Staff Choices

Posted by mingh on 06/09/11
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Subtitled, a chef's story of chasing greatness, facing death, and redefining the way we eat, Life on the line is a foodie memoir and more. Grant Achatz (pronounced AK’etz), tells of growing up in Michigan with family restaurants scattered throughout the St. Clair region. When he was five he was helping out at the restaurant. He knew he wanted to work in food but was looking for something more than family restaurants. So he started school at The Culinary Institute in New York and quickly moved onto different places, including a short stint at Charlie Trotters.

The message he seemed to learn from Charlie Trotters is how NOT to run a kitchen. But Achatz soon was on his way to The French Laundry and the man who would become his mentor, Thomas Keller. At The French Laundry, Achatz learned not only how to run a kitchen but also how to run a restaurant. It was Thomas Keller who sent him to a workshop in Spain run by Ferran Adria, the avante-garde Chef. Adria changed Achatz’s whole view of food. Achatz knew that this new way of preparing and presenting food was not right for The French Laundry. When Achatz saw an ad looking for a chef to run the restaurant Trio in Chicago, Achatz applied and got the job.

Achatz was on top of the world when he learned that he had a virulent form of tongue cancer. A chef needs his tongue for developing new foods and tastes. This was devastating to Achatz. And so he writes about how he had to deal with a prognosis that would possibly end his life in two years.

An interesting read for foodies, anyone interested in the restaurant business, and reading about someone dealing with a life-threatening illness.

Cancer, Food, memoir
Posted by Ultra Violet on 06/07/11
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Audrey and Randy come from hearty Iowa farm stock, and they are living out the American dream in their suburban house with four children. They find strength in their stoic Norwegian, Lutheran traditions. But it's the late 1970s and the lives of their children will take some very unexpected turns. Their eldest daughter, Anita, is the consummate girly cheerleader who wants nothing more than to get married and stay home with her children. Her husband is on the fast track to success as a banker and her future seems all planned out. It doesn't take long for Anita to find the joys of motherhood leave her cold, and her husband's drinking habit becomes problematic. After a DUI, Anita takes more control of her life and finds a new side of herself as a realtor. Second oldest, Ryan, has continual trouble with the women in his life, and is unfulfilled in his job as a computer programmer. Ryan finds an uneasy friendship with his burnout, Vietnam vet cousin, Chip. Even though Chip tends to cause Ryan trouble, he is also a voice of reason that grounds Ryan in reality. Blake is the next child in line. Blake finds a career in construction and a good life with a wife and kids. The youngest child, Torrie, had been the one with the most promise. She was a beautiful and impetuous young woman who excelled in school. On the way back from a funeral, Torrie is involved in an accident that shatters her dreams, but opens the door to a new world.
Jean Thompson creates characters that are breathtakingly real. There isn't a page of this book that doesn't ring true. It covers issues as diverse, controversial and relevant as alcoholism, Vietnam veterans, Native Americans, farm subsidies, motherhood, and women's roles. It is political and intimate at the same time. Every family in America has dealt with some of these issues in one way or another. This is definitely not a light summer read, but a perfect choice for a book club or for someone who is looking for a contemporary family saga that is painful at times, but hopeful in a way that never gets sentimental.
Posted by mingh on 06/07/11
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Within 25 pages the reader knows who killed Mr. Togashi and why, in this suspenseful mystery by Higashino. Yet we learn there is so much that even the killer doesn't know, leaving Detective Kusanagi with an unknown corpse,  motive, and suspects. Turning Occam's Razor (the simplest answer is usually the correct answer) on it's ear, Higashino creates a simple mystery that is anything but simple. 
With his many years on the force, Kusanagi has some tricks up his sleeve. Sometimes he likes to try out case theories with physics professor Manabu Yukawa. Yukawa can usually pinpoint problems in Kusanagi's theories by pointing out how the police have missed very simple clues. But when Yukawa learns that an old genius mathematician classmate may be involved, suddenly the simple clues seem to be overly specific and planted to lead in particular ways. When Yukawa goes to meet his former classmate, the battle of the wits is on.
Following the twists and turns as the police try to break Mr. Togashi's ex-wife, step-daughter, and neighbor will have readers second guessing what they actually read. With a surprise twist at the end, readers will enjoy watching the characters squirm as the noose becomes tighter.
Japan, Mystery
Posted by jkadus on 06/06/11
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There is an old saying that we never really appreciate those closest to us until they are gone. Such is the case of the family of an elderly Korean woman from the countryside who goes missing one day. Mom and Dad visit the city quite often to see their grown children and grandchildren. On this particular visit, however, they decide to take the subway to their son’s house rather than have him pick them up at the train station.
When the subway train pulls into the crowded station, Mom and Dad forge their way into the car. As the door shuts, Dad turns to speak to Mom, only to discover that she has not made it onto the train. As the crowd swelled and pushed to board, Mom was pulled away from Dad and left behind on the platform. Dad gets off the subway at the next stop and returns to the station, only to find that he is too late. Mom has wandered away. When she does not show up at her son’s house by the next day, the distraught family begins a search for her. As the search continues, family members recall memories of Mom’s life and woefully regret the roles they each played in taking her for granted.

Told from the viewpoint of various family members as well as Mom herself, this is a touching yet not overly sentimental portrait of family dynamics and the extent to which a mother’s love shows no bounds. This book should appeal to those readers interested in contemporary Asian culture as well as those who look for a book that is strong on family dynamics.

Posted by Auntie Anne. on 06/05/11
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She fantasized about living the life of Joan of Arc, championing God's causes on the battlefield and in 15th century Britain's royal court.  From a very early age, Margaret Beaufort focused on her destiny as the heiress to the red rose of the House of Lancaster, convinced that her devotion to God would lead her to a calling of greatness.  Her first big disappointment was her betrothal to Edmund Tudor, the King's half-brother.  Her loveless marriage gives her a son, Henry, but leaves her a widow at the age of 13.  Widowed and powerless, her son is given to the younger Tudor brother, Jasper, as his ward.  Jasper becomes her ally in raising her son, training and educating him to become the future King of England.  As she enters into two more marriages, she see the House of York rise and fall.  As the war of the roses is waged for the throne of England, Margaret spends hours on her knees, waiting and praying for signs from God as outrageous politics and plotting between cousins carry on around her.  As the years pass, and her son George and ally Jasper Tudor are banished from England as enemies to the York throne, Margaret's religious fervor and political ambitions transform her into a cold, calculating powerbroker.  She takes her place in history as the matriarch of the Tudor dynasty when the last Yorkist king, Richard III, is killed in battle by her son, Henry Tudor.  King Henry VII married Elizabeth of York, Edward IV's daughter, thus uniting the two warring houses.  Their son, Henry, becomes King Henry VIII, and the rest is history.
For fans of historical fiction, particularly of British regency, this is fascinating reading.  The author allows the reader to get inside of Margaret's head to see what drove her.  The transformation from a powerless little girl who's only role in life was to bear a male heir to the Lancaster line to a ruthless political mastermind is as resolute as her ambitions.  Gregory's picture of her as a stalwart, god-fearing matriarch is in stark contrast to her rival as Henry VIII's other grandmother, Elizabeth Woodville in The White Queen.  One would have to believe Margaret Beaufort was the mother-in-law from hell.
Posted by mingh on 06/03/11
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Erik Larson's new book is the story of an American family living in Germany during one of its most provocative times. William Dodd hadn’t even made the short list of candidates for Ambassador to Germany at the beginning of Roosevelt's presidency. Roosevelt had just been in office months and there had not been an Ambassador to Germany in over a year. No one wanted the job. One of Roosevelt’s insiders suggested William Dodd who was chairman of the history department at the University of Chicago. He spoke fluent German and had received his doctorate in Germany.

When Dodd received the call, he was languishing in his department. He hadn’t achieved everything he had hoped and thought that this might be the pinnacle of his career. So he, his wife, adult son Bill, and adult daughter Martha, went to Berlin in 1933. His charges were to lay low, not cause trouble, avoid the "Jewish problem" and try to impel the new leadership to pay back its debt from the first World War.
Before he went to Berlin, Dodd thought that the rumours of beatings and disappearances had all been, as the German government had explained, blown out of proportion. But as Americans were showing up to the consulate bloody and beaten, Dodd came to realize that things were much worse than originally thought. Washington was of little help in giving direction. But like many foreigners, Dodd did not believe that the German government, with so much in-fighting, would last for very long. He watched horrified as Hitler’s government, which in 1933 seemed unorganized and  ruled by thugs, shored up its power into a war machine.
Meanwhile, daughter Martha was having the time of her life in 1930’s Berlin. She met high ranking party officials, spies of all sorts, and writers and actors. Martha was having a ball, until some of her lovers went missing or were killed. She also discovered that she was being used as a pawn for many sides. Slowly, Martha began to see the dark side of Berlin.
Covering the times from 1933 until 1938, Larson gives us what life was like for Americans in Berlin, even those with special privileges such as the Ambassador. Washington was no help to what Dodd saw. He felt very alone as what he witnessed compelled him to speak out for honor and character to no avail. What he had  hoped would be a pinnacle to his career ended in pain and sadness.

Posted by mingh on 05/31/11
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This is the story of two hired assassins, Eli and Charlie Sisters, as they travel from Oregon to San Francisco to kill a man. As told by Eli, this road trip during the start of the 1850's gold rush, has them meeting many interesting characters. Each person that they meet finds them facing a mirror of their own values and morals. Sometimes they look better in the mirror, and sometimes they look unconscionably brutal. Eli tries to help people along the way. But the brothers also abandon people along the way. Since they have long ago given up their own morality, Eli questions the beliefs of others and whether people can change.
Placing the novel in the gold rush era, the brothers find desperate men and women who have given up everything for this chance of riches. Because they are hired assassins for money they attach their own morality to everyone who is in search of it. Occasionally, the brothers come across people who force them to question the role of money in their lives and what they need to do for it. Luck is as important as hard work in the world of gold and therefore leads to superstitions. Some of the people, especially the women and children have been dragged into this life because of the men. Even at the mercy of Charlie's kidding, Eli tries to help those who keep a small reserve of humanity.
Along the way, Eli and Charlie discuss whether this should be their last hit. Eli wants to retire to a shop. Charlie wants to be his own bossman like the one who hires them to kill. Their delay in getting to San Francisco has unintended consequences. At the end of this long road, after everyone they've met, the reader wonders if this time it will be different. A starkly beautiful novel.
Posted by jfreier on 05/27/11
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This is the latest Jo Nesbo novel to be translated into English and it's a good one. Harry Hole is back and has a new partner, Katrine Bratte, who is called in from Bergen to help on a series of missing woman cases. After the second woman is reported missing and at the sight  there is a snowman by the crime scene, at the third victims head is placed on the snowman and Harry knows he has a serial killer on his hands. Harry also get's a message from the killer referring to a case he had with another serial killer, this book was a page turner for me filled with many twists and turns, I thought I knew who the killer was four different times. I was right finally but he had me surprised many time. I liked this one best in this series.
Posted by Auntie Anne. on 05/27/11
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I looked up the meaning of "goon squad" in the online Urban Dictionary.  There are many definitions, besides the traditional one of hired thugs.  The definition that best describes this book is "a group of slightly sketchy males, who drive fast even in [crumby] cars, wear aviators, blast music and smoke. The difference between these men and bros (besides the smoking) is that inside members of the goon squad have hearts of gold."
A Visit From the Goon Squad is, at first glance, a series of short stories about a group of people involved in the music industry.  The first few chapters are difficult reading because the characters are ones you don't feel compelled to care too much about.  They are train wrecks.  Each chapter takes place in a different setting and time - New York City, San Francisco, a safari in Kenya, Naples, the Arizona desert.  Each chapter also has its own style and voice - one spoken like a Bay Area punk rocker, one revealing forward flashes to future tragedies of members on safari, one a PowerPoint Presentation diary of a 12-year-old, one largely comprised of text messages.
As confusing as it begins, the author's talent as a writer draws you into the characters, revealing to her readers why some characters are such train wrecks, why others rise above their past.  You begin to see how all the characters are inter-connected in some way, and how each has influenced the lives of others.  You feel compelled to read on . . . until you get to the last chapter, where you realize the book has come full circle, but in the present, not the past where it started out.  As one editorial review from Publisher's Weekly so aptly stated, "This powerful novel chronicles how and why we change, even as the song stays the same."
A Visit From the Goon Squad is indeed powerful, written in a creative, unorthodox style.  Worthy of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction?  You decide.
Posted by mingh on 05/27/11
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McClain uses biographies of Ernest Hemingway and his wives to create this fictional account of his marriage to Hadley Richardson, the first of his four wives. Hemingway was making more money as a correspondent in the early part of the 1920's. He was living in Paris with Hadley and later on his first son, when he started to make a name for himself as a writer.
In Paris, the Hemingway's meet Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and others. They go to Pamplona to see the run of the bulls and Hemingway participates in an amateur bullfight. They travel to the south of France and Austria and meet and drink with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. All the usual suspects are in the book and the sense of Paris in the twenties in what Hemingway would later publish posthumously as A Moveable Feast.
But this novel tries to look at the story of Hemingway's early career through the eyes of his first wife. Hadley struggles with a sense of worthlessness as she tries to cheerlead her husband's writing. Once the baby is born, she feels more tied down than ever just as Hemingway's star is starting to rise. She makes a close friend of Pauline Pfeiffer who later betrays her by having an affair with Hemingway.
What was it like to be married to a man who, you and others, think is destined for greatness? What was the time like before that happens? The frustrations and yet,  the joys of a simpler time come through in this novel about Hadley and Ernest. Hemingway remembered Hadley fondly and even dedicated and gave her the royalties for The Sun Also Rises.
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