Susan

About Susan

I am an Adult Services Librarian at the Warrenville Public Library, and a perpetual student. Audiobooks have aided me in keeping up with chronicles containing mystery, humor, and imagination, as well as nonfiction on a variety of topics. I also like British television and almost anything created by Joss Whedon or Ken Burns. An environmentalist, my favorite vacations have been in natural preserves.

Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

emptyBook – There is something about the extravagant mansions of the early industrialists that elicits morbid curiosity. In Empty Mansions : the mysterious life of Huguette Clark and the spending of a great American fortune true stories about some eccentric mansions and the people that lived in them are revealed. This bestselling book is written by Pulitzer Prize winner Bill Dedman, and a cousin of the heiress Huguette Clark, Paul Clark Newell, Jr. The mystery of Hugette’s life required an extra bit of investigative work on the authors’ parts because Hugette was shy and very reclusive. She passed away in 2011 at the age of 105.

I found the story of Huguette’s father, W.A. Clark, impressive. He was a risk-taking pioneer in Montana that worked his way up to becoming wealthier than Rockefeller during his lifetime. Unfortunately, his copper mining business also began widespread damage upon the Montana ecosystem. The large fortune he left to Hugette provided her the opportunity to make some outrageous decisions in how she chose to spend it.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

big littleBook – Big Little Lies, by the author of the bestseller The Husband’s Secret, tells the story of the events leading up to a shocking death at an elementary school fundraiser. The tale revolves around a trio of women whose children are starting kindergarten at Pirriwee Public School in Australia. On orientation day we are introduced to Madeline, who is bold, humorous, and maternal. “Oh Calamity!” The husband who walked out on her and their newborn daughter years ago has moved to Pirriwee Penisula with a new wife, and their daughter will be attending kindergarten with Madeline’s youngest child. Then we meet Jane, a young single mother whose vulnerability stimulates Madeline’s protective instincts. Lastly Celeste is introduced. She is beautiful and wealthy but somehow disengaged from life.

The friendship of these three women is galvanized when a kindergarten incident fractures the school community. The story is infused with delightful humor about all the little absurdities of parental life and school society. In addition, the author is artful in her presentation of serious social issues such as domestic abuse. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Caroline Lee. Her lively Australian accent boosted the humor and helped me to visualize the characters and their life in an ocean-side locale. Big Little Lies is likely to be a movie as well, Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon have picked up the screen rights.

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Princess MMovie – This animated feature film was the highest-grossing Japanese film of its time. The director Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), sometimes described as the Japanese Walt Disney, is a pioneer of anime. In this epic adventure set in pre-industrial Japan a young prince incurs a life-threatening curse and sets off to find a cure. He becomes a central figure in a war between man and nature when a mining clan battles a variety of forest gods led by Princess Mononoke, a young woman raised by wolves. This film portrays mythology and surreal characters that are uniquely Japanese.

The viewer definitely picks up on the anxiety of the Japanese about the diminishing of their natural environment.  Although there is beautifully painted animation, it also contains some violence and it is not a story for young children. I appreciate that the characters and the social issues addressed in the film are complex and thoughtfully presented. A budding romance develops between the Prince and Princess Mononoke, but they often place duty above their personal relationship. This English version of the film was adapted by Neil Gaiman (Stardust, The Ocean at the End of the Lane)  and it is voiced by actors that include Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thornton, and Jada Pinkett Smith.

The Toyotomi blades : a Ken Tanaka mystery by Dale Furutani

toyotomiReading mysteries set in interesting locations is one of my favorite forms of armchair travel. In this whodunit Ken Tanaka, who became an amateur detective when he solved a murder involving a samurai sword in California, is invited by a Japanese television show to an all-expenses-paid trip to Tokyo to share the story of his adventure. Descriptions of the nuances of his travels were especially entertaining.

Despite being a third-generation Japanese American, Ken experiences some culture shock as he interacts with the television studio team. He also learns something about himself and his identification as an American regardless of his ethnicity or minority status. His humble sense of humor is likable and the overall tone of the story is light.

In addition to traveling among the sights in Tokyo, Ken’s sleuthing propels him into a treasure hunt in rural settings near Kyoto. Japanese history and legends color this mystery nicely. The historical embellishments as well as some code deciphering are slightly reminiscent of a Dan Brown novel. However, descriptions of humorous missteps that occur while traveling in a foreign land lighten the tone of this book.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

goldfinchBook – This Pulitzer prize-winning story has been likened to a number of classic coming-of-age tales from Charles Dickens. The central character in this novel, Theodore Decker, loses his mother during a tragedy that he himself survives at a New York art museum. The traumatic event, told from Theodore’s perspective, provides a compelling start for the book.

The audiobook for this title is narrated by David Pittu. His narration is exceptional as his voice conveys the pathos of young Theo and the psychic burden that overlays his life. Theo and his mother had been estranged from his father, and after the events in the museum Theo is housed for a time in a beautiful Manhattan apartment with the wealthy family of a socially-inept schoolmate. His appreciation for the art and antiques in the apartment touches upon on-going themes in the book: the immortality of masterpieces, the messages they convey through the ages, and the profound attachments individuals form with these pieces.

I was especially glad to be listening to the audiobook version of this story when Theo, as a teenager, develops a friendship with Boris, a boy from Ukraine. Both author and narrator played delightfully with the Slavic dialect. Boris is a wonderful character because he brought levity and perspective to the story, and David Pittu’s Boris was very likable.

The Circle by Dave Eggers

circleBookThe Circle chronicles the experiences of Mae, who with the help of a friend has landed her dream job at the nation’s premier Internet corporation, the Circle. This company is the descendant of companies such as Google and Facebook, and descriptions of the well-appointed corporate campus resemble the Silicon Valley workplaces glorified in movies such as The Internship. Mae’s story is engaging as she revels in the luxury and convenience of her modern workplace, and endeavors to move up in the literal ranking system of the company. Her character brings to mind recent college graduates who have faced a grim employment landscape, therefore her motivations are understandable and her successes are satisfying.

The Circle takes care of their employees’ every need, physical, intellectual, and social, asking only that employees immerse themselves in the campus culture and share feedback on all their experiences. “Sharing is Caring” is a corporate mantra that Mae herself helps to develop, one that evolves over the course of this cautionary tale. What is especially chilling about this cleverly subtle satire of modern Internet culture is that the technology and worldview described are only steps away from where current trends are steering us.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

discoveryBook – A Discovery of Witches begins in the heart of academia in Oxford’s Bodleian library, where a bright young scholar, Diana, is researching centuries-old manuscripts for a presentation on the origins of science. The author’s detailed descriptions of the atmospheric library and Oxford’s history laden campus set a very pleasant tone for this story of romance, magic, history, and suspense. Diana has suppressed all connections to her family’s involvement with magic and is therefore taken by surprise when her contact with an enchanted manuscript on alchemy in the Bodleian library attracts the unwanted attention of a diverse supernatural community. This community includes another professor, a vampire studying genetics, named Matthew. A tentative courtship between Diana and Matthew includes yoga classes, carefully planned meals, scholarly conversation, and the finest wines. The realistic details of these romantic engagements obviously draw deeply from the life of author Deborah Harkness, who is a history professor, recipient of numerous fellowships, and an award-winning wine blogger. Whether Matthew is trustworthy, or actually one of the numerous entities jeopardizing Diana, is a mystery to be revealed. The second book in the series, Shadow of Night, is even more a work of historical fiction, and reveals the author’s knowledge of Elizabethan England.

Written in Red by Anne Bishop

written redBook – In Written in Red Anne Bishop introduces a world where humans are perceived primarily as prey by the “Others”, a variety of earthy creatures spanning folklore descriptions from shape-shifters to furies. In this urban fantasy the Others have the power, but they allow human communities to exist because of the interesting products humans produce. A few marketplace communities that are operated by the Others exist where humans and the Others mingle very tentatively, and Meg Corbyn finds sanctuary in one such community when she is hired as a Human Liaison for the Lakeside Courtyard business district. Yet, is she technically human? And from what does she require sanctuary? The entities populating the Lakeside Courtyard find themselves taking a keen interest in their new liaison and must decide whether she is worth their protection. Meg’s process of settling into her new community is told with an amount of domestic detail that makes this a cozy read at times. Suspense builds when Meg’s hiding place is discovered and the human world breaches the Courtyard walls.

Grain Brain by David Perlmutter

GrainbrainBook – This book’s popularity is likely due to Dr. Perlmutter’s assertion that one’s genetic predisposition to mental aging is not set in stone, and that by altering our diets we can reduce the neurological degeneration that our parents and grandparents may have exhibited. Gluten free, low-sugar diets have become increasingly prevalent for a variety of reasons. In Grain Brain, Dr. Perlmutter shares compelling research linking gluten and sugar consumption to neurological degeneration such as that which occurs within dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. Dr. Perlmutter has the distinction of being both a neurologist and a nutritionist, and this book recounts incidences where a change in his patients’ diets alleviated symptoms from various neurological disorders. Grain Brain is also filled with references to other researchers’ studies on the impacts of elements such as “good fats” on the brain. His main premise is that all gluten sources are damaging to the brain, including whole grain sources. More easily digested is his confidence that the consumption of “healthy” fats found in fish, nuts, and eggs, will prolong the health of our brains. Grain Brain includes a 4-week plan of healthy eating and exercise. This book will obviously appeal to anyone who is already inclined to try a low-carb, or “Paleolithic” diet. However, proponents of a diet relying heavily on whole grains, as symbolized by the USDA Food Pyramid, have been less pleased with Dr. Perlmutter’s recommendations.

 

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

night circusBook - Step into Le Cirque des Rêves, which has literally appeared overnight, and it will impact your senses, sight, sound, smell, and touch. As an audience member of The Night Circus, one does not perceive some of the subtle changes that are periodically impacting the surrounding environments of aesthetic wonder. These changes are the result of a long-standing competition between two young illusionists; yet, the duel was not of their making. Cecilia and Marco are pawns in a game constructed by the two powerful rivals, who are also the young contestants’ guardians. However, these controlling mentors do not control the feelings the young magicians develop for each other. Unanticipated, Celia and Marco’s romantic feelings may inevitably have dire consequences for all who inhabit and attend the circus. For the audio-book one of my favorite narrators, Jim Dale, award-winning narrator of the Harry Potter series, adds depth to the large cast of characters populating this turn-of-the-twentieth-century world. His idiosyncratic method of narration is well matched for this story set just outside of reality.