Book Picks from Elaine & Luisa

Book Passage President Elaine Petrocelli and Book Passage buying director Luisa Smith select their favorite new books and provide reviews about their 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.

Click here for an archive of Elaine and Luisa's previous picks!


September - October 2019

Leave it to Malcolm Gladwell to show us that when we meet people and make quick conclusions about them, we are very likely to be wrong. These wrong impressions can lead to huge problems. Police officers thought African-American academic Sandra Bland was a drug dealer because she was driving in an upscale neighborhood. The CIA sent a group of handpicked intelligence operatives to spy on Cuba, not noticing that they were actually agents for Castro. All the signs of trouble were there, but Bernie Madoff succeeded as a “sociopath dressed up as a mensch.” The author of The Tipping Point provides gripping anecdotes that illustrate why we need a more thoughtful approach to judging others. —Elaine

AKIN - Emma Donoghue
Near the end of WWII, four-year-old Noah’s mother sent him away from Nice to live with his father in the U.S. Now Noah is a retired professor who is about to return to Nice to find out what his mother did in the war. Then a New York social worker calls. She tells him that Michael, his 11-year-old great-nephew, has become an orphan. The boy’s father OD’d and his mother is in prison. Noah takes in this foul-mouthed kid who is constantly playing with his battered phone. Noah has an envelope with some pictures he thinks were taken by his mother and, with that in hand, Noah and Michael are off to Nice. There, with Michael’s computer skills and Noah’s knowledge of the world, they search for the truth about Noah’s mother. Was she a resistance fighter who saved hundreds of children or a Nazi collaborator? —Elaine

THE DUTCH HOUSE - Ann Patchett
There are few authors as skilled at illustrating the complex bonds between family members as Ann Patchett. Centered around a grand mansion in the suburbs of Philadelphia, The Dutch House tells the story from the point of view of Danny Conroy. Abandoned by his mother, beloved by his big sister Maeve, and overlooked by his father, Danny’s childhood is not particularly happy, but it does have a routine. All of this is disrupted by the arrival of their dad’s new wife, who has an obsession with the house and a distaste for Danny and his sister. But the past has a habit of reasserting itself when least expected, and Danny finds there is still much to be learned from the people he left long ago. A beautifully rendered tale of how we are bound to those who made us. —Luisa

RED AT THE BONE - Jacqueline Woodson
Jacqueline Woodson’s writing is a powerful and unforgettable force of nature, as she brings to life Brooklyn and the story of an African-American family. Red at the Bone is a story of traditions, new beginnings, and the bonds of the past. The novel is written through voices both young and old. Melody, who is just 16 and about to celebrate her new adulthood, is ebullient, making a grand entrance to a song by Prince and wearing a dress originally fitted for her mother. But the history of her loved ones lingers. One of those stories is that of her mother, who never had a chance to celebrate in that beautiful dress herself. Melody’s father and grandparents round out a story steeped in love and regret. Woodson’s work is full of music, poetry, and history—even the painful parts. —Luisa 

Rich in historical detail, simmering with intrigue, based on a literary love story—The Secrets We Kept has something for everyone. The publication of Dr. Zhivago was an important event during the Cold War. The West hoped to use it to foment dissent in Boris Pasternak’s homeland, and the Soviets were determined to attack Pasternak and his mistress Olga. The CIA worked to get the book behind the Iron Curtain, often using female couriers. As muses, spies, and lovers, the women of Lara Prescott’s novel are the important actors behind the scenes, often overlooked by the men in charge but adept at procuring information and keeping secrets. —Luisa

Growing up in Oakland as the child of Eritrean refugees, Haben Girma, who is deaf and blind, refused to be limited by disability. From salsa dancing to helping build a school in Mali to climbing Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier, nothing would stop her. At Lewis and Clark, she advocated successfully to have the cafeteria menus emailed so that her computer could translate them into Braille. At Harvard Law School she developed a text-to-Braille system that made it possible to receive lectures, communicate with classmates, and to advocate for clients in lawsuits. She was honored at the White House by President Obama. Through her example and her advocacy, she has changed the environment for all people with disabilities. Haben’s memoir is witty, caring, elegant, and compelling. Don’t miss it. — Elaine

Tense, haunting, and suspenseful, The Whisper Man is one of the scariest novels you will love to read. When recently widowed author Tom Kennedy moves with his young son to Featherbrook, he hopes for a new beginning. But old terrors haunt this community, as Tom learns all too quickly. With serial killers, ghosts, and visits from the past, Alex North weaves threads from the best in horror and mystery fiction to create a heart-pounding thriller. You will be terrified to turn the page but you won’t be able to stop until all the secrets are revealed. —Luisa 

Dominicana is the vivid and heart-wrenching story of a girl thrust out into the world and into a situation where her own resilience is her only chance for survival. Ana is only 15 when she is forced to marry Juan, a brute of a man twice her age, abruptly moving her from the Dominican Republic to New York City. It is the ’60s, a turbulent time for society made worse for a young woman with limited options. Angie Cruz’s story does not shy away from the cruelty and pain of this young woman’s predicament, but Ana transforms before our eyes from a timid young girl to an impressive woman determined to set sights on dreams of her own. A searing description of the immigrant experience and the power of self-determination. —Luisa

QUICHOTTE - Salman Rushdie
Get ready for a dazzling ride in Salman Rushdie’s multifaceted story within a story. A thriller author is writing a book set in Trumpian America. His modern Don Quixote protagonist, Quichotte, is a reluctantly retired pharmaceutical rep who watches so much TV that he becomes obsessed with a talk show host and sets out with his son, aka Poncho, on a quest to find her. While bringing us a delightfully funny tale, Rushdie illuminates family relationships, opioid abuse, romance, history, and the bizarre politics of today. Only a writer of Rushdie’s calibre could pull this off. No wonder his book Midnight’s Children was awarded the “Best of the Booker Prizes” for the last 40 years. —Elaine

Set against the dramatic backdrop of Afghanistan, A Door in the Earth unveils the unseen cost of Western interventionism in this remote corner of the world. Parveen, a recent Berkeley graduate, is inspired by a charismatic writer to return to the country of her birth in a naïve attempt to do something meaningful. But the brutal truth she finds in a secluded village reveals the limits of her education, as she struggles to admit the bias behind her own ideas of how to help the women of that community. Amy Waldman’s elegant prose allows the complexity of their stories to ring through. —Luisa

A SINGLE THREAD - Tracy Chevalier
It’s 1932 and WWI ended 14 years ago. Violet lost her brother and her fiancé in “The Great War.” With few men left to marry, 38-year-old Violet is considered a “Surplus Woman.” In spite of society’s disapproval, Violet leaves her bitter mother and moves to Winchester, England. After a lonely start, she joins the “broderers,” the women who embroider the kneelers for the Winchester Cathedral. She becomes immersed in her new community and gets involved with a most unlikely man. As in her earlier novel, The Girl with a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier’s description of the art in progress becomes a vital part of the plot. —Elaine

Beautifully quiet novels can sometimes be the most impactful, as is the case with Cara Wall’s remarkable debut The Dearly Beloved. In the mid-twentieth century, two couples are inextricably linked through the husbands’ co-ministry of New York’s 3rd Presbyterian Church. Their struggles with love, grief, forgiveness, and faith become the foundation to a life bigger and more complicated than any of them could have ever imagined. Without judgment, Wall allows their flaws and graces to shine, reminding us of the importance of personal convictions and the inevitability of change. —Luisa

This is not a guidebook, yet I plan to give it to everyone who is even thinking of going to Japan. Pico Iyer reflects on the country where he has lived for over 30 years.  Going far beyond the surface, he writes of Japan’s maddening contradictions. Westerners think of the Japanese as obedient to social norms, yet he shows us how the Japanese passion for baseball can get what we would consider “out of control.” Whether he is writing about vending machines, travel, clothes, or animism, every section is revealing. He doesn’t gloss over the fact that devotion to tradition and service has a flip side of exclusivity and insularity. Iyer is profound, yet fun to read. I laughed and then was fascinated by a company called Family Romance which hires actors “to be family members for clients who are going through hard times.” —Elaine