Librarian's PickHere's what our librarians are reading lately.
“With Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In, Phuc Tran has written the great punk rock immigrant story. Or should that be the definitive refugee punk rock story? Or a story about how punk rock and great books helped a Vietnamese kid in small-town America fit in by standing out? Whatever order we put the words in, Tran’s book is my pick for the best, the funniest and the most heartfelt memoir of the year.
Currently a high school Latin teacher and a tattoo artist, Tran honed his unique blend of intellectual misfittery in blue-collar Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where his family settled after evacuating Saigon in 1975. Tran and his brother, initially the only Vietnamese kids in school, learned to punch first when dealing with racist bullies on the playground and in the streets. Star Wars, skateboards and punk rock later offered Tran a haven where friendships were formed through shared mixtapes and band T-shirts.
Code-switching between hardcore shows and life at home with his Vietnamese-speaking parents was not easy. With grace and clarity, Tran writes pivotal scenes involving the sometimes violent disconnect between his traumatized refugee parents and their Americanized children—a testament to the sensitivity and balance he brings to his exploration of generational and cultural conflict.
While it might seem ironic, literature and punk subculture equally teach Tran about universal themes like existentialism, displacement, alienation and community. Hilariously, quite a few of Tran’s high school literary choices are occasioned by his love of Morrissey and the Smiths. As someone who also had a poster of Victorian bad boy Oscar Wilde on her high school bedroom wall (next to the Smiths poster), this rings so true as to be uncanny.
Sigh, Gone filters the archetypal high school misfit story through the lens of immigration and assimilation, building it into a larger narrative about the ways music and books can bring us together, even when the larger world threatens to tear us apart.”
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“No one engages a reader quite like Emma Straub. I was 30 pages into her warmhearted new novel, All Adults Here, before I even realized it. Her writing is witty, informal and deceptively simple, drawing readers in as if they’re having a conversation with a close friend.
Events take place in a small, fictitious town in New York’s Hudson Valley and center on the Strick family. The matriarch is 68-year-old widower Astrid, who witnesses an acquaintance being struck and killed by a school bus. This brings to light Astrid’s long-standing animus toward the victim, who, years ago, informed Astrid that her eldest son, Elliot—now a successful builder, married with kids—had been spotted kissing another boy. The fact that Astrid admonished Elliot, albeit subtly, has plagued her ever since, particularly now that she is in a same-sex relationship with her hairdresser, Birdie.
Indeed, gender and sexuality are some of the central themes of the novel. Astrid’s daughter, 37-year-old Porter, pregnant via a sperm bank, embarks on an affair with her former high school boyfriend, who is married with kids. Astrid’s youngest son, Nicky, and his wife have sent their daughter, Cecelia, to live with Astrid after a scandal involving online pedophilia in her former Brooklyn school. At Cecelia’s new school, she befriends August, who is transitioning into Robin.
Along the way, Straub imbues the novel with her trademark humor and comic turns of phrase, particularly Porter’s one-liners. Straub has taken on a lot of issues—gender politics, abortion, bullying, sexual predators—and it’s to her credit that the subject matter never seems heavy-handed or detracts from the momentum. The characters are believable, and events unfold naturally.
I found myself stepping onto a few trapdoors while trying to predict the plot. Having read Straub’s other novels, I should have known better; she’s always one step ahead.”
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“Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.
2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager and who professed to worship only her may be far different from what she has always believed?
Alternating between Vanessa’s present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood. Written with the haunting intimacy of The Girls and the creeping intensity of Room, My Dark Vanessa is an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself.”
“In March 1865, the long and bitter War between the States is winding down. Till now, twenty-three-year-old Simon Boudlin has evaded military duty thanks to his slight stature, youthful appearance, and utter lack of compunction about bending the truth. But following a barroom brawl in Victoria, Texas, Simon finds himself conscripted, however belatedly, into the Confederate Army. Luckily his talent with a fiddle gets him a comparatively easy position in a regimental band.
Weeks later, on the eve of the Confederate surrender, Simon and his bandmates are called to play for officers and their families from both sides of the conflict. There the quick-thinking, audacious fiddler can’t help but notice the lovely Doris Mary Dillon, an indentured girl from Ireland, who is governess to a Union colonel’s daughter.
After the surrender, Simon and Doris go their separate ways. He will travel around Texas seeking fame and fortune as a musician. She must accompany the colonel’s family to finish her three years of service. But Simon cannot forget the fair Irish maiden, and vows that someday he will find her again.”
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“Antonia Vega is still reeling a year after the death of her husband, Sam, a beloved local doctor. Since then, she has been so adrift that she sometimes pours orange juice into her coffee. Ever the novelist, she often quotes favorite authors, from Wallace Stevens to Shakespeare, to help her cope.
Family and neighborhood events complicate Antonia’s grief. As Alvarez has done so beautifully in previous books, she offers a memorable portrait of sisterhood, as Antonia is one of four sisters who emigrated years ago from the Dominican Republic.
The oldest sister and a former therapist, Izzy has been known to engage in irregular behavior, as when she wrote to Michelle Obama “to offer to design her inauguration gown.” Her latest escapade is more consequential: She gets lost on the drive to Antonia’s 66th birthday party, and the other sisters, including Tilly and fellow therapist Mona, frantically search for her.
In a parallel story, a man named Mario, one of several undocumented Mexicans who work at the dairy farm next to Antonia’s house, asks her to help him bring his girlfriend to Vermont. But he doesn’t tell Antonia the whole truth about their situation. The withheld information leads to complications neither he nor Antonia could have anticipated.
In one moving scene after another, Alvarez dramatizes the sustaining power of stories, whether for immigrants in search of a better life or for widows surviving a spouse’s death. True to its title, Afterlife cannily explores what it means to go on after a loss. As Alvarez writes about Antonia, “The only way not to let the people she loves die forever is to embody what she loved about them.” This is a beautiful book.”
“Irby is forty, and increasingly uncomfortable in her own skin despite what Inspirational Instagram Infographics have promised her. She has left her job as a receptionist at a veterinary clinic, has published successful books and has been friendzoned by Hollywood, left Chicago, and moved into a house with a garden that requires repairs and know-how with her wife in a Blue town in the middle of a Red state where she now hosts book clubs and makes mason jar salads. This is the bourgeois life of a Hallmark Channel dream. She goes on bad dates with new friends, spends weeks in Los Angeles taking meetings with “tv executives slash amateur astrologers” while being a “cheese fry-eating slightly damp Midwest person,” “with neck pain and no cartilage in [her] knees,” who still hides past due bills under her pillow.
The essays in this collection draw on the raw, hilarious particulars of Irby’s new life. Wow, No Thank You. is Irby at her most unflinching, riotous, and relatable.”
“Don and Mimi Galvin seemed to be living the American dream. After World War II, Don’s work with the Air Force brought them to Colorado, where their twelve children perfectly spanned the baby boom: the oldest born in 1945, the youngest in 1965. In those years, there was an established script for a family like the Galvins–aspiration, hard work, upward mobility, domestic harmony–and they worked hard to play their parts. But behind the scenes was a different story: psychological breakdown, sudden shocking violence, hidden abuse. By the mid-1970s, six of the ten Galvin boys, one after another, were diagnosed as schizophrenic. How could all this happen to one family?
What took place inside the house on Hidden Valley Road was so extraordinary that the Galvins became one of the first families to be studied by the National Institute of Mental Health. Their story offers a shadow history of the science of schizophrenia, from the era of institutionalization, lobotomy, and the schizophrenogenic mother to the search for genetic markers for the disease, always amid profound disagreements about the nature of the illness itself. And unbeknownst to the Galvins, samples of their DNA informed decades of genetic research that continues today, offering paths to treatment, prediction, and even eradication of the disease for future generations.
With clarity and compassion, bestselling and award-winning author Robert Kolker uncovers one family’s unforgettable legacy of suffering, love, and hope.”
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“The Hotel Caiette, the glass hotel of the title, is a super luxury hotel in a remote corner of Vancouver Island, a “five-star experience where your cell phone doesn’t work.” A young local woman named Vincent winds up working there as a bartender after some youthful bohemian years off the island. She is smart, witty and elegant. She catches the eye of Jonathan Alkaitis, the investment-fund mogul who owns the hotel and who soon invites her to become, essentially, his trophy wife. It’s a transaction she accepts. She moves to a posh house in Connecticut and thrives among the uber-wealthy. But it turns out that Alkaitis is running a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi scheme. When it collapses, Vincent eventually begins a third life as an itinerant cook on an international container ship.
Mandel’s narrative does not unfold as directly and cleanly as this summary suggests. Rather, the story circles through time, deepening with each pass. This is one of its wonders. Another is how lively and sometimes mysterious the novel’s minor characters are. Vincent’s half-brother Paul, for instance, doesn’t steal money but instead appropriates an essential part of Vincent’s creative being. Alkaitis’ beloved older brother was a talented artist who died of a drug overdose, and that shapes Alkaitis’ interactions with one of his more vulnerable investors, an artist who painted a portrait of the brother. The wily Mandel even brings back characters from Station Eleven to playfully suggest that we are reading about a parallel universe.
Mandel is a vivid and observant storyteller. Some small observations make you laugh out loud. For example, that you can distinguish wealthy people from the Western U.S. from wealthy people of New York, because the former are prematurely weathered from all their skiing. But other observations are more somber. As Mandel writes, “There are so many ways to haunt a person, or a life.” In this novel, the hauntings are literal and metaphorical.
The Glass Hotel is a dark, disturbing story but also an enthralling one.”
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“Bestselling author Lisa Wingate brings to life startling stories from actual Lost Friends advertisements that appeared in Southern newspapers after the Civil War, as newly freed slaves desperately searched for loved ones who had been sold away.
Louisiana, 1875: In the tumultuous era of Reconstruction, three young women set off as unwilling companions on a perilous quest: Hannie, a freed slave; Lavinia, the pampered heir to a now destitute plantation; and Juneau Jane, Lavinia’s Creole half sister. Each carries private wounds and powerful secrets as they head for Texas, following roads rife with vigilantes and soldiers still fighting a war lost a decade before. For Lavinia and Juneau Jane, the journey is one of stolen inheritance and financial desperation, but for Hannie, torn from her mother and siblings before slavery’s end, the pilgrimage west reignites an agonizing question: Could her long-lost family still be out there? Beyond the swamps lie the limitless frontiers of Texas and, improbably, hope.
Louisiana, 1987: For first-year teacher Benedetta Silva, a subsidized job at a poor rural school seems like the ticket to canceling her hefty student debt until she lands in a tiny, out-of-step Mississippi River town. Augustine, Louisiana, is suspicious of new ideas and new people, and Benny can scarcely comprehend the lives of her poverty-stricken students. But amid the gnarled live oaks and run-down plantation homes lie the century-old history of three young women, a long-ago journey, and a hidden book that could change everything.”