Books in the Park

suggestions from the Barbara S. Ponce Public Library at Pinellas Park


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The Stars Are Fire, by Anita Shreve

The Stars Are Fire, by Anita Shreve

I have several favorite authors that I routinely rely on for captivating stories that take me away from my everyday life and then stay with me long after I return their book. Anita Shreve is one of those authors. Her latest novel, The Stars Are Fire is based on the true story of the largest fire in Maine history. Shreve had me on the hook right away. Her latest novel is suspenseful and fast paced. It was easy to get lost in the story; not so easy to put it down until I found out how things turned out for Grace and her children.

It is October 1947 in Maine. Grace is a young wife and mother of limited means and resources, doing what it takes day by day to care for her husband and small children. Although she has a mom nearby and close friend, Rosie, to talk to and commiserate with, she struggles to make the most of her long days caring for her children and mostly absent husband.

After a summer long drought, a fire breaks out. While her husband goes off to help as a volunteer firefighter, Grace is left alone to fend for her children during the devastating fire.

The expert story telling puts you right in the coastal town where people are fighting for their lives and dealing with a tragedy too horrendous to fully comprehend. At times, I could not put the book down wondering how Grace was going to get out of certain situations. Compassionate strangers help Grace along the way. There are interesting side stories about these strangers and how they help Grace move forward in her new life.

Check out The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve. You too may get lost in this suspenseful story and think of Grace and her children long after you return this book.

Check the PPLC catalog for The Stars are Fire.


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The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker

golem-jinni-wecker-compressedJewish and Arabian mythologies converge in this spellbinding novel set in New York City at the dawn of the 20th century.

When a failed businessman asks a mystic to create a golem to be his wife, the mystic laughs in his face. Golems are mindless beings made of clay with fantastic strength that live only to serve their masters. But the businessman doesn’t want a slave; he wants an obedient yet curious, intelligent, and virtuous wife. Eventually, the mystic comes to view the request as a challenge and, for a hefty price, promises to deliver. “But remember this,” the mystic warns. “No golem has ever existed that did not eventually run amok. You must be prepared to destroy her.”

Meanwhile, a tinsmith examines an ornate copper flask with delicate scrollwork etched into the metal. When he disrupts the scrollwork, the flask explodes, and a uncannily handsome man wearing nothing but an iron cuff on his right wrist now stands in the shop. “Tell me where the wizard is,” the jinni demands of the baffled tinsmith, “so I can kill him.”

Thus begins a thoroughly engaging story with memorable characters, subtle romance, and beautiful prose. Author Helene Wecker has done something unique and poignant here by coupling the mythologies of these traditionally disparate cultures against the backdrop of New York City in 1899. Further, this is a New York City of immigrants, a fact that is neatly juxtaposed with the unwitting immigration of the golem and the jinni. Highly recommended for fantasy and historical fiction readers.

Wecker has announced that a sequel called The Iron Season is coming in 2018.

Check the PPLC Catalog for The Golem and the Jinni.


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The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

buddha-otsukaJulie Otsuka’s beautifully and poetically written second novel tells the story of young Japanese “picture brides” who leave behind a life of poverty and hard labor in Japan in the hope of finding happiness and prosperity in America. Their hope, however, turns out to be based on an illusion. Upon arriving in America, they discover that not only are the men waiting for them much older than they were led to believe (they had sent 20-year-old pictures of themselves), but that the stories of their husbands’ prosperity were merely the fabrications of the matchmakers who had brought them together. In reality, their husbands treat them with crudeness and they experience a kind of suffering they are not prepared for.

Otsuka writes in the first person plural point of view, as though the women are speaking collectively about their common experiences. This makes the telling of their saga more powerful than one individual story would have been. “Some of us were from the mountains, and had never before seen the sea, except for in pictures, and some of us were the daughters of fishermen who had been around the sea all our lives. Perhaps we had lost a brother or father to the sea, or a fiancé, or perhaps someone we loved had jumped into the water one unhappy morning and simply swum away, and now it was time for us, too, to move on.”

Though the women continue to feel like outsiders in their adopted country, by the 1940’s they have settled into their life in America, many running businesses with their husbands and establishing their own communities. Their children have assimilated into the culture, speaking fluent English and feeling ashamed of their parents’ old fashioned customs and broken English. But life becomes surreal again with the outbreak of World War II and the looming threat of internment camps.

The Buddha in the Attic is in a sense a prequel to Otsuka’s first novel, When the Emperor was Divine, which details the life of a Japanese family living through World War II. Her novels are based in large part on her own family’s history, as Otsuka’s grandparents and parents were among those taken to the internment camps. Their stories should not be forgotten.

Winner of the Penn/Faulkner Award for Fiction and a National Book Award finalist.

Check the PPLC Catalog for Buddha in the Attic.


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The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

omnivores-dilemma-pollanHumans have evolved to eat a wide variety of food. From roots and grains to fruits and vegetables to meat and nuts, it seems like no other animal on Earth can eat like we can, especially since we learned how to cook. This adaptable eating ability allowed our ancestors to survive whenever regular food supplies ran low. But that was then, and now our omnivore nature turns a simple question like “What should we have for dinner?” into a serious conundrum. Beyond health, taste, and convenience, there are also ethical and environmental effects to consider, as many modern food production practices can be cruel to animals and unsustainable for farmable land. Further, most fruits, vegetables, and meat have become available year-round thanks to advances in production, refrigeration, and transportation—a fact that only complicates the omnivore’s dilemma and takes an additional toll on the environment.

Author Michael Pollan dissects all the different ways we eat by putting food into categories based on how it’s made: industrial, organic, or hunter-gatherer. He then goes to great lengths to track the food in these categories from production to plate. In the industrial category, he visits standard agricultural and animal farms, focusing the production of corn and how it infiltrates virtually every processed food on the market in surprising ways. In the organic category, he looks at a few different types of organic farming, from the barely-not-industrial to a family-owned farm that takes “working with the land” to the next level. In the hunter-gatherer category, Pollan recruits an acquaintance to show him how to hunt, kill, skin, and prepare his own dinner.

I came away from this book with a much better understanding of today’s very long food chain and the problems that come with it. Thankfully, it was not all doom and gloom. Conquering the omnivore’s dilemma all boils down to striking a balance between convenience and sustainability. Just as it’s unreasonable to ask everyone to hunt and grow their own food, it’s equally unreasonable to ask less than 1% of the U.S. population to produce all our food. Somewhere between these two extremes lies the answer. According to Pollan, if you curb your appetite, eat with the seasons, and commit to finding and paying a little extra for local, sustainably grown food, you’ll never again dread the question, “What’s for dinner?” And that’s food for thought.

Check the PPLC Catalog for The Omnivore’s Dilemma.


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The View from the Cheap Seats, by Neil Gaiman

view cheap seat gaimanNeil Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats is a collection of his non-fiction writings. There are book introductions, speeches, reviews of books and movies, and the odd writings that come up in an author’s experience of a writing life. Sometimes it seems that reviews of essay collections say the essays are “hit or miss”, then talk about the hits. Neil Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats has no misses. All the essays are hits. (Side note, I’m using the word “essay” throughout the text to generally describe all the writings, due to the immense variety.)

I say all the essays are hits because, while it’s true that the reader will be more or less interested in some of the topics, all of them build such a broad yet nuanced picture of a thoughtful, prolific writer’s life that I insist you read all of them. His essay on watching a reunion show of The Dresden Dolls, for example, begins with his honest acknowledgment and disappointment that he hadn’t seen them in their heyday, and gives an insider’s view of the band’s collapse (his wife, Amanda Palmer, is half of The Dresden Dolls.) This precious insight adds depth and makes the final scene much more meaningful.

His commencement speech, “Make good art”, is both an honest, humble biographical sketch and an exhortation to fight through life’s challenges with creativity and confidence. He explores his life as an artist, and the false assumptions he made early in his career, and the things he wish he knew as a beginning artist.

One of my favorite sections is the biographical sketches he does of his favorite people. His sketches of Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett are wonderful, heartfelt appreciations of their writings, their personalities, and the meaning they added to his life.

Neil Gaiman’s insightful observation and commentary is enhanced by his skillful writing throughout these essays. His storytelling, even when it’s not fiction, shines through the text in such a humble, human, and appreciative voice that each essay in and of itself is a polished gem of a tale. Neil is one of our favorite writers, and we are looking very much forward to seeing his novel American Gods on TV. We’ve reviewed Gaiman’s works before, and can’t wait until we can again.

Check the PPLC Catalog for The View from the Cheap Seats.


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The Clasp, by Sloane Crosley

clasp crosleyEver had a short story that you wish someone had made into a complete novel? Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace” is hilariously expanded and modernized in the deft hands of Sloane Crosley. Her witty and insightful personal essay compilations, I Was Told There Would Be Cake and How Did You Get This Number, foretold a well-crafted, literary and fun fiction title if Crosley ever turned her hand to it, and The Clasp delivers.

Three college friends meet up eight years after graduation at a wealthy classmate’s wedding. It’s clear right away that the bright futures they had expected have wilted in the onslaught of adult life and the real world. Victor has been recently fired from his job with an Internet search engine company, Kezia has made a critical misstep in her designer jewelry career, and Nathaniel has dropped his literary pretensions to run into a wall as a TV writer. This love triangle (Victor loves Kezia, who loves Nathaniel), find a common cause in the search for a family heirloom, lost in Normandy in World War II. Much of the comedy and tension comes from the group’s inability to connect with each other and be their most essential selves while on this all-consuming quest.

Crosley’s writing is tight and carries you through both interpersonal drama, personal and societal insights, and references to de Maupassant’s original text with delightful ease. Sharp insights zing throughout the text, such as “The world was not subtle about telling single people what they were missing.” Who hasn’t felt that way in early post-college life?

If you want a book full of excellent snark which will make you laugh out loud, reflect, and wince, while having a good time, “The Clasp is for you.” Sloan is a sharp observer of her generation, and I look forward to essays, fiction or, really, anything she writes, tweets included.

Check the PPLC Catalog for The Clasp.


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Adultery, by Paulo Coelho

adultery coelhoPaulo Coelho is a revelation. There are writers whose works I enjoy, there are writers whose works I admire, and then there are, occasionally, gloriously, writers that leave me speechless.

Paulo Coelho is best known for The Alchemist, which has sold more than 83 million copies, is one of the best-selling books in history and has been translated into 67 different languages. It’s also been published as an excellent graphic novel. I picked up Adultery to read for the most simple of serendipitous reasons – it was on the shelf when I walked past, and I’ve always wanted to read something of Coelho’s.

Linda, our protagonist, is living the perfect life. She has a handsome, talented husband, two children, and a fulfilling career of her own as a journalist. They live in a beautiful home in Switzerland and take vacations in countries and hotels most of us only dream about. Things are going very well for her and her future. She has it all, and, somehow, is unhappy.

After an interview with an author who insists that the way to live life, instead of seeking happiness is to live passionately, she starts to notice how few, if any, risks she takes in life. In this vulnerable moment, she meets a successful man from her youthful past, and commits an adulterous indiscretion.

Instantly she (and you, the fortunate reader) is catapulted into a life of courting risk, assessing risk, and throwing caution to the wind. She risks her marriage, her lover’s marriage, and her own happiness through increasingly dangerous acts that both conceal and enflame her and her lover’s lives. There were points where I, as a reader, thought Linda had lost her mind. The delicate yet powerful dance she leads us on is incredible, at times thrilling, at times horrifying, but always, fundamentally, human.

Adultery is an example of what happens to an idea when it is taken in hand by a masterful author and expanded into a story which is intoxicating, nuanced, well-envisioned, and searingly well-written. His use of language (though in translation) is as clean and deep as a volcanic lake. Books like this are why we read.

Check the PPLC Catalog for Adultery.