Tag Archives: Jennifer’s picks

Book Review: The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess Boys is the story of two brothers; Jim, the favored older brother, and Bob, fraternal twin of Susan. Mom always liked Jim best, and even in adulthood he takes every opportunity to deride his younger brother, referring to him as “slob dog” and belittling everything from Bob’s apartment to his work as a legal aid attorney. When Susan’s son, Zach, is charged with a hate crime, she calls Jim—a successful New York attorney with a big celebrity case on his resume.  But Jim and his wife have vacation plans, so it’s Bob who reluctantly returns to his home town of Shirley Falls to sort things out.

Bob is the most sympathetic of the siblings, even if he seems a little hapless. Because of a childhood tragedy, he accepts Jim’s criticisms as his due. He smokes and drinks a little too much.  But as he becomes more involved in Zach’s life and legal problems, the more of his goodness he reveals to readers and the more he wakes up to who he really is.

Strout’s characters are always memorable—she won a Pulitzer for her last book about a frumpy New Englander named Olive Kitteridge—and the characters in this book are equally compelling. Readers can empathize with Susan, Zach, Bob, and other supporting characters. Even the despicable Jim is compelling in his own awful way.

Based on a 2006 event in which a man tossed a frozen pig’s head into a mosque in Maine, allegedly as a prank, Strout’s book has an important message about acceptance and forgiveness. (If you think this incident sounds too bizarre to be real, just Google “pig’s head mosque.” It’s real, and it wasn’t an isolated incident.) Family and community work best when people stop seeing themselves at the center of the universe.


Book Review: Parenting: Illustrated with Crappy Pictures by Amber Dusick

I don’t know if people without children can relate to potty humor, but apparently for those of us who do, it has a timeless appeal. Though my own children are now in their 30s, Dusick’s descriptions of parenting small children in Parenting: Illustrated with Crappy Pictures bring back vivid memories of many a trip: to the doctor, to the grocery store, to a vacation destination, to the toilet. Some readers may cringe each time she refers to her children as “crappy boy” and “crappy baby.” But this book is funny, and true, and it will make you laugh out loud. The “crappy illustrations” make this a Diary of a Wimpy Kid on steroids—lots of stick-figure illustrations with bodily functions in colors, such as #23 of the “Fifty Crappy Laws of Parenting” chapter: projectile vomiting is real. This book can be read in about an hour, making it the perfect Mothers’ (or Fathers’) Day Gift for any harried parent of young children.

Book Review: Mrs. Queen Takes the Train–William Kuhn

mrsqeentakesthetrainMrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn

At 86 years of age, Queen Elizabeth II has only three more years to go before she catches up with Queen Victoria in length of reign. Readers could well imagine what the impact of 60 years on the job, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week might have on a person, even with help. William Kuhn’s Queen Elizabeth is almost One of Us: struggling to deal with changing mores, keep up with technology (her son Andrew sets up Facebook and Twitter accounts for her), and find what comfort she can in her dogs and weekends away.

When she stops at the stables on a cold afternoon to visit her favorite horse, the stable girl presses her hooded sweatshirt on the Queen, who then wanders off the palace grounds and proceeds to make her way to Scotland for a nostalgic visit to the decommissioned Royal Yacht, anchored at Leith.  This undemanding but entertaining tale follows the Queen on taxi rides, a long-distance train journey with traveling companions who finally recognize her as Helen Mirren (as in the movie, “The Queen”), and ends with a kind of royal slumber party featuring a mismatched band of would-be rescuers and household staff.

Kuhn’s sovereign is a sympathetic character, who despite impeccable breeding feels warmly toward all her subjects, even a multiply-pierced punk. This book is highly recommended for lovers of all things British and for readers who enjoyed Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, or The Uncommon Reader.

Our summer reading picks

In anticipation of summer vacations full of summer reading, the staff at Chatham Community Library offer up these great recommendations for your summer reading pleasure…

Amy: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer.

Visit the Channel Islands during World War II and honor creativity in adversity! It’s the power of books and community told through letters.



Brendan: Lost Rights by David Howard

I’m currently reading Lost Rights: The Misadventures of a Stolen American Relic for Chatham Community Library’s July Book Club meeting. It’s the story of how North Carolina’s original copy of the Bill of Rights was stolen during the Civil War and recently rediscovered in an FBI sting operation, and its convoluted journey through many hands along the way. Come talk about it with us on July 3 at 6:45 pm at the Chatham Community Library!

Dana: A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss

This well-researched historical thriller launches the Benjamin Weaver series, in which a boxer-turned-private investigator travels through the seedy underworld of eighteenth-century London in pursuit of thieves and debtors. Weaver (a Jew among Christians, adding yet another layer of interest to the story) becomes entangled in the world of finance and scandal leading up to the world’s first stock-market crash, brought about by speculation in the South Sea Company’s stock. If you want a rollicking good read without even realizing you’re also getting a bit of a history lesson (the beginnings of speculative trading, anyone?), you won’t be able to get enough of this series.

Megan: On Writing by Stephen King

Summer always puts me in creative-mode, and Stephen King’s classic memoir is full of both writing advice and hilarious life stories. A perfect lead-in to our summer edition of National Novel Writing Month this July!


Molly: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte & Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.

Jane Eyre was written in 1847 and is the story of orphaned unloved Jane, self-described as “poor, plain, and little.” The novel, told in the passionate first person voice of Jane herself, chronicles the narrator’s life from age 10 through adulthood. While the story contains elements of romance, I would argue that it is a book primarily about one person’s quest for self-determination. Jane is caught in a time and place (19th century England) in which her role in the world is pre-determined. She does not accept this fate, however. There is a mystery at the heart of the book, too, which I won’t spoil. After reading Jane Eyre, definitely try Jean Rhys’s, Wide Sargasso Sea. While the book is technically a prequel to Jane Eyre, it was written over a century after Bronte published her novel, in 1966. This book follows the story of Antoinette, a brilliant and troubled creole woman from the Bahamas. To say more would be to ruin the surprise of both books.

Jennifer’s picks: Find yourself taking a “stay-cation” this year? Three outstanding new books will transport you to different times and places–from the deep woods of Michigan to the Blue Ridge of Virginia and North Carolina–hold you tighter than a patch of brambles, and haunt you like ballads “way over yonder in the minor key,” as Woody Guthrie put it.

The protagonist of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River, Margo, is a teen abandoned by her mother. She’s learned most of what she knows on the river and is as sure a shot as her idol, Annie Oakley. After a tragedy forces her from her home, she survives in the wild on a search for her mother. This is a young woman who makes choices, though they aren’t always good ones, and faces challenges with a calm assurance. In a nutshell, Campbell has created a female Homer who overcomes trial after trial to return home—to herself. Although no Pulitzer prize for fiction was awarded this year, this book was long rumored to be in the running.

Ron Rash and Robert Goolrick are masters of atmosphere, and their newest novels ring with moonshine and high lonesome mystery. Neither Heading Out to Wonderful nor The Cove reach the art achieved in A Reliable Wife or Serena, but both are beautifully written mountain tales that evoke the sights, sounds, and smells of the Virginia and North Carolina Blue Ridge and readers would be missing stories as memorable and compelling as fairy tales.

Open Goolrick’s Heading Out to Wonderful and you won’t be able to stop reading until the bitter end. In 1948, “Charlie Beale drove into town out of nowhere in an old beat-up pickup truck. On the seat beside him were two suitcases. One was thin cardboard. . .and in it were. . .a set of butcher knives, sharp as razors. . .The other one was made of tin and. . .it was filled with money. A lot of money.” Then the handsome, mysterious stranger not only meets the ethereally beautiful wife of the meanest man in Brownsburg, Virginia, but draws the four-year-old son of his new employer into a train-wreck of a tale that will remind you of Long Black Veil, Tom Dooley, and other traditional tragic songs.

In The Cove, the suspicious inhabitants of Mars Hill, North Carolina have labeled Laurel Shelton a witch, though they accept her brother Hank, who has returned home from World War I minus one arm. The gloomy, secluded cove where she and her brother have spent their lives is widely believed to be cursed. One day Laurel follows the sound of flute music emanating from a swath of rhododendron and discovers a mysterious stranger. Dressed in rags, he has a note pinned to his shirt explaining that his name is Walter, he is mute, and he needs to get to New York. Hank and Laurel want to keep Walter in the cove as long as possible; Hank in order to make improvements to the homestead so he can leave the cove for good, and Laurel because she sees in Walter her only hope for happiness. When Walter’s dangerous secret is unwittingly revealed to a vigilante, the story steams full-tilt to its dramatic ending. Readers will want to learn more about the true events that inspired this story.

If you are still looking for books to read, here are more recommendations:

NPR’ s 2012 Summer Books Series

Goodreads Popular Summer Reading Shelves

Nancy Pearl Unearths Great Summer Reads

Library Journal: Summertime and the Reading is Easy

Don’t forget: summer reading isn’t just for kids! Chatham Community Library is pleased to offer its first summer reading program for adults, Between the Covers. Click here to sign up.

Book Review–Paris I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down: Rosecrans Baldwin

Paris I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down by Rosecrans Baldwin

During Rosecrans Baldwin’s first week at work as a copywriter in Paris, he forgets that in French buildings the first floor is what we consider to be the second floor. Summoned to a meeting on the sixth floor, he blunders into two different meetings before he finally reaches his destination. This could just be a metaphor for Baldwin’s entire experience living and working in France with the exception that, far from being a blunderer, he is the quintessential fair-haired boy.

Having landed a job with a French ad agency despite the fact that he can’t really speak French, Baldwin begins a stint as a working stiff in one of the most beautiful cities on Earth. Not for the faint of heart his grueling schedule, which begins before dawn so he can work on his novel before he heads  to the office until 6 or 7 pm, frequently  to return to his laptop and the online newsletter he edits. Truly, Baldwin is one lucky guy—his meteoric rise in the ad agency (he quickly moves from a breastfeeding account to one for Louis Vuitton luggage, rubbing elbows with celebrities like Keith Richards and Sean Connery) parallels the improvements he makes to his fluency in French and to his first novel, leading up to its acceptance for publication.

What I like about Baldwin’s book is the innocence and tenderness with which he regards France and the Parisians. Even while recounting events that resemble X-rated episodes of The Office, there’s no sarcastic undertone; he likes his colleagues for the most part and explores their idiosyncrasies with affection. His ironic descriptions of the struggles he and his wife Rachel (who speaks even less French than her husband) encounter with bureaucracy are humorous without being snide or cliché. For example, Baldwin inquires at the Post Office to see if it’s legal to ship wine to the U.S. and an indignant clerk tells him, “Sir, this is France,” in a tone indicating oui,  but of course, wine can be shipped to the States! Soon after, informed by another postal clerk that his wine has been impounded because it’s illegal to ship wine to the U.S., Baldwin’s self-deprecating dialog makes as much fun of his attempts to communicate in French as it does the absurd situation.

Like any of us who’ve ever taken a job at a tourist destination thinking how romantic it will be to work in paradise, Baldwin ultimately realizes that work is work, no matter where you are, and it’s eating into his ability to live as he wants. Rachel spends a lot of time home alone while Rosecrans jets off to exotic locales for Vuitton, they are eating a lot of frozen food, noisy remodeling has expanded from the floor above their apartment to the floor below and the apartments on either side so, on a rare day together at Giverny, the couple decide to return home.  His colleagues can’t decide which is more difficult to believe: the fact that Rosecrans will be moving to North Carolina (rednecks, woods, guns) or that he has managed to get a novel accepted for publication while working full time.

Anyone who’s ever wanted to live in France will find Baldwin’s book and its sparkling details as refreshing as a chilled Perrier after a long, dry walk.

More of My Favorite Books about Paris, In No Particular Order:

Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris by Graham Robb

Robb peels back the layers of time in the city of light—we’re present for Napoleon’s first encounter with Paris (and the notorious Palais Royale), we navigate the labyrinth of limestone quarries beneath the city and meet the man who saved Paris from collapsing, we see how a place changes character over a century. The appeal of this book is that instead of feeling compelled to read it from beginning to end, chapter by chapter, you can dip in and out, at last able to travel through time.

Death in the City of Light by David King (Large print version)

Paris can be a sinister city, perhaps never more so than during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Serial killer Marcel Petiot murdered and stole from his victims in almost plain view of the police while he continued his medical practice. As King makes clear in this true-crime page turner, the Nazis weren’t the only force the French had to fear.  Highly recommended for fans of Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City.

A Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke

An entertaining tell-all by a Brit who also took a job in Paris; far more hostile and sarcastic than Baldwin’s book, but still good for a laugh.