What the Phoenix is reading: Staff book recommendations for spring 2023

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Ever wonder what the Phoenix staff is reading? So do we! 

In the spirit of this week’s feature story on book clubs, we cobbled together a list of what we in the office have been reading in the off hours during the first few months of the year.

Janet Allen, Sales Executive

The World and All That It Holds by Aleksandar Hemon

Usually a fan of psychological thrillers, I became emotionally invested in the characters found in “The World and All That It Holds,” by Aleksandar Hemon. Part historical fiction, part passionate love story and wholly soul-wrenching, the story begins in Sarajevo in 1914. WWI unfolds with dreamy storyteller Rafael Pinto, a Jewish pharmacist, and Osman, a pragmatic fellow soldier and Muslim, surviving trenches and cheating death while finding solace in each other. Ending in Shanghai with surprise and betrayal, it is Pinto’s dedication to Osman alone that keeps him alive. 

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Evan Edmonds, Staff Writer

The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston

What lies within the Lost City of the Monkey God? I don’t know, because I haven’t read that far yet, but I definitely want to find out.

Rumors about the White City or “La Ciudad Blanca” have circulated for hundreds of years, but of course, the city is lost — somewhere deep in the jungles of Honduras. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller tells the story of author Douglas Preston and a team of scientists, explorers and more who risk it all venturing into the treacherous jungle to find the city once and for all.

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Colin Ellis, Staff Writer

The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley

This is a tight, no-frills crime story about a Montana-based private detective who is dragged into a case of a missing California girl while tracking down a derelict writer. Think a grittier, more violent, harder-living Phillip Marlowe, who happens to spend his off-time working at a topless bar, suddenly thrust into a pretty sleazy criminal world. Crumley’s characters, especially the investigator at the center, and the world he created are what I found most compelling about the book. As with the detective novels of Raymond Chandler, the crime itself isn’t why you read Crumley. You read him for the characters and the world they live in.

The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy 

Cormac McCarthy’s first novel in over 15 years, The Passenger is about a salvage diver whose father helped create the atomic bomb. While it doesn’t have the type of violence that is characteristic of McCarthy’s other novels, The Passenger is an entirely unique story that at times challenges the reader’s comfort level. It’s not my favorite of McCarthy’s books, but I’ve always responded to his writing style, which will draw you in, even if it is a departure from McCarthy’s usual interests. And after so much time without writing anything, it’s exciting to have McCarthy back.

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Natalie Haberman Ladd, Sales Executive

Dog Songs: Poems by Mary Oliver

A dog can never tell you what she knows from the
smells of the world, but you know, watching her,
that you know
almost nothing.
– Mary Oliver, Dog Songs: Poems

This slim book of poems by Mary Oliver places in my top five favorite self-help books. Oliver, a National Book and Pulitzer Prize Winner, didn’t write it to be a self-help book, but to share a wonder and love for dogs in her inimitable prose. Looking to the present day and to many past pets that have graced her life, Oliver imagines a dog’s point of view, acknowledging that we can never truly be thankful enough for the lessons they provide for us if we are willing to see them. Be it a jaunt on the beach, cuddling after rolling in the mud or waiting for death without fear, Dog Songs is about nature, the connection of all living things, and most importantly living in the moment. Just like all good self-help books. 

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

Born to Run is musician Bruce Springsteen’s story of origin. Those who think his work is overrated should check out the book instead. Inspired by performing at the 2009 Super Bowl half-time show, Springsteen took the next seven years to write his autobiography — without a ghostwriter. Divided into three books with multiple short chapters, each one reads like an overdue explanation of events made up of his changing perceptions, ongoing conversations and often uncomfortable anecdotes. Fans will recognize moments of inspiration for favorite songs along with a deeper understanding of Springsteen’s lifelong struggle with depression and love for his family. More than a rock star autobiography, Born to Run speaks to the acts of following our dreams when plagued with self-doubt, forgiveness at every level and taking one last chance to make it real.

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Marian McCue, Editor

Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Richard Powers is one of the most impressive novelists working today. The MacArthur Fellowship and Pulitzer Prize winner dazzled with his previous novels, most recently, The Overstory, which chronicled the story of trees and the people who care about them. (For example: the protesters who risked arrest to prevent the cutting of old growth forests in the West.)

Climate change and care for the earth recur as themes in all his work. His most recent novel, Bewilderment, examines the relationship of a widowed professor who researches the possibility of life in other galaxies, and his precocious and intense nine-year-old son who struggles with worries about climate and the earth’s fate. It is a moving and intense story, and like his previous work, the characters and the theme of earth awareness stay with you long after you’re finished reading.  

Northeaster: A Story of Courage and Survival in the Blizzard of 1952 by Cathie Pelletier

Northeaster is a nonfiction work and a departure for its well-known Aroostook County author, Cathie Pelletier. It is a work of narrative history, which recalls the terrible blizzard of February 1952, and its tragic impacts.

An Allagash native, much of Pelletier’s previous work (like Funeral Makers) are comic novels of the County and its characters. In this recent and deeply researched nonfiction work, Pelletier conducted wide-ranging interviews, including with the surviving family members of the handful of people who died in the storm. The story of those families, the circumstances of the deaths, and the impact on the families is riveting.

As we enter into a period of potentially stronger storms, the book is a case study in the power of nature and the respect it commands. While we may have better warnings today of such storms, their power and potential for destruction is undiminished.

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Suzanne Piecuch, Production Manager

A Handful of Spells by Kimberley A. Shaw

If you need a little magic in your reading and have read Harry Potter way too many times, I’d recommend A Handful of Spells by Kimberley A. Shaw. I’d say it was a Harry rehash if it weren’t for the fact that the main character is a hearing-impaired young witch. The story line is very familiar, but it’s written from the perspective of a girl who’s ridiculed for mishearing what’s said and needing accommodation in the classroom. Good read for anyone who’s ever felt like the weirdo; excellent read for the child in your life who needs hearing aids (“she’s like me!“). The author herself is hearing-impaired, so she’s skilled at bringing you into the “other” reality of missing out on the chatter around us.

Aviva vs. the Dybbuk by Mari Lowe

Aviva vs. the Dybbuk by Mari Lowe has the friendship-lost and oddball theme going, along with pain and confusion from a trauma that isn’t exposed til later in the book. Aviva’s dybbuk (an impish malicious spirit in Jewish mythology) causes chaos and trouble that Aviva gets blamed for, and she can’t quite control it or shake it off. If you aren’t already familiar with Jewish terms, traditions and everyday Jewish Orthodoxy, this book will be a learning experience. Stand by with a dictionary (or, sigh, your phone), and prepare to be heart-challenged as you root for this girl and her shattered reality.

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Nick Schroeder, Managing Editor

Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan by Kim Phillips-Fein

This book traces decades of behind-the-scenes efforts by America’s twentieth-century corporate leaders to organize against worker unionization, New Deal social and economic policies and various other civil rights protections. With a narrative stitched together from private correspondences and other non-governmental documents of public record, historian Kim Phillips-Fein does an incredible job telling this story of conservative activism, spanning the reactionary arcs of the American Enterprise Association, the Mont Pelerin Society, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, Richard Lesher and other heads of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Ronald Reagan’s time as an anti-union PR guy for General Electric. 

The Trees by Percival Everett 

Cleverly written with the arch humor of a buddy-cop comedy, the force driving the plot of esteemed American writer Percival Everett’s excellent twenty-third novel are the boiling societal repercussions of countless historical lynchings in Mississippi, including that of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955. “The Trees” is set roughly half a century later, as two Black state police officers are sent to a small Mississippi town to investigate a string of mysterious and uncanny murders, which the bumbling local force can’t wrap their heads around. This was the first I’ve read by Percival Everett, an English professor at the University of Southern California, and it was amazing to see a writer with his deep knowledge of this historical subject matter tell it through the lens of discordant genre. 

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Karen Wood, Publisher

Horse by Geraldine Brooks

Based on the true story of Lexington, a prized American racehorse, Horse is three eras’ worth of unlearned lessons woven into one. Going back and forth in time along with three storylines, we meet Jarrett Lewis, a slave who grooms and protects Lexington at all costs while longing for his own freedom. In the here and now, we’re introduced to Theo Northam, a Black art historian. Then to Jess, a bone specialist asked to assist with a horse skeleton stored someplace in the Smithsonian. As their stories unfold, the reader learns details that the characters are unaware of, highlighting Brooks’ ability to turn facts and creative narrative into a page-turning thriller. Horse is also about art, biology and the bottomless depth of ugliness found during the Civil War and in the systemic racism we live with today. 

 

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