Past Books

December 2010

Former FBI agent Wittman, who created the agency’s Art Crime Team and pursued a lifelong interest in antiques and collectibles, goes undercover to hobnob with infamous art thieves. The ineffective, the stupid, the clever, and the dangerous; Wittman befriends them all, in order to betray them, a fact that causes him a certain amount of angst. Among other challenges are bumbling agency bureaucrats and government turf wars when attempting to recover stolen art abroad. A fatal car accident that Wittman was involved in early in his career shaped his perspective: “I understood that because someone made a mistake in judgment, it didn’t make him evil. My newfound ability to see both sides of a situation — to think and feel like the accused — was invaluable.”

Wittman keeps the narrative interesting, and reveals himself as something of a renegade: “Under the FBI’s strict undercover rules, you’re only supposed to work one case at a time. I never followed that rule.” Keep the lies to a minimum, he advises, and avoid working in your home town. Review from Publisher’s Weekly, Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.

November 2010

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Fiction, first published in 2002. It’s now available as a 544 page paperback. Despite initially slow sales, the book eventually became a bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Amazon.com describes the book as a “mesmerizing saga of a near-mythic Greek American family and the “roller-coaster ride of a single gene through time.” The odd but utterly believable story of Cal Stephanides, and how this 41-year-old hermaphrodite was raised as Calliope, is at the tender heart of this long-awaited second novel from Jeffrey Eugenides, whose elegant and haunting 1993 debut, The Virgin Suicides, remains one of the finest first novels of recent memory.

Eugenides weaves together a kaleidoscopic narrative spanning 80 years of a stained family history, from a fateful incestuous union in a small town in early 1920s Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit; from the early days of Ford Motors to the heated 1967 race riots; from the tony suburbs of Grosse Pointe and a confusing, aching adolescent love story to modern-day Berlin. Eugenides’s command of the narrative is astonishing. He balances Cal/Callie’s shifting voices convincingly, spinning this strange and often unsettling story with intelligence, insight, and generous amounts of humor…”   Available from Amazon.com and from the Phoenix Public Library. Borrow or lend a copy on GoodReads.com or NeighborGoods.net

October 2010

Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line by Martha A. Sandweiss. Nonfiction, published in hardcover in February 2009, 384 pages. Booklist review by Vanessa Bush: During America’s Gilded Age, Clarence King was a famous geologist, friend of wealthy, famous, and powerful men. He was a larger-than-life character whose intellect and wanderlust pushed him to survey far-flung regions of the western U.S. and South America and develop an abiding appreciation of non-Western culture and people. What his family and wealthy friends did not know was that for 17 years, King lived secretly as James Todd, a black Pullman porter with a black wife and mixed-race children residing in Brooklyn. Devoted to his mother and half-siblings, restless and constantly in need of money, King relied on the largesse of his wealthy friends to help him support both families, never revealing his secret until he was near death. Sandweiss relies on letters, newspaper accounts, and interviews to chronicle the extraordinary story of an influential blue-eyed white man who passed for black at a time when passing generally went the other way. An engaging portrait of a man who defied social conventions but could not face up to the potential ruin of an interracial marriage.  Available from Amazon.com and from the Phoenix Public Library. Borrow or lend a copy on GoodReads.com or NeighborGoods.net

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fiction, first published April 10, 1925. Availalbe now as a 180 page paperback. Amazon.com review: In 1922, F. Scott Fitzgerald announced his decision to write “something new–something extraordinary and beautiful and simple + intricately patterned.” That extraordinary, beautiful, intricately patterned, and above all, simple novel became The Great Gatsby, arguably Fitzgerald’s finest work and certainly the book for which he is best known. A portrait of the Jazz Age in all of its decadence and excess, Gatsby captured the spirit of the author’s generation and earned itself a permanent place in American mythology. Self-made, self-invented millionaire Jay Gatsby embodies some of Fitzgerald’s–and his country’s–most abiding obsessions: money, ambition, greed, and the promise of new beginnings. “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning–” Gatsby’s rise to glory and eventual fall from grace becomes a kind of cautionary tale about the American Dream.

It’s also a love story, of sorts, the narrative of Gatsby’s quixotic passion for Daisy Buchanan. The pair meet five years before the novel begins, when Daisy is a legendary young Louisville beauty and Gatsby an impoverished officer. They fall in love, but while Gatsby serves overseas, Daisy marries the brutal, bullying, but extremely rich Tom Buchanan. After the war, Gatsby devotes himself blindly to the pursuit of wealth by whatever means–and to the pursuit of Daisy, which amounts to the same thing. “Her voice is full of money,” Gatsby says admiringly, in one of the novel’s more famous descriptions. His millions made, Gatsby buys a mansion across Long Island Sound from Daisy’s patrician East Egg address, throws lavish parties, and waits for her to appear. When she does, events unfold with all the tragic inevitability of a Greek drama, with detached, cynical neighbor Nick Carraway acting as chorus throughout. Spare, elegantly plotted, and written in crystalline prose, The Great Gatsby is as perfectly satisfying as the best kind of poem.    Available from Amazon.com and from the Phoenix Public Library. Borrow or lend a copy on GoodReads.com or NeighborGoods.net

September 2010

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. Fiction. Published June 2010, 292 pages in hardcover. Believed to be available in hardcover, audio formats and Kindle. Available from Amazon.com, the Phoenix Public Library, the publisher’s website, and Target.com as well as other retailers.  Eating the cake her mother has prepared for her ninth birthday, Rose Edelstein discovers she has a gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the food she prepares. Soon, every bite Rose takes is filled with feelings—not just her mother’s but those of other people as well—and what might have been a gift becomes a burden.  The curse her gift has bestowed is the secret knowledge all families keep hidden—her mother’s life outside the home, her father’s detachment, her brother’s clash with the world. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a luminous tale about the enormous difficulty of loving someone fully when you know too much about them. (review copied from bits & pieces of a Booklist review and the publisher’s website).

August 2010

The Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan. Nonfiction. 2001, 3o4 pages. Available in paperback, audio and Kindle. An easy read, widely available. Covered by NPR in 2001 and later developed into a PBS feature. Author takes four domesticated plants – the apple, the tulip, the marijuana plant, and the potato – and creates an utterly original narrative that examines the role of human desire for sweetness, beauty, mind alteration and french fries from the plants’ perspective. Weaves history, gardening, memoir and science into a fascinating story, Pollan suggests that plants have evolved to be attractive to humans. Visit the Amazon.com page for the book <here> ; NPR reviewed the book <here>, and you can get copies of the book at the Phoenix Public Library <here>.

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To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  Fiction. 1962, 336 pages in the 2006 paperback edition.  One of the best-loved stories of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird is a gripping, heart-wrenching, and wholly remarkable tale of coming-of-age in a South poisoned by virulent prejudice. It views a world of great beauty and savage inequities through the eyes of a young girl, as her father — a crusading local lawyer — risks everything to defend a black man unjustly accused of a terrible crime.   NPR covers the 50th anniversary celebrations in Lee’s hometown <here>. NPR discusses the racial aspect of the book <here> and links to scenes from the 1962 Hollywood film of the story, starring Gregory Peck at Atticus Finch. NPR posts a commentary/review by Michel Martin <here>, and NPR host Scott Simon interviews author James McBride (The Color of Water, Miracle at St. Anna) about how the book influenced his life and work, <here>.  The Phoenix Public Library has many copies, <here>, although demand & “holds” are high this season due to the 50th anniversary media coverage. Try the downloadable eBook or large print editions at the library.

July 2010

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Memoir. Ali’s first memoir is currently in paperback. It’ the amazing story of her flight from an arranged marriage, struggle to support herself in a strange land, eventual rise to become a Dutch Member of Parliament, and collaboration on a documentary that resulted in the stabbing death of her co-creator. She now lives in the US under 24 hour police protection and remains an outspoken critic of fanaticism. Even the bare facts of this unusual life would make fascinating reading. But this book is something more than an ordinary autobiography: In the tradition of Frederick Douglass or even John Stuart Mill, Infidel describes a unique intellectual journey, from the tribal customs of Hirsi Ali’s Somali childhood, through the harsh fundamentalism of Saudi Arabia and into the contemporary West. Along the way, Hirsi Ali displays what surely must be her greatest gift: the talent for recalling, describing and honestly analyzing the precise state of her feelings at each stage of that journey. Publisher’s Weekly awarded it a starred review <here>. NPR’s discussion is posted <here>. (review taken from excerpts published in the Washington Post, Amazon.com and our own group member, Tom)

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum. Nonfiction. February 2010, 336 pages. Believed to be available in hardcover and audio download. With the pacing and rich characterization of a first-rate suspense novelist, Blum makes science accessible and fascinating. She follows the often unglamorous but monumentally important careers of Dr. Charles Norris, Manhattan’s first trained chief medical examiner, and Alexander Gettler, its first toxicologist. Moving chronologically and dividing her narrative by poison, she provides a puzzling case for each poison and the ingenious methods devised to detect them. Before the advent of forensic toxicology, which made it possible for the first time to identify poisons in corpses, Gettler learned the telltale signs of everything from cyanide (it leaves a corrosive trail in the digestive system) to the bright pink flush that signals carbon monoxide poisoning.   (review adapted from Publisher’s Weekly). Click <here> to visit the Amazon.com page for this book. Click <here> to visit the NPR page, which posts a review and an excerpt of Chapter 1.   

June 2010

Open, An Autobiography, by Andre Agassi. Nonfiction. November 2009, 400 pages. Available in hardcover, paperback, audio and Kindle.  Agassi covers a lot of ground in Open — the much-discussed drug use, yes, but also his hairpiece, his starting of little trash can fires to relieve stress, and his doomed marriage to Brooke Shields. Transformed from interview transcripts into tight, present-tense prose by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer J.R. Moehringer, Open begins and ends at Agassi’s final tournament. Between those points, it traces his childhood with a violent and demanding father, his adolescent years at a hated tennis academy, and his uneven professional career and unlikely comeback. Open is a memoir, ending on a hopeful note with his dual embraces of philanthropy and family, but it’s also a brutal diary of life as an aging elite athlete who has privately said for years — though few believed him — that he hates tennis. Click <here> to see Amazon.com’s page for Open. Click <here> for the NPR review.  

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. Fiction. Sept 2009, 416pages. Set in the present day, two identical twin sisters inherit their Aunt’s London apartment upon her death, only to find she haunts the dwelling. Famous for penning the best-seller turned movie The Time Traveler’s Wife describes this story as “more astringent and less of a full-blown romantic odyssey.”  Amazon.com says, “a haunting tale about the complications of love, identity, and sibling rivalry,” (see the review <here>). NPR link.

May 2010

Animals Make Us Human, by Temple Grandin. Nonfiction. Reprint edition published Jan 2010, 360 pages. Amazon.com review: “Knowing what causes animals physical pain is usually easy, but pinpointing emotional distress is much harder. Drawing on the latest research and her own work, Grandin identifies the core emotional needs of animals and then explains how to fulfill the specific needs of dogs and cats, horses, farm animals, zoo animals, and even wildlife. Whether it’s how to make the healthiest environment for the dog you must leave alone most of the day, how to keep pigs from being bored, or how to know if the lion pacing in the zoo is miserable or just exercising, Grandin teaches us to challenge our assumptions about animal contentment and honor our bond with our fellow creatures.”  You can find a Fresh Air from WHYY audio interview with the author about this book on the NPR site.

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shafer and Annie Barrows. Fiction. May 2009, 290 pages. The Island of Guernsey, off the coast of France, is occupied by the Germans during World War II. The letters comprising this small charming novel begin in 1946, when single, 30-something author Juliet Ashton (nom de plume Izzy Bickerstaff) writes to her publisher to say she is tired of covering the sunny side of war and its aftermath. When Guernsey farmer Dawsey Adams finds Juliet’s name in a used book and invites articulate—and not-so-articulate—neighbors to write Juliet with their stories, the book’s epistolary circle widens, putting Juliet back in the path of war stories.  NPR posts a book excerpt here.

 

April 2010

Too Big To Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System – and Themselves by Andrew Ross Sorkin (on Amazon.com)

New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin tackles the eight roller-coaster months in 2008 which brought the US financial markets to the brink of collapse. He starts with the days after JPMorgan agreed to buy Bear and ends shortly after the government decided to inject tens of billions of dollars into the country’s largest banks in October 2008. The book is exhaustive—if somewhat exhausting in its length—and details the fascinating interplay between Wall Street and Washington.  The Atlantic Monthly called it “the definitive history of the banking crisis” of 2008.  Author Tom Wolfe says “Andrew Ross Sorkin has written a fascinating, scene-by-scene saga of the eyeless trying to march the clueless through Great Depression II.” NPR host Teri Gross interviews author Sorkin

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick (on Amazon.com)

In spite of the strict restrictions on foreign press, award-winning journalist Demick caught telling glimpses of just how surreal and mournful life is in North Korea. Her chilling impressions of a dreary, muffled, and depleted land are juxtaposed with a uniquely to-the-point history of how North Korea became an industrialized Communist nation supported by the Soviet Union and China and ruled by Kim Il Sung, then collapsed catastrophically into poverty, darkness, and starvation under the dictator’s son, Kim Jong Il. Demick’s bracing chronicle of the horrific consequences of decades of brutality provide the context for the wrenching life stories of North Korean defectors who confided in Demick. Mi-ran explains that even though her “tainted blood” (her father was a South Korean POW) kept her apart from the man she loved, she managed to become a teacher, only to watch her starving students waste away. Dr. Kim Ki-eum could do nothing to help her dying patients. Mrs. Song, a model citizen, was finally forced to face cruel facts. Strongly written and gracefully structured, Demick’s potent blend of personal narratives and piercing journalism vividly and evocatively portrays courageous individuals and a tyrannized state within a saga of unfathomable suffering punctuated by faint glimmers of hope. –Donna Seaman for Booklist, a Starred Review.

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March 2010

The Mapmaker’s Wife by Robert Whitaker. Non-fiction. A young man is sent by his government to try to measure the curvature of the earth at the equator. It quickly becomes a romance as well as a travel adventure. Along the way you learn about the history of science, the history of Spanish colonialism, the geography of the Equator, and the flora and fauna of the Amazon jungle. School Library Journal says, “Whitaker merges a gripping account of scientific exploration with an amazing story of survival in the wilderness. For those who think of the Enlightenment only in terms of sedate Paris salons, this book will alter that image forever.” We can’t find concrete evidence that NPR reviewed the book, but it sounds like one they should have! Amazon.com reviews & sells the book.

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Alex and Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence–And Formed a Deep Bond in the Process by Irene Pepperberg. Nonfiction. Although his brain was no bigger than a walnut, Alex the African gray parrot could do more than speak and understand — he could also count, identify colors and, according to his owner Irene Pepperberg, develop an emotional relationship. When Alex died in September 2007, his last words to her were “You be good. I love you.” Link to Fresh Air audio interview with author.

February 2010

The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar
Amazon.com reviews & sells The Space Between Us
NPR posts a brief plot synopsis and review
 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Amazon.com reviews & sells
NPR interviews the author on Fresh Air (hat tip for finding the link to our own member Susan!)
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Game Change: Obama and The Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin
Amazon.com reviews & sells
NPR’s Political Junkie Ken Rudin interviews co-author John Heilemann and links to an print excerpt from the book
NPR covers the controversy over the book containing not a single named source or footnotes.

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