Librarian's Pick

Here's what our librarians are reading lately.

Librarian’s Pick: This Land is Our Land – Suketu Mehta

This Land Is Our Land by Suketu Mehta“In a heroic effort to dispel racist, destructive myths surrounding immigration, Mehta travels from city to city speaking to people at places like Friendship Park at the Mexican-American border. He also visits other countries like Morocco and the United Arab Emirates to hear the heartbreaking stories of regular people trying to migrate for a better life.

With humanity and keen insight, Mehta explores why people are migrating with higher frequency and explains why immigrants throughout history have always elicited reactionary views and backlash. But most importantly, he explains why we should stop falling for the same hateful rhetoric over and over again. Drawing from the history of racism and colonialism, he makes a case for why refugees and migrants have a positive influence on society instead of a negative one. His simple answer to anyone who asks why immigrants are coming here is: We are here because you were there.

Pulling from history, personal experiences and intimate profiles, Mehta examines the backlash to immigration, what’s behind it and why we have good reasons to be hopeful about the future.”

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Librarian’s Pick: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong“Poet Ocean Vuong’s highly anticipated debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, takes the form of a letter from a young writer to his illiterate mother. The writer, who goes by the nickname Little Dog and whose life bears a strong resemblance to Vuong’s own, is the first of his family to go to college. The letter is an attempt to share his fragile sense of self with his mother.

Little Dog’s grandmother survived the Vietnam War as a sex worker, and his mother was fathered by an American soldier. After immigrating to the United States and settling in a working-class Connecticut neighborhood, Little Dog became a victim of his mother’s abuse and a witness to his grandmother’s untreated schizophrenia. Without siblings or a father, Little Dog was isolated and lonely, hyperaware of his small size, his lack of English and his origins.”

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Librarian’s Pick: City of Girls – Elizabeth Gilbert

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert “In 1940, nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris has just been kicked out of Vassar College, owing to her lackluster freshman-year performance. Her affluent parents send her to Manhattan to live with her Aunt Peg, who owns a flamboyant, crumbling midtown theater called the Lily Playhouse. There Vivian is introduced to an entire cosmos of unconventional and charismatic characters, from the fun-chasing showgirls to a sexy male actor, a grand-dame actress, a lady-killer writer, and no-nonsense stage manager. But when Vivian makes a personal mistake that results in professional scandal, it turns her new world upside down in ways that it will take her years to fully understand. Ultimately, though, it leads her to a new understanding of the kind of life she craves – and the kind of freedom it takes to pursue it. It will also lead to the love of her life, a love that stands out from all the rest.

Now eighty-nine years old and telling her story at last, Vivian recalls how the events of those years altered the course of her life – and the gusto and autonomy with which she approached it. “At some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time,” she muses. “After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is.” Written with a powerful wisdom about human desire and connection, City of Girls is a love story like no other.”

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Librarian’s Pick: The Queen – Josh Levin

The Queen by Josh Levin“The Queen reveals a woman who assumed at least 30 identities to become one of the most astonishing con artists on record. She sometimes claimed to be white, or black, or Hawaiian, or Mexican. In her middle age, she convinced her most recent of six or eight husbands that she was decades younger than she actually was. She abandoned her children on many occasions. She didn’t just fraudulently apply for welfare; she conned insurance agencies, probably bought and sold young children to further her schemes, and may have murdered one of her husbands, as well as another woman who was under her spiritual care.

It’s a wild story. But that’s not the only story Levin tells here. With careful sleuthing, he tracks Taylor back to Tennessee in 1926 and to the birth of Martha Louise White, daughter of an unmarried white teenager and an unnamed black man when such unions were illegal in many states. Martha’s (that is, Taylor’s) mother would eventually claim her daughter was a foundling. At 6 she was kicked out of an all-white school. “No one wanted to lay claim to Martha Louise White,” Levin writes with sympathy. Themes of rejection, racial confusion and possible mental illness create a strong undercurrent beneath this fascinating story.

Much is murky about Linda Taylor’s life. But one thing is certain: She wasn’t a stereotype. She was one of a kind.”

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Librarian’s Pick: Magic For Liars – Sarah Gailey

Magic for Liars by Sarah gailey“Sarah Gailey’s fresh, clever Magic for Liars is a study in balance. It’s funny, it’s familiar, it’s sinister, and it’s engrossing. When a teacher is found dead at Osthorne Academy for Young Mages, private investigator Ivy Gamble is enlisted by Principal Marion Torres to investigate the possibility of murder. Ivy knows the school well, as her sister Tabitha teaches on campus. As she starts to interview students and teachers alike, the truth slowly comes into focus—there’s something wicked going on at Osthorne. Even the most casual Harry Potter fan will see similarities to Hogwarts, but Magic for Liars borrows without stealing. Teenage angst and school tensions are present, but Ivy’s adult perspective brings some needed cynicism to the whole affair. This impressive, confident debut is a total blast to read thanks to Gailey’s snappy, nimble writing.

Louis Greenberg’s Green Valley asks what’s more valuable: freedom or peace? Tucked away from the world behind a massive wall, the sense-­altering conclave of Green Valley promises an idyllic life. All inhabitants are fitted with brain-controlling hardware that coordinates a shared hallucination meant to block out the cruel realities of the outside world. When Lucie Sterling’s niece, Kira, goes missing inside Green Valley, Lucie must uncover the truth and expose the dark underbelly of this false refuge. The futuristic technology never distracts from the engaging narrative, and Greenberg centers the story on Lucie’s feelings of uncertainty and disgust even as she peels back the layers of her investigation.

I never thought I’d have much interest in 15th-­century Florence, but toss in about a million demons, and I’m hooked. Hugo Award-winning author Jo Walton does just that in Lent. Brother Girolamo is head of the church of San Marco, and not only can he confer with kings and sway city leaders, but he can also see demons. These creatures of hell gather in places of power to tip the scales in favor of Satan. When Girolamo discovers a treacherous plot at the highest levels of government, just as more and more demons flock to Florence’s walls, he must learn the dark secret of his power over hell in order to save the city. Walton’s detailed, vibrant vision of the Italian Renaissance is amazing, and Girolamo’s shifting relationship with hell is equally mesmerizing.”

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Librarian’s Pick: The Confessions of Frannie Langton – Sara Collins

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins“Former slave Frannie Langton is warned early in her service to her London employer, George Benham, that “a good servant must know her place, to be content in it.” Frannie readily admits that this has “always been my trouble. Never knowing my place or being content in it.”

Frannie, who is fiercely independent, immediately likable and stubbornly contrary to the expectations of her role in society, shares many such admissions while awaiting trial for the murder of Benham and his wife, Marguerite. What Frannie can’t account for is how she wound up covered in their blood and being charged with their murders. In an effort to make sense of it all, Frannie pens her life story from jail. What follows is a literary sojourn as Frannie explores her place in history through race, class and sexuality.

Set in the early 1800s, The Confessions of Frannie Langton begins with Frannie’s life as a slave on a Jamaican plantation and her education in reading and writing. From there, she recounts how she attained her “freedom” when her master took her to London, where he “gifted” her to the Benhams, and how she eventually began a love affair with Marguerite. The story casually meanders through Frannie’s narrative in a mostly linear fashion but is interspersed with snippets from the trial in progress, including damning testimony and fiery newspaper accounts, making certain that readers don’t forget what’s at stake.”

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Librarian’s Pick: Furious Hours – Casey Cep

Furious Hours by Casey Cep“At the funeral of Maxwell’s last victim, his 16-year-old stepdaughter, he was shot dead by one of the girl’s relatives, Robert Burns, who until that moment had been a hardworking, law-abiding family man. Amazingly, despite the fact that hundreds of mourners witnessed the shooting, Burns was ultimately acquitted of his crime.

Attending the trial was Lee, who wrote that Maxwell “might not have believed in what he preached, he might not have believed in voodoo, but he had a profound and abiding belief in insurance.” After studying law at the University of Alabama, Lee was naturally intrigued by the Maxwell story—although she realized “all too well that the story of a black serial killer wasn’t what readers would expect from the author of To Kill a Mockingbird.” She spent nearly a decade working on a manuscript she called “The Reverend” but ultimately abandoned the project, much to the disappointment of many of the citizens of Alexander City, where Maxwell’s murder took place.

Cep, a thorough researcher and polished writer, divides this sprawling tale into three parts: first telling Maxwell’s story, then chronicling the lawyer who once had Maxwell as a client and ultimately represented Maxwell’s killer, and finally explaining the famous novelist’s fascination with and involvement in the case.”

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Librarian’s Pick: Rules for Visiting – Jessica Francis Kane

Rules for Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane“Largely preferring the company of plants to people, May is a single, middle-aged woman who lives in her childhood home with her father and cat and works as a gardener at the local university. She is the first to admit that although her world is relatively small and uneventful, the life she has cultivated for herself is a comfortable one (albeit mundane and vaguely hermitic). When she is gifted with an unanticipated month of paid vacation, May is inspired to revise her stance on relationships and broaden her horizons. Armed with little more than an Emily Post guide to etiquette, a book of quotations on friendship and a suitcase named Grendel (after the friendless monster in Beowulf), May sets out on a transformative pilgrimage to reconnect with the four women she considers her dearest friends.

A 21st-century novel for those with old-fashioned sensibilities, Rules for Visiting is an empathetic yet enigmatic read. May’s story is not for the impatient, as the narrative perambulates through a series of discursive musings on friendship, flora, family, grief and how connections can fail or flourish in this modern age. For much of the novel, May keeps the reader at arm’s length, charming with her wry wit but using these rhetoric sleights of hand as substitutes for real understanding and intimacy. But as May becomes more comfortable with the art of connecting with the people in her life, she reveals more of her true heart to the reader as well, gradually shedding light on the trauma that led to such a closed-off life.

Rules for Visiting takes its time to fully take root, but the end result is a sturdy novel that blossoms rather beautifully.”

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Librarian’s Pick: The Farm – Joanne Ramos

The Farm by Joanne Ramos“There are a number of compelling arguments for surrogacy. Some would-be mothers are unable to conceive. Gay couples may wish to become parents. But, as with any legal arrangement, complications can arise, especially when mercenaries try to exploit people’s emotions for monetary gain.

Joanne Ramos imagines such complications in The Farm, her ambitious dystopian debut. The novel’s effectiveness lies in the power of its premise. Financially straitened women, most of them Filipina immigrants—Ramos, an American, was born in the Philippines and moved to Wisconsin when she was 6—are recruited to carry the babies of an ultra-rich, typically white clientele in exchange for a huge payout.

Among the immigrants is protagonist Jane Reyes, the Filipina mother of a 4-year-old girl who left her husband after she discovered his affair. After Jane loses her nanny job, she takes a tip from her 67-year-old cousin with whom she lives, and applies for a job at Golden Oaks, a fancy resort in New York’s Hudson Valley. At Golden Oaks, surrogate mothers reside in luxury, and this opulence includes organic meals, private fitness trainers, daily massages—all for free. But the pregnant women are constantly monitored, and they are restricted from leaving the grounds or from having any contact with the outside world.

The person running Golden Oaks is Mae Yu, a high-achieving Chinese-American woman who, in a marvelous phrase, has “a lusty Ayn Randian love of New York.” Her job is to recruit Hosts who are willing to carry babies for the company’s wealthy Clients. Not all Hosts, however, are treated the same. A few are Premium Hosts, which means they’re white. They include Jane’s roommate Reagan, who represents the holy trifecta of Premium Hosts because she’s white, pretty and educated. She aspires to a career in photography and wants to break free of her domineering father. Another Premium Host is Lisa, who sees Golden Oaks for what it is and recruits Jane and Reagan in her plans to undermine its authority. And then there’s Jane’s cousin, whose motivations may not be what they seem.”

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Librarian’s Pick: The British Are Coming – Rick Atkinson

The British Are Coming by Rick AtkinsonThe British Are Coming begins in 1775 with the lead-up to the battles of Lexington and Concord and ends in January 1777 after the battles of Trenton and Princeton. Many of us have heard of these places, and some of us have visited them. One of the many virtues of Atkinson’s skill as a researcher and writer is that he is able to strip away contemporary accretions and give readers a tactile sense of those times and lands.

Few of the Founding Fathers appear in these pages; they are off in Philadelphia writing their declarations and acts of the Continental Congress. But Ben Franklin, nearing 70, makes an arduous winter journey to Quebec as the Americans try and disastrously fail to split Canada away from Great Britain. Then there is Henry Knox, an overweight bookseller who turns out to be a brilliant artillery strategist. And the brothers Howe, leaders of the British Army and Navy, waver between punishing their enemies and treating them lightly to coax them back into the arms of the mother country.

Towering above them all is George Washington, famous for his physical grace and horsemanship. During much of this time, he is such a failure that some officers plot against him, and he fears being dismissed as the military leader. Under his leadership, the army retreats again and again and again. The enemy mocks Washington, ironically calling him “the old fox.” He must beg soldiers to stay when their enlistments expire. He endures.”

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