Black Irish by Stephan Talty

I have a fascination with serial murderers, the grislier the better. I snatch up books about them as quick as I can, but veer away from television shows because they seem too formulaic and predictable. The books that I have read/listened to recently have all been reliably gritty and suspenseful. I stumbled upon Black Irish by Stephan Talty a week ago and loved it.

Black Irish is delightfully gruesome and mysterious. Absalom ‘Abbie’ Kearney is a detective in South Buffalo. Even though her adoptive father is a revered cop, Abbie is considered to be an outsider in this working-class Irish American area because of her dark hair, druggie mother, mysterious father, Harvard degree, and a myriad of other reasons. Her troubled past makes her current life in South Buffalo difficult as she works to earn the trust and respect of everyone in ‘the County’. The County is full of fiercely secretive citizens who look out for their own and shun outsiders. Digging for the truth or trying to find out about her past is nearly impossible for Abbie without the help from accepted local Irish good-ol’-boy cops and detectives. Because of this, Abbie works even harder to prove herself to be more than capable and worthy of her badge, much to the chagrin of the locals.

When a mangled corpse is found in a local church’s basement, the very church that Abbie herself attended, the County finds itself unnerved. A message seems to sweep through the area. While Abbie is the lead detective on the case and is running the investigation, she finds that other detectives, and more importantly the locals, are taking it upon themselves to solve the case. The code of silence and secrecy that began in Ireland still exists in the County, making Abbie’s search for the killer even more difficult. This secrecy stonewalls her everywhere she goes, even at the Gaelic Club which her father frequents. Shaking down leads is difficult and Abbie soon finds herself receiving vicious threats and warnings.

The killer has a clear signature and with each passing day, Abbie thinks she is getting closer. With more people murdered, Abbie finds this case consuming her. While working to solve these crimes, the killer is slowly circling closer and closer to Abbie, until finally dropping into her life. Abbie is left to dig into her own past, her family’s past, how everything is related to the County, and also how the County’s secrets just may end up destroying everything in which the whole community believes.

This book hooked me from the start. The narrator uses different accents for each character which made them all easy to follow. Stephan Talty has woven a masterful examination into the cone of silence in closed off neighborhoods, even when that code hides dangerous, murderous pasts and people. I greatly enjoyed this book and can’t wait for more.


This book is also available in the following formats:

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter is the story of the Kurc family and their experiences  during World War II. This novel is actually the story of her family, and she uses the real names of her grandparents, mother, aunts, uncles and cousins.

I was struck by the similarity of phrase, when reading an account in the April 24th issue of The Dispatch  and The Rock Island Argus  of a speech by Doris Fogel.  During Holocaust Remembrance week,  Ms. Fogel, a Chicago resident who spent years in a Shanghai ghetto during World War II, said: “No one could have foretold the horror and hardship the coming years would bring to millions of Jews and others,” … “Every day, I realized I was one of the lucky ones.”

The Kurcs are from a small town in Poland, and as the war goes on they see their lives and homes disintegrate. Some are forced to live in ghettos and  concentration camps, some are sent to a Siberian gulag. The “luckiest”  is Addy who is living in Paris when the war starts, and he cannot get back home to Poland, and he can’t let them know where he is. Finally, he gets a visa to Brazil. After the war, the Red Cross is able to connect those who survive and the extended family emigrates to Brazil, where Addy can help them rebuild. They’ve lost their homes, identities, friends, belongings, savings, and occupations, but in the end they still have their family and faith.

Survivors were left in limbo after the war. Hunter describes in realistic detail the rules, regulations and laws involved in getting visas, and the rigors and dangers of travel – both during and after the war. I was unfamiliar with the level of atrocity in Poland and how, even after the war, Jews were still  persecuted in Germany.

Hunter personalizes the horror of what so many suffered. It’s hard to comprehend the scope of what happened and how many millions of stories there are that have been lost. The reader gets a small sense of this by following the members of the Kurc family as they, incrementally, have everything taken from them. Another tragedy is losing so many stories – as the last several generations pass away, along with their first-person accounts.

 

 

 

 

Woman of God by James Patterson

As I mentioned in one of my earlier blog posts, I’m slowly making my way through big name authors in adult fiction. There are so many books available to read that I know I will never have time to read them all, so I have been utilizing my driving time by listening to audio books. By doing so, I can listen to one book while I’m driving and read another one when I’m not! Two books at once!

Woman of God by James Patterson was my latest listen. I checked this book out based primarily on the description that I read in OverDrive. The summary listed details the selection of a new Pope in Rome, an occurrence that would normally garner major attention on a normal day, but this time there are rumors that the new Pope could be a woman. This news rocks the world as the woman candidate is not like any other priest in the Catholic Church’s history. Sounds interesting, right? I thought so and then promptly checked it out.

This book made me cry and I’m not talking about little tears escaping from the corner of my eyes. I’m talking about crocodile tears and heartbreak. Woman of God begins with a prologue. Brigid Fitzgerald is rumored to be the new pope, a fact that has led dozens of reporters and thousands of people to descend on her doorstep and her church. She is worried about the safety of her daughter and given her tragic past, Brigid knows that people are capable of anything. Weaving her way through the massive crowds and to her church to do Easter mass, Brigid mentally prepares herself to speak to everyone. Once before her congregation and after her initial talk, a man shouts at her from the crowd. Brigid feels sharp pain across her body and her world goes dark.

The book then flashes back to the beginning of Brigid Fitzgerald’s remarkable adult life. She graduated young from college and headed to the front lines of Sudan to work as a doctor in refugee camps. Working there earned her the adoration of her coworkers and the refugees, but also targeted her as the enemy of many powerful people. The Sudan was the first in a traumatic series of trials that prove to test her faith in humanity and in God at every single turn. Just when her life seems to be going well and God has decided to bless her, Brigid is tested again and again in a number of ways that had me wondering where she even found the strength to get out of bed every day.

Brigid began life as the daughter of drug-addled parents and her childhood was rife with drama. Going to the Sudan and then traveling around the world helping others gives meaning to her life. Brigid’s own convictions and callings differ from those of the mainstream Catholic Church, a fact that puts her at odds with and makes her a target of those who believe adherence to tradition is of utmost importance. Despite the threats and the immense loss she goes through, Brigid is forced to rise above and find a way to rally people behind her, so she doesn’t lose her faith or her life.

I greatly enjoyed this book, even though it made me a bucket of emotions at times. There are so many intricate pieces that fit into making Brigid the woman that she is.  10/10: would recommend.


This book is also available in the following formats:

If Not for You by Debbie Macomber

If Not for You by Debbie Macomber was a delightfully powerful read. Beth Prudhomme has been living under her mother’s thumb in Chicago for the last 25 years. Her mother has decided what she wears, who she dates, where she works, and frankly, Beth is beyond tired of this. After squirreling away money to run away, she finally talks to her father (the more level-headed parent in her family) and he agrees to talk to her mother. Beth’s mother is broken-hearted to find out her daughter wants to move away and to Portland, no less! Portland is where Beth’s aunt Sunshine lives. Sunshine and Beth’s mother don’t get along, the result of a massive fight over thirty years ago. Beth doesn’t know the reason for their fallout as neither sister will discuss it. Nevertheless, Beth decides to move to Portland to restart her life after securing a promise from her mother that she will not contact or visit her for six months after her move. It sounds perfect!

In Portland away from her mother, Beth finally lives the life she wants. She lives close to her aunt in a one bedroom apartment that she is paying for herself by working as a music teacher at a local high school. Through her job, she meets Nichole Nyquist, a teacher who quickly becomes Beth’s friend. The two begin hanging out and Beth quickly finds herself absorbed into Nichole’s family. Nichole decides to set Beth up on a blind date and invites Beth over to dinner where she meets Sam, one of her husband Rocco’s friends. Sam is a tattooed mechanic who is guaranteed to send her severely conservative mother over the edge. He curses, has long hair, and a big bushy beard. Sam and Beth could not be more opposite. Beth has no desire to anger her parents more after her big move away, so she decides to steer clear of Sam. Sam is completely fine with that because the minute he sees Beth, he decides he wants no part of that prissy music teacher. (Kinda obvious where this is going to go, right? I thought so too.)

After their blind date, Beth gets into a horrible car accident and Sam visits her in the hospital at first because Nichole can’t come and because he doesn’t want her to be stuck there alone with no family or friends to visit. Sam soon finds himself unable to stay away, but there are barriers to the two getting together. Sam has massive skeletons in his closet that have proven to be huge trust barriers, Beth’s mom is largely against their relationship, yet the two of them are drawn together. In the end, Sam will have to figure out if he really fits into Beth’s life, whether or not he feels worthy/is wortty of her love. and if he is willing to fight for the two of them to be together.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. It wasn’t as fluffy and formulaic as I was expecting, which I really appreciated. Each character had their own separate backstory and concurrent running story that fit in perfectly with Sam and Beth: Sunshine and her art, Beth and her volunteer work, Sam and his past, Sunshine and her sister’s messy separation, Nichole and Rocco’s relationship, and so so much more. I highly recommend this.

(Side note: This book is actually part of Debbie Macomber’s ‘New Beginnings’ series, a fact I didn’t realize until after I read If Not for You. All of these books read perfectly as standalones. I wasn’t left wondering about any plot point in If Not for You, so go ahead and read it by itself.)


This book is also available in the following formats:

They Left Us Everything

They Left Us Everything, Plum Johnson’s account of her parent’s illnesses and deaths, is refreshing in its candor and will resonate with anyone who has gone through something similar. She’s candid, too, about her family.

Plum grew up in Singapore, Virginia, and finally Canada – which was a compromise for her British father and American mother. Her parents spent the ends of their lives in the family home on Lake Ontario. Her mother was from Virginia – her ancestors and cousins were attorney generals and ambassadors. While her mother was exuberant, eccentric, and a writer of letters and a copywriter in her youth, her father was British, reserved, and quite eccentric, as well. Their relationship endured but was volatile and complicated.

Plum and her three brothers all have skills, roles and competencies related to caregiving. Some are hands-on and some help at a distance with financial, legal and real estate matters. Sibling Suppers are mostly supportive and cooperative, but, as she is the oldest, divorced, single, and the daughter, Plum is most directly involved in her parents’ care and the settling of the estate.

Plum sometimes compares her life at 63 with her mother’s relative freedom at the same age.  She details the steps and the incredible energy and patience it takes to do routine tasks – like going to the mall. Just reading the description is exhausting.  “It feels as though the last twenty years have leached out my patience, my empathy, my compassion – the best parts of me- until I feel unrecognizable, a person I don’t like very much.” “Nineteen years, one month, and twenty-six days of eldercare have brought me to my knees.”

The house is as much a character in this book, as her various family members. Plum loves the house and it’s setting by the water, and it’s through the house that she comes to terms with the contradictory feelings she had toward her parents. She is overwhelmed by her parent’s house and it’s contents, but she doesn’t succumb to the temptation to discard and give away their belongings immediately and without thought. She ultimately decides that those items are a curse, but they are also a blessing. “This house I am now slicing apart is theirs – the place that we’d taken for granted would always be here as a backdrop to our lives.” Later, she says, “Now I believe this clearing out is a valuable process – best left to our children. It’s the only way they’ll ever truly come to know us…”

In the end, she acknowledges the truth of what funeral guests tell her: “When your mother dies, you’ll wish you’d asked her some questions.” When it’s too late, she realizes, “Now there are questions I didn’t even know I had.”

 

 

Life Unstyled: How to Embrace Imperfection and Create a Home You Love

If you enjoy perusing images of eclectic home furnishings used in creative ways, have I got a book to recommend to you!  Life Unstyled: How to Embrace Imperfection and Create a Home You Love by Emily Henson is filled with a wealth of full-color photos sharing the unique ideas of homeowners from varying parts of the world.

I like it because it left me with a feeling of validation of what I have always believed at the core: a home need not be a polished display of swanky décor to be great. It can be so much more gratifying to make your space uniquely your own, conforming to your way of being rather than try to live up to a magazine perfect ideal. After all, shouldn’t a home tell a story about the personality and life experiences of its residents?

Another thing I like about this book is that you don’t need an overabundance of time or money to borrow ideas from it and modify or incorporate them into your current living space. True, some of the homes pictured in the book are owned by buyers for textile or furnishings companies. I’m sure that definitely helps them gain access to the goods. But I think you will find that whatever your profession or station in life, there is a spark of an idea waiting inside this book somewhere for you.

If you are reading this blog, you are likely a fan of libraries and books. Let me share two ideas that will delight the book lovers. The first (pictured on the left) is featured in a warehouse-turned-residence in London. The owner has archive shelves (much like the kind used in our very own Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Department.) Here, they are used to divide the bedroom and the kitchen. They store everything from clothing to kitchen crockery and everything in between. You can see from the photo that the metal panels on the side are employed to display lots of pictures and artwork. Feel free to fall in love with this idea like I did,  just don’t ask me how to get rolling archive shelves into your home!

The second idea for book lovers is the vertical shelf featured in a bedroom (below). It looks like a floor-to-ceiling stack of books, but there are shelves in the middle of it all keeping it (hopefully) stable. This idea could be done relatively easily and cheaply in a variety of ways. Your imagination (and ceiling) would be the limit.

Happy home decorating! I’ll leave you with this quote: “The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”
― Maya Angelou, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes

Question: Is the Movie Ever Better Than the Book?

Here’s the question – Have you ever thought that a movie was better than the book it was based on?

This question is a little unfair – comparing books and movies is like comparing apples and oranges. They are very different media with very different user experiences; a 2-3 hour movie cannot possible capture the nuance of emotion or inner dialogue that a book can. Nor can a book show you sweeping vistas in full color (especially if it’s a landscape you’ve never experienced)

Most people would claim, strongly, that the book was better and for the most part, I agree. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy many of the movies based on books – movies have their own kind of magic and can often enhance the overall experience.

But there are some exceptions. A quick internet search brings up several articles with “better than the book” lists including these from Buzzfeed,  Bustle,  Hollywood.com,  and Purewow

It’s interesting to note that while there are some differences, most of the lists tend to agree on several titles including Forrest Gump, The Godfather, The Notebook, Jaws, The Princess Bride, Fight Club and Jurassic Park. This is often due to the creativity and vision of the director, or to careful editing of the original source material. It’s also enlightening to note that most of the books that these movies were based on were not hugely popular successes on their own, but considered fair to middling.

As for movies that enhance the book without insulting it, I would include movies such as the Harry Potter series, the Lord of the Rings movies and Master and Commander. And as much as I love to read Jane Austen, some of the Jane Austen adaptations are some of my favorite movies of all (I especially love the Emma Thompson version of Sense and Sensibility and the PBS version of Emma) In all of these cases, the beautiful settings, costumes and music contribute to and expand well-loved stories. (Although I still prefer the book!)

What about you – have you ever thought the movie was better than the book? Or thought that the movie caught the spirit of the book especially well? Tell us what you think!

 

Little People, Big Dreams

I happened upon a charming series of books for children called Little People, Big Dreams. (Not to be confused with the TV series Little People, Big World.) These are picture book biographies of notable figures from different parts of history. I loved reading them and learning more about the protagonists along with my children. The depictions of the heroines are captivating and, although they do not all have the same author and illustrator, they share an endearing similarity in style – large, round faces and colorful attire and settings.

I first read Frida Kahlo to my kindergartener. He came up with so many follow-up questions, I soon realized I didn’t know as much about this famous artist as I would like. I mentioned this to a friend and she insisted I should see the 2002 film Frida starring Salma Hayek as the title character and Alfred Molina as Diego Rivera. I did (alone), and enjoyed the sensual interpretation of the artist’s life.

Then an idea occurred to me. Wouldn’t it be nice to read a bedtime story for the kids and after they are fast asleep, read or watch something more adult on the topic? You know how a wine will sometimes be suggested that pairs well with your food? Couldn’t we do that with the books we read, as well? With that thought in mind, here are some recommendations you might want to try.

In Maya Angelou, author Lisbeth Kaiser and illustrator Leire Salaberria present to children the difficult topics of racism, domestic and sexual abuse, and mental health sensitively. Don’t let the fact that this book covers a difficult childhood deter you from reading aloud to your little ones what is a very inspiring story. Angelou’s story is, ultimately, one of hope. Most of us are aware of Angelou’s prolific career as a writer and civil rights activist, but how many knew her as a cook, streetcar conductor, dancer, singer, and world traveler? Share this inimitable woman’s story with the children in your life. Then on your own, read her classic I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings if you haven’t already done so (or even if you have, it may be time for a re-read). Also, listen to Angelou read her poetry in the book on CD entitled Black Pearls: The Poetry of Maya Angelou. I’d recommend the kids not be within listening range of this one, as there are vulgarities in it.

 

I will be the first to admit I am not a couture kind of gal (my style would more aptly be described as thrift store eclectic). Still, I enjoyed learning about Coco Chanel in the book written by Isabel Sanchez Vegara and illustrated by Ana Albero. Tired of seeing her contemporaries unable to breathe in their tight corsets, she designed clothing that was looser and easier to wear while dancing. She also designed hats and, of course, let’s not forget about the perfume. For more on the life of the woman once known as Gabrielle Chanel, you may wish to check out the 139-minute DVD Coco Chanel, a 2008 made-for-TV movie starring Barbora Bobulova as the young Chanel and Shirley MacLaine as old Chanel. You may also enjoy the coffee table style book Chanel: Collections and Creations by Daniele Bott. With 159 illustrations, it goes into delightful detail on Coco’s unique styles. My favorite was the chapter on the Camellia flower, which is pictured on the cover. Other chapters detail ‘The Suit’, ‘Jewelry’, ‘Fragrance & Beauty’, and ‘The Black Dress.’

All the suggested children’s books are from the Little People, Big Dreams series.There are more books in this series and you can find all the ones the library owns by doing a series search for Little People Big Dreams. If you have favorite books or movies that you think go together like Chardonnay and Gruyere, please let us know.

 

Hole in the Heart: Bringing Up Beth by Henny Beaumont

Henny Beaumont’s Hole in the Heart: Bringing Up Beth was immediately relatable and bold in how it approached the subject of raising a child with a disability. This work of Graphic Medicine happens to be my first and it most certainly will not be my last. The editorial page notes that “For healthcare practitioners, patients, families, and caregivers dealing with illness and disability, graphic narrative enlightens complicated or difficult experience”. The are other titles in the Graphic Medicine series that may also interest you. Try The Bad Doctor: The Troubled Life and Times of Dr. Iwan James or My Degeneration: A Journey Through Parkinson’s.

Having an interest in medicine, I was struck by the double-entendre in the title. “Hole in the Heart” works on a couple of different levels. Quite literally, a hole in the heart in this case refers to an Atrioventricular Septal Defect (AVSD). Imagine the pain of giving birth to your child to discover that she likely has genetic heart problems that will require surgery.  Figuratively, the initial sense of loss, pain, or despair you experience is akin to having a hole in your heart. Even the subtitle “Bringing Up Beth” works on a couple of different levels. First, “bringing up” refers to raising someone from childhood to adulthood. Yet Beaumont is also bringing up the difficult subject of raising a child with special needs.  How would you react if a doctor (with the bedside rapport of a chair) approached you while you were holding your daughter for the first time only to inform you of the likelihood that she has Down’s Syndrome? And why does having Down’s Syndrome have to signify the sky falling or the end of the world? It simply does not.

The beauty of this book, and like the experience of reading books in general, is that you will see Beth and other people with Down’s Syndrome through the eyes of Hen. Sympathy–perhaps even empathy–is one powerful way reading helps creating understanding between ourselves and others who are different than we are. In one particular scene, Hen is making small talk with acquaintances who tend to tip-toe around the subject (Beth), in order to avoid talking about her as though she’s some kind of secret. Beaumont brilliantly pulls us into the conversation and shows us that referring to someone’s “Down’s baby” is disrespectful and callous. The appropriate and respectful way to refer to people with Down’s is exactly that: people who just happen to have Down’s.

As Beth matures, her family must grapple with the challenges of inclusion and acceptance in the classroom and beyond. What does true inclusion look like? Beth’s sisters joke that a school will utilize a picture of a student with Down’s just to appear inclusive in promotional and marketing materials; but truly embracing acceptance and inclusion looks and sounds different.  In another scene, Hen looks forward to meeting with Beth’s teacher. Just as you think the teacher is about to compliment Beth on her own terms, she instead gloats about “how TOLERANT” Beth’s classmates are (as though its her ability to be tolerated that makes her noteworthy.) You see the problem here: defining a person in terms of how they can be useful or tolerable for others (rather than being innately worthy in and of themselves) is de-humanizing and plain wrong.

I was working at the reference desk when I began discussing books with a patron. The topic of graphic novels came up. I mentioned that Hole in the Heart: Bringing Up  Beth  was  moving and that I cried while reading the last page of the book. The accompanying image (likely charcoal or pencil?) is beautiful–something many people can relate to. The patron looked perplexed. “You cried? ” he asked. The picture and sentiment simply embodied love & acceptance. “I did”, I replied.

If you’re skeptical that Graphic Novels can be emotionally complex and deeply moving, please read this book!

Online Reading Challenge – “Comment allez-vous?”*

Bon jour! We’re halfway through the April Reading Challenge – have you found a good book set in Paris yet? There is no lack of excellent books (and movies) set in Paris, but if you’re still searching, here are a more couple of ideas.

For non-fiction lovers, try Les Parisiennes by Anne Sebba which is about how the women of Paris survived the Nazi occupation during World War II. With few non-German men left in the city, it was the women who dealt with the Germans, making life or death decisions on a daily basis, just to survive. From collaborators to resistors, famous to ordinary, it’s a complex, fascinating story. Or try The Only Street in Paris by Elaine Sciolino who lives on Rue des Martyrs and shows you the charming, everyday world of Parisians away from the tourist sites.

Fiction readers should check out The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery just for the title alone but also because it’s a sharp look at the various lives of an elegant Parisian apartment building as observed by the concierge who is smarter and more sophisticated than anyone suspects. The Race for Paris by Meg Clayton is about three journalists who are following the American liberating forces in Normandy. If they can arrive in Paris before the Allies, they will have the scoop of their lives, but at what cost?

As for me, I’m finding the selection to be an embarrassment of riches – there are almost too many to choose from! However, my plan is to watch Coco Before Chanel starring Audrey Tautou (of Amelie fame) and to finish reading The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro but I’m also eyeing My Life in France by Julia Child. Obviously, I will be reading books about Paris long after April!

Now it’s your turn – what are you reading this month?

*”how are you?”