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Staff Picks Reviewer: Molly

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher []

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Poor beleaguered Jay Fitger, English professor at Payne University, is required to write an endless stream of recommendation letters. So much so, that this novel is entirely composed of them. He writes letters to his department chair, his ex-wife and ex-girlfriend, both at the same university, and many others; for students he admires and students who he caught plagiarizing in his class. Through these letters the less glamorous side of academic life is open to view, with comic results. You will want to read excerpts of these aloud. And you will be thankful you don’t have to write as many recommendation letters as Fitger.

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Being Mortal by Atul Gawande [, , ]

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As the title implies, this book is for everyone, everyone who is mortal. With the subject matter, one might expect a very depressing tome. Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and a staff writer for the New Yorker, is an amazing story-teller. In the end, there is hope for making the world, and the end of life, better. He frankly addresses the failings of a medical system that tries to fix everything, when that might not be the right choice. He takes us through the very personal lives, and deaths, of many people, including the very personal story of his own father, as well as sharing his research into how we got where we are. Yes, it is good to live in a world that no longer has poor houses, but in some cases, we haven’t done much better.

Reading this book will hopefully encourage you to start the difficult but important conversations with your relatives and loved ones. Do you want to spend the end of your life living with parakeets? Will you be happy if you can eat chocolate ice cream and watch football?

[This was also very good on audio, but might make you cry a little while you are driving…]

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The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner []

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Eric Weiner is a grump with a mission — trying to discover the happiest places in the world, and what makes them that way. From the World Database of Happiness in Rotterdam, Netherlands, to the Gross National Happiness of Bhutan, from binge drinking and happiness in Iceland to binge drinking and unhappiness in Moldova, Weiner travels the world and discovers some of what makes different people happy, and the many paths one can take to get there.

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Chasing Fire by Nora Roberts []

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Rowan Tripp has been fighting fires since she was 18, and is the daughter of a retired forest fire fighting legend. We meet the new crop of rookies, and get to see the intense ways they train, as well as meet the surviving crew from the previous season when they lost one of their own. The fire season is difficult enough on its own, but we find that someone hasn’t let go of last year’s tragedy. The suspense is more in the people vs. fire, with a lot of details including training, equipment and on the line fire fighting. Although this definitely qualifies as a romance, I didn’t find it too over the top, and felt the steam came more from the water vs. fire than the relationships. There is a secondary romance that adds an interesting element.

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The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America by Timothy Egan []

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What does a fire in the Bitterroots have to do with Teddy Roosevelt and the Forest Service? The Forest Service was started by Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the USFS, in 1905. However, many politicians wanted to sell off the forests to large corporations, and thought conservation was a horrible idea. That might sound familiar, but this was at the beginning of the 20th century. A huge fire in 1910 was the catalyst to prevent this new agency from being blown away. Interesting look at the politics of the time, and an adrenaline-inducing account of the front lines of the fire. This book is a coming-of-age story for the United States Forest Service.

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This is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz []

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The audiobook is read by the author, Junot Diaz, to wonderful effect. We follow the life and romantic misadventures of Yunior, from the time his family immigrated from the Dominican Republic to his life as a professor in Cambridge — although not in a straight chronology. Diaz’s language is in turns brash and lyrical, peppered with slang. Yunior is not always an easy guy to like, and that he becomes a sympathetic character at all is due to Diaz’s genius (as further evidenced by his being named a MacArthur Fellow in 2012). The version of the audiobook I listened to was further interspersed with latin music, helping to set the mood and carry me away.

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Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay []

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This emotionally laden story starts off with two alternating voices. Julia Jarmond is an American-born journalist, who has been living in Paris for 20 years, complete with a French family, and a marriage that is increasingly unstable. She is tasked with writing the story of the 1942 Vel d’Hiv Jewish roundup by the French police on the 60th anniversary of that difficult but little known episode in French history. We also see the roundup from the perspective of Sarah, a 10-year-old who is taken to the Vélodrome d’Hiver with her family, but without her younger brother. The stories of these two lives converge, with a key unlocking many long-buried secrets. This is a story that will stay with you.

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The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde []

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The first title in the Thursday Next series, takes us to a slightly different version of Great Britain, around 1985, where time travel is routine, and people have cloned dodo birds has pets. Thursday is a member of Special Operations 27, the literary detective division. Her father is a member of the Chronoguard, and her uncle invents all kinds of interesting devices. Thursday is involved when original manuscripts get stolen, and the story line starts changing. Jane Eyre is kidnapped and Thursday has to enter the novel to try to track down the villain before any lasting harm occurs to the storyline. A love of literature and some acquaintance with Jane Eyre suggested. Surreal and funny with wonderful characters.
Susan Duerden was an engaging reader. 10 discs, 12 hours 15 minutes

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Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr []

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Stones for Ibarra tells the story of Sara and Richard Everton, who have moved from California to the remote and small village of Ibarra, Mexico to reopen Richard’s grandfather’s copper mine. They have been lured there by photographs and the tales of older relatives: “They have experienced the terrible persuasion of a great-aunt’s recollections and adopted them as their own. They have not considered that memories are like corks left out of bottles. They swell. They no longer fit.” Instead of the beautiful grounds and tennis courts, they come to a house which no longer has shingles and a mine that has been flooded. They persevere, and get the mine up and running, having a large affect on the village and villagers. We learn of Sara’s experience with the villagers, although they always remain slightly apart, and her experience of her husband’s illness.
One of the most remarkable things about this book is that it was published when the author was 73 and won the National Book Award, which means I still have time to publish my own novel!

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Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout []

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In the stifling hot summer of 1971, Amy has a summer job working in the same office as her mother, Isabelle, in the small town of Shirley Falls. We quickly learn that  something has come between them to drastically change their relationship, but what exactly that is takes longer to discover with story enfolding from the differing perspectives of both Amy and Isabelle. The troubles facing the people of this town are almost too realistically drawn; under almost every ideal roof something darker lurks. Great character development and lyrical writing. This is Strout’s first novel; she later won the Pulitzer Prize for Olive Kitteridge.

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The Might Have Been by Joseph M. Schuster []

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Edward Everett Yates had his dream come true, he had been called up to the majors. After a decade playing in the minor leagues—years after most of his peers have given up—he’s still patiently waiting for his chance at the majors. Then one day he gets called up to the St. Louis Cardinals, and finally the future he wanted unfolds before him. During an away game in Canada, Yates is having the game of his life, until he sustains a devastating knee injury, which destroys his professional career. Yates continues to hang on to baseball, and we witness the next thirty years of his life. Although this novel has baseball has a common thread throughout the story, it is really more about the choices that we make (or are made for us) as we go through life, and what different pathways that can create for us. This is about the life that we have, and the one that might have been.

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The Rook by Daniel O’Malley []

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The body you are wearing used to be mine.
So begins the letter Myfanwy Thomas is holding when she awakes in a London park surrounded by bodies all wearing latex gloves. With no recollection of who she is, Myfanwy must follow the instructions her former self left behind to discover her identity and track down the agents who want to destroy her.  Set in an alternate London, Myfanwy discovers that her former self was/is a high-ranking officer of the secret organization, the Chequy, which battles supernatural forces in Britain. She quickly scrambles to (re)learn her job, while trying to figure out who in the organization wants to kill her. The character of Myfanwy is wonderful, and she handles her unusual situation with a wry wit.

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