Sylvia

About Sylvia

I am an Adult Services Librarian at the Warrenville Public Library. I've been here for 15 years. I like to read literary fiction, historical fiction, mysteries, thrillers, and memoirs. I also enjoy cooking, gardening, and walking. All of which I can do while listening to audiobooks.

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

Book – It started with a bed bug infestation. Susannah Cahalan was convinced that they had overtaken her apartment, even though the exterminator could not confirm a single insect.  Otherwise, things were going well.  At just 24, her career as a reporter was advancing at the New York Post, she had a great boyfriend, and supportive parents. But suddenly, she began developing mysterious symptoms and started letting things slip at her job.  She started experiencing memory loss, paranoia, and catatonia.  She was hospitalized for a month at a great expense, seeing numerous specialists, going through a barrage of tests, and given inconclusive diagnoses.

She recounts all of this for us in this fascinating memoir.  Her skill as a journalist is apparent in her writing, because she has almost no recollection at all what she experienced right before and during her hospitalization. She compiled her engaging account of events from stories from her colleagues, friends, family, and medical records. Her severe psychosis was also documented in a journal that her parents kept.

One extraordinary doctor, Souhel Najjar finally determined that she had a very rare autoimmune disease called anti-NMDA-receptor encephalitis. Her brain was on fire.  Luckily, it was treatable and Susannah slowly recovered and was back at work within a year.

The author compares her symptoms to what must have appeared through history as demonic possession and wonders how many suffered and were persecuted for the same disease.

A great page turning medical thriller.

Dark Angel (2016)

TV – Do you remember beloved and loyal Anna from Downton Abbey?  This time Joanne Froggart plays a very different character. Mary Ann Cotton was one of Britain’s most notorious and prolific serial killers, believed to have murdered over 20 people in Victorian England. Mary Ann, who became known as the ‘Dark Angel”, just wanted to get ahead of life, escaping the poverty of the coal fields and the hardships of a miner’s family. She did back breaking work, but never earned enough to enjoy the fruits of her labor.  Desperate, she discovered the benefits of life insurance and the effects of arsenic, especially when dispensed in a “nice cup of tea”. She became an expert at poisoning by mimicking the ailments of that time, such as cholera and typhoid fever.  Despite her pre-meditated planning, it’s hard for the viewer not to empathize with her situation – she was abused, hungry, lived in filthy and dangerous environments. She gave birth to 13 children and had four husbands of which it was believed that she murdered 11 0f her children and four of her husbands. In 1873, she was arrested, tried, and hanged for poisoning her stepson. She never admitted to any of the murders.

This is a fascinating Masterpiece Theater Production of a woman whose victims outnumbered even the notorious Jack the Ripper.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Book – If you have a general interest in astrophysics and/or if you are like me and want to appear smarter on the subject than you really are, then Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry might just be the resource you need!  The book is by no means intimidating – small in size, only 208 pages, with an easy to use table of contents and index.  With wit and charm Tyson shares his knowledge on the origin and creation of the universe, gravity, light, space, dark matter and dark energy, and many more cosmic wonders and mysteries. His goal is for us to gain an understanding of the past, present, and future of our universe and our place in it. Though you won’t be an expert after reading this, you just may have enough interest to want to know more.

The author is director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History and host of the hit radio and TV show “StarTalk”.

If you would like to learn more about this topic, as Tyson hoped you would, you may want to check out these books –  What is Relativity, The Fabric of the Cosmos, these DVDs – Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Monster of the Milky Way and much more.  Just check our catalog or ask one of our librarians!

Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane

Book – In Since We Fell, it seemed like Rachel had it all.  A great husband and an aspiring career as a television journalist.  But everything began to unravel when she went to Haiti to cover the devastation after the 2009 earthquake. Her experiences there left her scarred and haunted. As she was reporting live she emotionally and mentally fell apart. This trauma was a major blow to her career and when she returned home she lost confidence in herself and had difficulty leaving their apartment.  Her husband, not at all sympathetic to her situation, divorced her. Rachel became obsessed with finding her birth father whom she never knew.  Her mother didn’t want to reveal who he really was.  The search brought her to Brian Delacroix a private investigator, who, not surprisingly was unsuccessful in locating her father due to lack of information.

Several years later Rachel and Brian’s paths cross again and they fall in love and marry.  Brian is loving and works with Rachel to help restore her confidence and to venture out in the world.  Rachel begins noticing that things don’t add up.  She is certain that she sees Brian in the area, when he is supposed to be out of the country and acquaintances tell her conflicting facts about his past.   What else could he be hiding? It turns out plenty and now Rachel’s life could be in danger.  There are plenty of plot twists as she learns of murder and deception and she has to force herself out of her shell to fight for her life.  Dennis Lehane does it again with another superb psychological thriller.

You may enjoy other thrillers and crime fiction written by Lehane some of which have become movies.  One of my other favorites is Shutter Island.

The Grownup by Gillian Flynn

Audiobook – If you are a fan of Gillian Flynn and want something to listen to that is a bit shy of 1 ½ hours, then I would recommend the audiobook The Grownup. The unnamed narrator and main character is a young woman, who from birth was taught to be a swindler. Her current employer notices that she can read people very well and tell them exactly what they want to hear.  Because of her aura and intuition, she is promoted from performing minor sex acts in the back to being a spiritual palm reader at the front of the establishment. Our scam artist thinks she’s found her perfect con when Susan comes in to have her palm read.  Susan is haunted by the evil in her expensive Victorian house and is seeking help to banish the ghosts and forces affecting her and especially her teenage stepson. This beautiful, rich, and paranoid woman is willing to pay any price for spiritual guidance and for her house to be cleansed. Upon visiting the house the psychic soon realizes that there really is something menacing, though not sure whether it is the work of paranormal forces or if she is caught up in a game of cat and mouse with one of the residents.

Typical of other Flynn’s writings there is a lot of suspense and some twists.  Even though this is a short story it is still a fun ghost tale. If you enjoy this you may also enjoy Gillian Flynn’s novels and some other ghost stories – Heart-Shaped Box, The Thirteenth Tale, and The Supernatural Enhancements.

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

Book – Being a First Lady is no easy task.  Perhaps that’s why our current President’s wife, Melania would rather pass the baton to her step-daughter Ivanka than fully take on the role herself. Curtis Sittenfeld tells the fascinating story of the American Wife and the work and loyalty required of someone whose spouse has political aspirations. Supposedly, this is a fictional account of former First Lady Laura Bush. However, while reading this, some other politician’s wives came to mind, especially those who have stood by their man through thick and thin. This is the story of Alice, a Wisconsin girl with a humble background. She is a school librarian who is swept off her feet by Charlie Blackwell who has grown up in a different world. He is highly privileged and comes from a very wealthy family that is tight-knit and Republican. Even though Charlie isn’t politically ambitious, his family has other plans for him. He becomes governor and then unlikely ascends to the White House. Alice meticulously recounts that life is far more tedious and complex than it appears on the surface and that all her actions are monitored for political ramifications and that privacy is a thing of the past.  She also is conflicted, because she has always been a Democrat and wants to hold onto her ideals while being supportive to her husband. I hoped that Alice would have been a stronger character, nevertheless it was a very interesting read.  This would be a good book club selection, as well.  You may also enjoy Sittenfeld’s other books – Eligible, The Man of My Dreams, Prep, and Sisterland.

 

The Best of Me by Nicholas Sparks

Book – The death of a mutual friend reunites former lovers Amanda and Dawson 25 years later in The Best of Me, set in the small town of Oriental, North Carolina.  As high school sweethearts, the couple persevered in their relationship and defied the realities of their very different lives.  Amanda’s family was wealthy and socially prominent.  Dawson lived on the wrong side of the tracks.  His family was well known as a bunch of low life thugs and Dawson desperately wanted to rise above that and better himself not only for Amanda, but for himself, as well.  A kindly man named Tuck took Dawson under his wing and helped the young couple shield their romance from the disapproving outside world.  Being young and naïve the couple was convinced that love would conquer all.  But life’s circumstances eventually separated them.

When they meet again so many years later, they are both filled with mixed emotions.  Evidently, the passion is still there for both of them. As they reacquaint with each other we learn about their lives for the last quarter century.  Once, again very different circumstances from each other.  Hence, the big question – Should they finally give in to their love for each other or should they fulfill their responsibilities to their current lives and part ways again?

This is classic Nicholas Sparks.   Heartfelt, bittersweet, and predictable for some, but that is the appeal of his stories.

If you enjoy this novel, you may also want to watch the The Best of Me that is based on this book and read the many other books by this author including his most recent, Two By Two.

The Americans (2013)

TV Series – If you are a fan of suspenseful spy thrillers, then you will get hooked on The Americans.  Elizabeth and Philip Jennings seem like a typical middle class American couple living in suburban D.C. during the Reagan era.  They run a travel agency and have two children.  But in fact, they are KGB agents in an arranged marriage whose goal is to get Cold War secrets for Mother Russia at any cost.  Which means being masters of disguise, betrayal, and sleeping with whomever it takes. In their minds, they believe they are making the world a better place. If being spies in an enemy country isn’t complicated enough, their new neighbor is a counter intelligence FBI agent and their teen-age daughter who is suspicious of their behavior, becomes very active in a Christian youth group.  Elizabeth and Philip also fear that their children may also be recruited by the KGB or their fates if the parents are captured or killed.

The drama was created by.former CIA agent Joe Weisberg and was inspired by the true story of Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley.  Donald and Tracey were agents of Putin unbeknownst to their sons until they were arrested in 2010.

If you like House of Cards, Homeland, and Scandal you will probably enjoy The Americans.  I’ll let you in on a little secret. The Americans is a show on FX and only streamed on Amazon Prime, but the Library has all the current seasons on DVD.

Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates

Book – Carthage is the story of a family in anguish in a small town in upstate New York.  The novel begins with the search for recently returned college freshman Cressida in the woods of the Nautauga Forest Preserve.  Her father Zeno leads the search.  Foul play is suspected when the young woman is not found.  Things get complicated when witnesses come forward stating that they saw her throwing herself at Brett, her sister Juliet’s fiancé. Cressida was convinced that she and Brett are destined to be together, because they are both misfits in their hometown of Carthage. Brett is afflicted by many demons, having recently come home from the war in Iraq suffering severe injuries both physically and psychologically.  He is a shell of his former self and has become prone to fits of delusion and violent outbursts. The authorities conclude that Cressida must have been murdered. During the search, Brett is found unconscious in his blood-spattered jeep. Due to pressure from the police and because Brent has no recollection of what happened, he confesses.

The story then picks up 8 years later at a maximum-security prison in Florida and focuses on a young female assistant working for an investigator who champions for social justice issues and fighting corruption. The young woman was found beaten and bruised almost 7 years ago in the Adirondack Mountains.  Her Good Samaritan brought her to Florida where the investigator hired her as an intern, even though she shares nothing about her past life.

Oates is a brilliant storyteller and in Carthage she manages to convey the complexity of family relationships, human frailty, mental illness, and the casualties of war, but above all the power of forgiveness and the will to survive.

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

isabelBook – The Japanese Lover is a sweeping saga of enduring passion, friendship and reminiscing in old age.  It is also a tale of secrets.  Our central character, Alma Belasco in her 70’s has come to the realization that her health is failing.  Her personal assistant, Irina along with Alma’s grandson, Seth have been asked to help her write her family history.  They suspect that Alma has a lover, because she leaves her nursing home to go on secret errands every few weeks with an overnight bag packed with lingerie.  The story of a romance slowly unfolds as we go back to pre WWII, when Alma at the age of 8 arrives from Poland to live with her uncle’s family in San Francisco to keep her safe from the looming war back home. Feeling displaced, she quickly becomes friends with Ichimei the son of the family’s gardener.  Spanning over 50 years their love for each other remains strong, despite many separations including the internment of Ichimei and his family in Utah after Pearl Harbor.  The two manage to meet sporadically over the years despite children and spouses. Irina and Seth piece together some of the story by going through Alma’s correspondence and diaries. But Alma is not the only one with a mystery, Irina’s panful past is also revealed.

This is a lovely spellbinding, and bittersweet story. This book reminded me of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and you might also enjoy Garden of Evening Mists.  We have many of Isabel Allende’s other titles.