Zoë Burnett

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

(Library of Congress NEW PZ4 .N970 Fr 2018)

“Please say nothing bad happens to the dog.”

Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend is not about a dog. Neither sentimental nor tearjerking, her latest novel is affecting without the melodrama that tends to saturate memoirs centered on pets, often with good reason. Nunez’s dry, almost disaffected prose prohibits this, yet is not without empathy or compassion. The narrator focuses on how and why her longtime friend, and many other writers before him, are seemingly able to write their way into suicide. By no means a “light” read due to the heavy subject matter, her observations and reflections about the passage of time, the inevitable, and how some take the prerogative to cut that process short, are brief but not without impact. This makes the novel easy to pick up and put down at any time, and is the first in a long while to almost make me miss my T stop. Nunez’s absorptive style is nearly toneless, allowing the reader to imbue her words and phrases with their own meaning. Her arresting descriptions will keep the reader engaged, all the while urging them to keep in mind that there is, and must, be an end to everything.

Maria Daniels

The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

(Library of Congress CT275 .F737 F33 2017)

This dramatic work of nonfiction, which came out in 2017, traces the origins of US government surveillance agencies through the life of an extraordinary woman. Starting with a handful of individuals who began decoding messages of the Central Powers in World War I, the effort was organized to disrupt criminal gangs during Prohibition, and eventually to grapple in World War II with the mind-bendingly complex Enigma and Purple cipher machines developed by the Germans and the Japanese. This absorbing, improbable account is told as the biography of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, who began her career investigating the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays and became an indispensable (though unknown) factor in the US war effort. She developed her method of approaching puzzles methodically with pencil, paper, and patience, and married a like-minded man, William, who would become known as the father of American cryptology. Their relationship, at the heart of the story, touches on themes familiar to readers of spy novels: crushing responsibility, anonymous menace, corrosive secrecy, escalating paranoia, and brushes with madness. Elizebeth’s own prowess—in large part a driver of her husband’s—was kept under lock and key, literally, by J. Edgar Hoover, as the FBI claimed credit for her work. How fortunate readers are that writer Jason Fagone gained access to her declassified files and put together such a captivating narrative.

Daria Hafner

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

(Library of Congress PZ4 .M6793 Bo 2014)

This novel by David Mitchell has been on my to-read list for several years. This is a great book for cold winter days because it draws you in and captures your attention—perfect for curling up on snowy days. In The Bone Clocks, Mitchell covers a vast array of topics by piecing together the perspectives of different characters over several decades. Mitchell covers the geography of western Europe and the United States and the topics of climate change, technology, family dynamics, and supernatural powers. This novel is not for the faint of heart, and reading it felt like putting together a complicated jigsaw puzzle. The end result is well worth the intellectual effort, however, and it is one of the best books I have read in the last year. Mitchell grabs his readers with a sympathetic main character, and this is a book that I struggled to put down until the very end.

Carolle Morini

Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life by Laura Thompson

(Library of Congress CT788.C479 T46 2018)

Enjoyable and insightful biography on Chrisitie. The story of her life is told along side the stories and plays she wrote. Excellently paced book. 

Hannah Ovaska

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

(Library of Congress PZ4.G2846 Di 2017)

Roxane Gay has done it again! Difficult Women is a collection of short stories about the complex experiences of women—especially unconventional women—in modern America. As in her other works, Gay has created a haunting experience for the reader as they travel through the unique (and not so unique) lives of diverse women. There is no shortage of beauty and shock, and I can assure you that some of these tales will stick in your memory after you finish the book.

Kaelin Rasmussen

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson, with a preface by Rachel Reeves MP, and an introduction by Martin Edwards

(Library of Congress NEW PZ3 .W6579 Di 2018)

A classic British mystery novel is a great way to ward off winter blues! The premise: London, 1930s. A financier is found shot in the House of Commons. Suspecting foul play, a parliamentary private secretary takes on the role of amateur sleuth. Used to turning a blind eye to covert dealings, he must now uncover the shocking secret behind the man’s demise, amid distractions from the press and the dead man’s enigmatic daughter. Originally published in 1932, this is the only novel written by Ellen Wilkinson (1891–1947), one of the first women elected to Parliament, a member of the Labour Party, suffragist, and social justice activist. The Division Bell Mystery is an excellent mystery story, but I think what I enjoyed most was the insider perspective on the House of Commons and Wilkinson’s understated but razor-sharp satire, which is at its most cutting when directed at the attitude towards the women who tread the halls of that traditionally male institution.

Anthea Reilly

How to Be a Good Creature by Sy Montgomery

(Library of Congress  NEW QL85 .M65 2018​)

A charming memoir by author and naturalist Sy Montgomery, a fast read and delightful.

Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know by Colm Tóibín

(Library of Congress  NEW PR8727 .T65 2018​)

Essays by Colm Tóibín on the fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce, evocative of a time in Irish history and written by an Irishman with passion for his subjects and a splendid voice.

City of Light: The Making of Modern Paris by Rupert Christiansen

(Library of Congress  NEW DC733 .C483 2018​)

Paris during the Second Empire, written with a definite feel for the city, its inhabitants and its history.

Mary Warnement

Heat Lightning by Helen Hull

(Library of Congress PZ3.H8783 He)

I had to travel to London to discover this author from my home state of Michigan. At first I thought Hull hailed from a city with a connection to my mom, but I confused Albion for Allegan. No matter, they are in the same region. The first paragraph mentioned the interurban bus (and trolley) system that used to connect southern Michigan and Indiana and that my mom recalled with fond reminiscing of her father. But none of that helps you know whether Hull’s writing is for you. Hull left Michigan for NY and spent most of her life teaching at Columbia and spending summers in Maine with her partner Mabel Louise Robinson. Hull belonged to a group of feminists called the Heterodoxy Club, about which I am eager to learn more. Heat Lightning was a book of the month club selection in 1932 when it appeared. It details a week-long visit home by Amy during the summer of 1930 when her own life is in as much turmoil as the stock market. Her interactions with her parents, siblings, and extended relatives rang true. (If you had enough of your own family over the holidays, this could help you gain perspective.) Amy may be the eyes through which we see all, but the personality of her grandmother is at the center of this world. Anyone who enjoys fiction about relationships will want to read this. I read an edition reprinted by Persephone (found in their charming, eccentric London shop which I also highly recommend) but the Athenæum has the 1932 edition as well as 15 other books by Hull.

Francis Wyman

Winter War by Eric Rauchway


Every presidential inauguration has its iconic pictures that serve to validate our democratic process. Among the more memorable ones is the one of the dour, outgoing President Herbert Hoover, and the ebullient President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt riding together, down Pennsylvania Avenue, to the inaugural ceremonies at the Capitol. The uneasiness of the scene reflects more than Hoover’s defeat and Roosevelt’s triumph and their mutual dislike of each other but the solidifying of the conservative-liberal divide that has largely defined America politics ever since. That divide, the outlines of which were visible in the 1932 election campaign, sharpened in the four month interregnum, between the election in November 1932 and Roosevelt’s inauguration in March 1933. It is this unfamiliar political history that University of California Professor Eric Rauchway covers in his book, Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the First Clash Over the New Deal.

In late 1932 the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression, the country’s worst economic downturn in its history. Millions of Americans were out of work, desperate and despairing at ever finding employment again; agricultural prices were plummeting, driving farms into foreclosure; and banks were collapsing in ever larger numbers. By early 1933, the economy was teetering on the brink of complete collapse. For Roosevelt, the path out the crisis, and the means to save capitalism, was a program that included public works, lower tariffs, federally-owned hydroelectric power plans, agricultural subsidies, reform of the banking system, a social insurance program, minimum wages, maximum hours, labor’s right to organize, and tight control of unnecessary government spending.

For Hoover, FDR’s New Deal, which involved the intervention of the federal government on a scale not seen before, was not just un-American but communistic. According to Hoover, the president-elect’s radical program emitted “fumes of witch’s caldron [sic] which boiled in Russia and in its attenuated flavor spread over the whole of Europe.” While outwardly accepting the results of the election, Hoover worked to nullify them by attempting to persuade FDR to abandon the New Deal and accept the policies his administration had been pursuing. 

Professor Rauschway’s Hoover is crafty, self-important, and at times petty. While he sought to get Roosevelt to renounce his program, he sought to turn the Republican Party into a bulwark against the New Deal. The outgoing president believed only he was capable of guiding the transformation. The party, with him at its helm, would be ready to govern again when Roosevelt’s program failed. 

Roosevelt was too seasoned a politician to be caught in Hoover’s scheme. He resisted the president’s pressure to renounce the New Deal and embrace his administration’s financial policies. According to Professor Rauchway, Roosevelt’s New Deal set the country on the road to economic recovery.

There is plenty to quibble with in this book. Hoover did not stand on the sidelines as the depression grew worse, although he could have done much more. Roosevelt’s grasp of economics may not have been as sure footed as Professor Rauchway argues. Still, the book is a worthwhile read for what it might tell us about the 2020 presidential campaign and possible presidential transition.