Staff book suggestions for Spring 2023
Over My Dead Body: Unearthing the Hidden History of America’s Cemeteries by Greg Melville
(Library of Congress Classification GT3203 .M44 2022)
When I think of spring, I think of all the beautiful walks I have taken in the cemetery, Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge to be exact. As someone who grew up in New York City, I avoided cemeteries, held my breath as I passed them and knew I didn’t want to end up in one.
The author does a lovely job explaining what makes Mount Auburn Cemetery a great place to visit and includes the history of several cemeteries around the country (and their European and Egyptian influences.) The histories are as different as each cemetery, but they all start from a place of necessity. Melville doesn’t shy away from the discrimination, segregation, or the influence of the “multibillion-dollar Death Industrial Complex,” but he also writes about these sacred places with respect and appreciation. This made for an enjoyable read… though I still plan on being cremated.
The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff, Narrated by Simon Vance
(Available on cloudLibrary)
I am not recommending this book to learn about Taoism. I just know that I listen to it whenever I want to stop overthinking, like a nostalgic meditation app. It is narrated by Simon Vance and when I say narrated, I mean he does all of the voices! Piglet, Eeyore, Rabbit, and of course Pooh. It’s as sweet as honey. I’ve been enjoying this one with special pleasure!
Confessions of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
(Library of Congress Classification Z330.6.W54 B98 2019)
Bythell, a used book dealer in a village on the west coast of Scotland, chronicles the peculiarities and frustrations of his trade. Less confessional than wry, the entries reveal his singular nature, equal parts grumpy resignation and hail-fellow-well-met affability. Among the more vexing issues he contends with are the mercenary practices of Amazon; the notoriously thrifty Scots (and American tourists!) that willfully remain ignorant of the concept of profit margins; an eccentric staff and faulty technology, both of whom determinedly act contrary to their boss’s wishes; and obliquely referenced but moving details of a disintegrating romantic relationship. The additional details of village life and descriptions of the countryside (Bythell is a fisherman, of course) further fueled my passion for all things Caledonian.
Table Two by Marjorie Wilenski
(Library of Congress Classification PZ3.W6482 Ta 2019)
It’s the summer of 1940. England is licking its wounds over Dunkirk, and the Battle for Britain rages in the sky. Into this theater of war steps Anne Shelley-Rice, a carefully brought up young woman in newly reduced circumstances, who moves to London to enter the workforce for the first time like thousands of other women. She finds translation work at a large ministry concerned with foreign intelligence, where she is stationed at table two (of the title) along with a dozen other women translators from all levels of society. One tablemate, Elsie Pearne, a clever and efficient woman of a certain age that’s universally despised for her acid tongue and imperious manner, unaccountably takes Anne under wing. As a romance with a recuperating member of the RAF begins to blossom for Anne, Elsie’s increasing demands upon their friendship start to chafe. Meanwhile, the Luftwaffe shifts its focus to the London Blitz, and the realities of war begin to literally hit home.
Published in 1942, Wilenski’s only novel convincingly captures the uncertainty of the times and the impact of the war on societal norms, an endlessly fascinating topic for me. Additionally, the subtext of Elsie’s obsession with Anne could easily have been heavy handed, given the intolerance of the times, but Wilenski purposefully renders Elsie a sympathetic character by including her backstory. This is one of the more remarkable works among the canon of mid-twentieth century British women writers.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan
(Library of Congress Classification PZ4.K2537 Sm 2021)
Set in an Irish village in the not-too-distant past during the weeks leading up to Christmas, this work would seemingly be more suitable as a winter recommendation. But great writing transcends seasons, and this novella lives up to all the praise heaped on it by the critics. It’s been some time since I felt this emotionally engaged with a character, but Keegan’s Bill Furlong demands your empathy. A solid, loving family man and fair business owner by all outward appearances, who inwardly lives a haunted, questioning existence. When faced with a situation that demands moral action, Furlong evokes a discomforting mixture of admiration and fear due to the certainty he’ll do the right thing despite the damning consequences. Keegan needs to write more!
Snow Rabbit, Spring Rabbit: A Book of Changing Seasons by Il Sung Na
(Library of Congress Classification Children Picture Book + NA)
This is a sweet, simple picture book with minimal text that’s wonderful to read with very young children. When winter comes, Rabbit and all her friends react in different ways: some fly away from the cold, some grow thick woolly coats! But the seasons keep changing, and soon the snow melts and flowers bloom. The illustrations use different patterns and textures on top of line drawings to evoke snowflakes and flowers, and the rabbit is adorable, with rosy cheeks and teeny tiny whiskers.
A Madness of Sunshine by Nalini Singh
(Available on cloudLibrary)
The remote coastal town of Golden Cove is characterized by a rugged landscape and a tight knit community, both of which may be much more dangerous and unforgiving than anyone could have imagined. When a local young woman goes missing, the town police officer and an estranged local must sift through the secrets and lies that come to light to figure out what happened to her, along with the three women who disappeared years ago without a trace. Are these disappearances a mere coincidence, or is there something, or someone, much more sinister at play? A Madness of Sunshine is a slow-building and suspenseful tale of light and darkness, of loyalty and betrayal, of twists and turns. The alternating character viewpoints and flashbacks create a multi-layered story that pulls the reader in and is supplemented by an intricate description of the stunning yet unforgiving environment. If readers are patient enough to endure the slow initial chapters, they will be rewarded with answers to their questions and unimaginable reveals. I listened to the audiobook, available on cloudLibrary, and thought the narrator, Saskia Maarleveld, did a wonderful job with pacing and accent.
Portrait of an Unknown Lady by María Gainza; translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead
(Library of Congress PZ4.G143 Po 2022)
Empty Wardrobes by Maria Judite de Carvalho; translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa; introduction by Kate Zambreno
(Library of Congress PZ4.C331 Em 2021)
Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt
(Library of Congress PZ4.H9759 Me 2019)
All three of these books will have you thinking about art, collecting, creating, and memory in different ways. Each book is clever, thoughtful, and insightful.
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
(Library of Congress PZ4.R9876 Sp 2013)
Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan
(Library of Congress PZ4.R9876 Qu 2023)
One of our members introduced me to the Irish writer Donal Ryan and I immediately tore through his books. I just love his prose and his characters. The writing is spare and elegant and I particularly love how he plays with structure in his books. Queen of Dirt Island is a story of four generations of women living together in Ireland and it’s impressive how each chapter is no longer than two pages but incredibly satisfying. I would recommend any of his six novels.
Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African American Jew by Michael W. Twitty
(Library of Congress TX724 .T85 2022)
This is an exploration of African-American and Jewish culture through the common essential touchstone of food. Twitty, a culinary historian, recounts different aspects of Jewish and African-American culture and identity and how they intersect with or differ from each other, providing opportunities for exchange and understanding. His anecdotes both resonated with me and illuminated some of my blind spots, and I’m eager to research more (perhaps through his first book, The Cooking Gene, also in the Athenæum’s collection). The book also includes delicious recipes like West African-inspired brisket, stuffed kashered crab, and peach kugel.
The Bangalore Detectives Club by Harini Nagendra
(Library of Congress PZ4.N146 Ba 2022)
The heroine of this mystery is a young, brilliant Indian woman who moves to Bangalore in the 1920s to marry. She solves two murders while building a real partnership with her new husband.
Books as History: The Importance of Books Beyond Their Texts by David Pearson
(Library of Congress Z4 .P43 2008)
John Buchtel recommended this wonderful exploration of books as historical objects. The lavish illustrations helped me understand Pearson’s (and John’s) fascination with every aspect of the creation and life of a book.
Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa (translation by Alison Watts)
(Available on cloudLibrary )
Who can resist the combination of cherry blossom season, Japanese sweets, and intergenerational friendships? A cook with a blemished past and unfulfilled dreams of becoming a writer befriends an elderly woman with her own troubled history. This charming novel explores the redemptive power of friendship and personal growth.
Oh William!: A Novel by Elizabeth Strout
(Library of Congress PZ4.S9186 Oh 2021)
I picked up this book because I’d noticed many of our members had done the same—it is one of our most checked out books of the past year, and I can understand why. The novel is delightfully narrated by the protagonist Lucy, who ostensibly wants to tell us about her inscrutable ex-husband’s recent spate of bad luck. The story simultaneously delves into her own past, and her family’s past and present relationships, examining the ways these relationships have grown or remained unchanged over time, for better or worse.
The White Lady by Jacqueline Winspear
(Library of Congress Classification PZ4.W7855 Wh 2023)
Perhaps like me you expected a new installment in the Maisie Dobbs series in March and was disappointed to see that for the first time in many years, Winspear did not add a title as usual. Nevertheless, I admire the author enough to trust her. At first, some similarities between some characters in The White Lady and Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series gave me pause, but this story came into its own. Her thoughtful lead character—coping and calm and competent—is a relief to spend time with. This heroine’s origin story differs from Maisie’s in the structure of its telling. Here, Winspear goes back and forth in time; whereas in Maisie, she stuck to strictly chronological. I shouldn’t have been surprised to read her lead is based on a true woman. The White Lady probably influenced Maisie more than the other way ’round.