Book Passage President Elaine Petrocelli selects her favorite new books and provides a review about her selections in each issue of the Book Passage News & Reviews.
These books are also displayed in each branch of the Bank of Marin, as part of the program Partnership for Literacy sponsored by Book Passage and Bank of Marin. Visit any branch of the bank to find out more about this program.
Former NPR correspondent Eric Weiner set out to find the places that have spawned geniuses, and we get the pleasure of traveling along in his footsteps. He looked for places where brilliant minds have fed off each other and allowed creativity to flourish. His quest took him to Athens at the time of Socrates, to Florence during the Renaissance, and to Mozart’s and Freud’s Vienna. Silicon Valley makes an appearance, along with Hangzhou, China, during the Song Dynasty, and Calcutta, during the Bengal Renaissance. Weiner is the author of The Geography of Bliss.
Janice Y. K. Lee has a special way of getting into the minds of disparate people and then bringing their stories together as they work their way through some harrowing situations. In The Expatriates she depicts three American women living in Hong Kong – all with different backgrounds but each of them destined to intersect with the others in surprising ways. Lee is such a commanding writer that the reader can’t wait to see how their stories come together and how their lives work out. This is a brilliant, highly-praised work of fiction by the author of The Piano Teacher.
John Brooks checked his 17-year-old daughter’s room to make sure she was getting up for school and found a note: “The car is parked at the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m sorry.” Hours later, a security video showed Casey stepping off the bridge. Brooks spent months after Casey's suicide trying to understand what led his adopted daughter to take her life. He traces her journey from her abandonment at birth in Poland, to an orphanage, and finally to her adoption and life with John and his wife Erika in Northern California. Behind the heartbreak of this story are two questions. What did we miss? And what can other parents and loved ones learn that might prevent a future tragedy like this?
This intense novel is really two stories linked together over a period of 30 years. In the 1970s, a young woman is drawn into the Montoneros guerrillas when a dictatorial regime comes to power in Argentina. She and her boyfriend are separated while imprisoned and tortured, but they eventually manage to escape. Decades later, they are both in America, and the story of how they were reunited gradually comes together. Ingrid Betancourt writes with great authority. She was a reformist presidential candidate in Colombia until she was taken hostage for six years by the FARC, a brutal terrorist organization. She recounted that experience in her highly-praised memoir Even Silence Has an End.
Jhumpa Lahiri accomplished something I’ve tried to do with far less success: learn Italian. She succeeded, and this delightful memoir was actually written first in Italian. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist explains her determination to learn a language for which she had no family background and, seemingly, no real reason except her own determination. Italian was her third language—her mother spoke Bengali—and she relates in engaging detail the reasons she felt drawn to Italian, her difficulties learning it, and her eventual move to Rome to continue her writing.
Ta-Nehisi Coates won the National Book Award for this thoughtful, searing look at race-relations in America today. The acclaim is richly deserved. Coates lived through the brutality of a racialized society as he grew up in Baltimore, and he spent his adult life trying to come to grips with that experience and its implications for the American dream. Between the World and Me is written as a letter to his fifteen-yearold son—something that was prompted by the despair he saw in that young man’s eyes when he realized no one would be held to account for the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. What distinguishes this book is not just the urgency of its message but the beauty of its writing.
An investment banker sends his wife away for the weekend and invites over a couple of hookers for his kid brother’s bachelor party. What could possibly go wrong? Well, everything. The young women turn out to be Russian sex slaves, who kill the two pimps who accompanied them to the party before fleeing into the night. The house becomes a crime scene with reporters camped outside. The consequences begin to pile up, as he becomes estranged from his wife, banned from his office, and eventually blackmailed. Chris Bohjalian pulls no punches in this riveting novel.
A young research scientist is introduced to an attractive, charismatic amnesiac whose short-term memory has been devastated by illness. He is trapped eternally in the present moment, but at the same time he is haunted by a fragmented memory from his childhood: the disturbing image of an unknown girl’s body, floating under the surface of a lake. How do you treat the mind of a person who is caught outside of time? And how do you deal with the grim but realistic details of a death from long ago? Joyce Carol Oates has crafted a poignant and intricate exploration of loneliness, ethics, passion, aging, and memory. A wonderful work from one of our foremost writers.
Quirke is back! That’s about all I need to say for the many fans of John Banville, writing under the name of Benjamin Black. Dublin pathologist Quirke is lured away from his medical leave when asked to consult on a suspicious automobile fatality, and to investigate a young woman who is being hunted by men who murdered her boyfriend. Quirke has a way of digging into the criminal elites that operate just below the surface in his city. What sets these books apart is the beauty of the writing. Banville/Black seems incapable of writing a paragraph that doesn’t stand up and sing.
Ruth Wariner is her mother’s fourth daughter and her father’s 39th child. That startling fact sets the stage for this intense memoir about growing up in a sect of polygamous Mormons in the Mexican desert. The men mostly work at odd jobs in the States, while the women, who are frequently impregnated, head north on a regular basis to pick up their welfare checks in El Paso. The day-to-day poverty makes rivalry both within and between the families intense. It’s almost impossible to read this haunting memoir without gaining an immense respect for Wariner and what it took for her to survive.
John Rebus was notorious for going his own way when he was a cop – that’s probably why he is one of the most popular protagonists in all of detective fiction. That stubbornness is even more pronounced now that he is a civilian, called back from retirement to help in a pair of parallel cases that smell of revenge as a motive. His old colleagues are not thrilled with the idea of working with him, but he helps them expose a secret turf war going on among criminal factions in Edinburgh.
The setting is Seattle, 1999, but the voices and themes of this beautiful debut novel are universal. Sunil Yapa’s seven characters become deeply enmeshed in the protest against the World Trade Organization as the peaceful demonstrations turn into riots. All of the characters approach the events with different motivations. The police chief, his estranged and homeless teenage son, the committed activists, the conference delegates, the police—Yapa tells each of their stories in individual chapters. As the day disintegrates from demonstrations to chaos, I couldn’t get the emotions and experiences of the characters out of my mind. This profound and thoughtful book is our February First Editions Club pick.
Julian Borger, diplomatic editor for the Guardian, covered the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo during the 1990s. In The Butcher’s Trail, he offers the thrilling account of the long-running international search for the masterminds of the ethnic cleansing perpetrated during those wars. The United National Security Council voted to establish the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia as an experiment in justice based on the precedent of the postwar Nuremberg Trials. This led to an unprecedented chase for the perpetrators that is both thrilling to read and sobering in its implications.