting may be a forgery itself, and looks for a connection between Isabella and Degas. This novel is both a thriller and a romance, but art is the main focus.
The Tuesday Evening Book Group will discuss The Big Read selection: The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America from Key West to the Arctic Ocean by Philip Caputo on March 25 at 7:00 p.m. Here is a link to my review. There are also a wide variety of programs connected to the book at the 10 Big Read libraries. For more information and to register for programs, visit www.thebigread.org.
The Crime Readers will discuss Boy in The Water by Stephen Dobyns on Thursday, March 20 at 7pm at Home Run Inn Pizza in Darien. The Crime Readers book group is co-sponsored by the Indian Prairie Public Library.
Copies of these books are available now at the Adult/Young Adult Reference Desk.
David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell believes that underdogs have certain advantages that may help them succeed and become overachievers. In an incredibly wide-ranging variety of anecdotes, he makes his point. The book is quite thought-provoking and interesting to read. I thought some chapters didn’t fit the theme as well or made me skeptical of his conclusions, although the book seems well-researched with numerous footnotes.
Many dyslexics are overachievers, although many are not. Being outnumbered didn’t prevent Lawrence of Arabia from succeeding in a rebellion against the Ottoman Empire. The British response to the troubles in Northern Ireland was all wrong, and Gladwell shows why. A leukemia researcher with a miserable childhood was strongly motivated to succeed in saving children’s lives. Being a big fish in a small pond is statistically more likely to lead to success in science or law than being a small fish in a big pond, which is why the author states that ivy league schools aren’t always the best choice. On the other hand, small class sizes aren’t optimal for students or teachers; medium-sized classes work best. Londoners who lived through the Battle of Britain found that remote misses were not as frightening as expected. Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement in Birmingham is discussed, and how and why a town in south-central France defied the Vichy regime and provided a haven to Jews fleeing persecution. Along with these serious topics, techniques for successfully coaching basketball are also included.
Murder and Mendelssohn by Kerry Greenwood
Although this is the 20th book in the Phryne Fisher series, this mystery could be a fine place to start. The books are set in late 1920s Melbourne, Australia, and the city is vividly described. Asked by Detective Jack Robinson to help investigate the murder of a choir director, Phryne joins the choir, which is preparing to perform Mendelssohn’s Elijah. During rehearsals, lunches, and parties thrown by the flamboyant soloist “Auntie” Mark, Phryne considers the possible suspects. In a parallel story, Rupert Sheffield, a mathematician in town to give lectures on the science of deduction has had some close calls. Phryne dislikes the very arrogant Sheffield, but his assistant, Dr. John Wilson, was a dear friend of hers in World War I, where she drove an ambulance and he was a medic. The reader learns that not only is Sheffield a former intelligence agent for MI6, but so is Phryne. Phryne’s assorted household, including the dog, helps with the two cases, and Phryne plays matchmaker for Dr. Wilson. Phryne and her friends are always good company, and so is the choir. I was even inspired to listen to a recording of Mendelssohn’s Elijah.
I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Stephanie Daniel. The print book will be coming out in May, several month after being published in Australia.