Sunday, January 24, 2010

Great Book Guru X

Dear Great Book Guru, My husband received a Kindle for Christmas and he is looking for books to download. As he will be traveling to the U.K. next week, can you recommend something perhaps with a British setting? Traveler's Wife

Dear Traveler's Wife, My husband too has a Kindle he bought himself for Christmas and he loves it with a passion. He just downloaded (on my recommendation, of course) a great tale of international intrigue set in London- A SPY BY NATURE written by Charles Cumming. Alex Milius is a young man recently graduated and somewhat at loose ends when he meets a family friend who suggests he apply for a job with the British Foreign Service. After a series of interviews and qualifying exams, he finds himself working for MI6 - the equivalent of our CIA. He quickly becomes enmeshed in a secret plot surrounding oil rights in a series of East European countries. This leads him to become involved with a mysterious, very glamorous couple from America who appear to work for the CIA. While clues abound, the reader is never sure who is the enemy, who is the friend. Alex himself is a complex, flawed individual but remarkably likable. One is left with the question, though, does he have what it takes to be a successful spy. Is it in his nature? The author Cumming was himself recruited by MI6 and, while it is never clear if he accepted the position, he does have a deep understanding of the workings of the agency and the psyches of its agents. Alex appears in two more novels, each set in different parts of Europe so in reading these novels, you learn much about the intelligence communities of England, Spain, and Russia. A very good read indeed and, of course, available at the Sea Cliff Library.
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Monday, January 18, 2010


Dear Great Book Guru, I was a B. Brown's Kitchen in Sea Cliff this weekend having some fabulous French toast special, when I heard people at another table discussing a new book by a Sea Cliff author but I couldn't hear the title and was too shy to ask. Do you know anything about this book and author? Baffled B. Brown Breakfaster

Dear Baffled, I was a B's this weekend too and the Oatmeal French toast was truly amazing but back to your question. Yes, indeed, Amy Spencer is the author you heard about. Amy and her sister Elizabeth grew up here and their parents- Ken and Kathy Spencer are Sea Cliff luminaries known and loved by scores of people throughout the Village. The book is MEETING YOUR HALF-ORANGE. It is coming out the beginning of February but you can pre-order from . I was lucky enough to get an advance copy and after having read it this week, I can recommend it wholeheartedly. The phrase half-orange comes from the Spanish phrase "mi media naranja" meaning one's sweetheart, one's perfect other half. The book describes techniques you can use to attract your perfect other half . The techniques suggested are rooted in the belief that if you are optimistic you create an aura that attracts other people to you. The book is filled with great anecdotes that support this thesis, but Amy's story was the best of all. She had told herself she would meet her "half -orange' sometime during the upcoming year; she did everything she could to be happy and yes, optimistic. So on Memorial Day weekend she realized she wanted to spend it with her family in Sea Cliff not at a glitzy singles event in NYC, but what were the chances she would meet her own true love here? Yes, yes- through a series of wonderful coincidences she ended up with her perfect mate by the end of the weekend. The book was witty, poignant , and invaluable if you are searching and entertaining if you are lucky enough to have already met up with your half-orange. Ann DiPietro

Sunday, January 10, 2010


Dear Great Book Guru, I am looking for a good book to read to my two children ages 7 and 9. It should be exciting but not too exciting as it will a bedtime read; I do want it to hold my interest , and I admit I have rather high literary standards. Any ideas? Devoted Parent

Dear Devoted, THE MAGICIAN'S ELEPHANT is Kate DiCamillo's latest novel and a very fine one, indeed. The story plot is complicated enough to engage both you and your children and the beautiful, clear prose will satisfy you immensely. Set in a small East European city over two hundred years ago, this short novel- really a novella- is a fable about human kindness, the oppression of war, and the power of the individual to accomplish magic. At its opening , we meet young Peter who has been orphaned in the war and is being cared for haphazardly by an old soldier who is committed to preparing him for the military. In the same building lives a childless couple who yearn to share their home but are afraid to chance another loss. Peter gives his last coin away to have his fortune read and what startling news he hears! His sister he long thought dead is alive awaiting his arrival which will happen when an elephant comes to town- a town that has never seen an elephant. Soon enough the elephant appears- a result of a magician's act gone awry. There are many richly described figures (including the elephant)who play a part in Peter's journey. While a children's story, this beautiful tale would appeal to any adult looking for a poetic rendering of a medieval city and a compendium of characters all on the road to redemption. Her other books BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE and THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX could work for your purposes too. These books are all available at the Sea Cliff Children's Library.

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Saturday, January 9, 2010


Dear Great Book Guru, I was at a lovely New Year's Day Open House party on Main Avenue in Sea Cliff and a friend remarked that the party reminded her of a wonderful James Joyce short story. Do you know the piece she was referring to? Literary Partygoer

Dear Literary, How perceptive your friend is! Joyce's "The Dead" is perhaps the finest short story ever written and it is set at a gala party celebrating the new year. The description of the delicious food and drink coupled with sparkling conversation and lilting music, set in the home of two elderly sisters and their niece, makes for a delightful glimpse into life in Dublin one hundred years ago. But the story is so, so much more. We meet the courtly, self-absorbed Gabriel , the sisters' adored nephew and his wife Gretta; the easily intimidated and intoxicated Freddy Malins; his tedious, complaining mother; Lily, a young servant girl; and a whole array of colorful partygoers. There is a feverishly familiar litany of past parties, achievements, slights, and political barbs but the story's climax comes after the party ends. Gretta in a melancholy mood mentions a young boy from the countryside who had loved her. Her husband immediately becomes jealous and questions her fidelity only to find that the boy had died decades before . Michael Furey had despaired when Gretta left their village for boarding school, and came to her window on a brutally bitter night to bid her farewell; he died from the cold but the devotion he showed was still vividly alive for Gretta. Gabriel laments his own pettiness, his lack of passion in contrast to young Michael's. The story closes with Gabriel looking out as the snow covers Ireland, falling "upon all the living and the dead." A truly beautiful piece!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Dear Great Book Guru, I love mysteries but I really need some new authors to add to my list. Do you have any suggestions? Mystery Maven

Dear Mystery Maven, I have some wonderful writers I’m going to recommend. But first, let me tell you that I too love mysteries but only those that give me a strong insight into another world whether it be village, town, city or country. The Agatha Raisin Series by M.C. Beaton is a favorite. I guess it could be called a British “cozy’ in that it envelops us in British village life while, oh yes, solving a mystery. Agatha Raisin is middle-aged, vaguely glamorous figure from London who “retires” to a small Cotswold village where murder and mayhem resound. The villagers and city folk combine to give us a rich look into the human condition. Funny, it many ways this series reminds me of Sea Cliff Village life, well, without the murders, but certainly with its colorful characters and lovely surroundings. There are over twenty books in this series and I would recommend reading them in order since the characters develop over the span of years. Start with Agatha and the Quiche of Death.

Donna Leon takes us to another world indeed- the beautiful city of Venice. Her recurring detective/hero is Guido Brunetti , truly an accomplished Renaissance man- a reader of Cicero in the Latin, of course, and a gourmand, a thoughtful man who views the world with philosophical detachment. Each of the novels takes on an overarching topic such as industrial pollution, institutional prejudice, illegal adoptions, mercy killings, and child enslavement and then weaves it into the daily social scene of urbane Venice. The descriptions of art, food, familial affection , and some crime make for wonderful novels. There are nineteen books in the series and it is not critical to read them in sequence. While I have read and loved them all, one of my favorites was The Girl of His Dreams.

Two very gritty mysteries set in New York City are also high of my list of books this summer were written by Richard Aleas: Songs of Innocence and Little Girl Lost. These novels reveal a part of New York life that most of us never will experience first hand – lucky us! The hero is a Columbia University grad student who stumbles into the life of the private detective and a world of violence far removed from the classroom. The ending in each case is shocking and horrific and very literate. These two are far removed from Agatha Raisin and her cozy village.

Another chilling read was Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurdardottr set in Iceland. While the core mystery dealt with the macabre – not an overwhelming positive for me-the reason I enjoyed this book so much and would recommend it was that it described life in modern Iceland in exquisite detail . Her characters while interesting paled in significance to the main character: Iceland.

All of these books are available through your library so get reading, my friend!

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Sunday, January 3, 2010


Dear Great Book Guru- Throughout 2009 you have given me some good suggestions about books that might challenge me . Now I want to expand my reading world in 2010 even more. Can you help me? Determined Reader

Dear Determined, Yes, I have a plan for you. Choose a piece of literature you never really read when it was assigned in school but now you would like to study for enrichment and enjoyment. Let’s start with Homer’s ILIAD. Get a good contemporary translation- I’d recommend Robert Fagles- he does a wonderful job – the beauty of the poetry is retained but the wording is totally understandable and the format very reader-friendly. Next, get the CDs that follow this translation read by the wonderful Derek Jacobi . The ILIAD was originally a sung poem so it is important to hear it in addition to reading it. Next, get the Teaching Company’s series of lectures on the ILIAD delivered by Helen Vandiver, an expert on ancient Greek and Roman literature. Each of the six lectures is thirty minutes and you will come away with a much deeper understanding of the poem than you could ever have imagined. There is a fascinating new book out by Caroline Alexander THE WAR THAT KILLED ACHILLES, which offers new insights into the this age-old classic. Finally, get a copy of the movie TROY to finish your multimedia approach to the ILIAD. You will be amazed at how much you have learned and , more importantly, how much you have enjoyed the experience. Everything I have mentioned is available through the Sea Cliff Library- the book, the CD’s, the Teaching Company DVD’s and the movie. Oh, I almost forgot- you should come in or call the Library to reserve a museum pass for the Metropolitan Museum of Art (free admission, reduced parking and discounts) to view the newly refurbished Greek and Roman wing. Of course, this is just the beginning- there are so many pieces of literature( the ODYSSEY , James Joyce’s ULYSSES, Ovid’s METAMORPHESES, etc.) you could explore in the same manner. Get you to your Library, my friend!

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