May 2014 Staff Picks
Annotation:Koch's dark tale which unfolds over the course of one dinner is compulsively readable. Two brothers (one of whom is a rising political star) and their wives are getting together, and it seems their sons are in a bit of trouble. We are filled in on the events that led up to the fateful dinner through flashbacks relayed by an unreliable narrator, Paul, who at first seems only somewhat snarky, but soon enough proves to be not all together on the up and up. Koch's development of this central character is masterfully executed and really what made it impossible to put down.
Annotation:Donna Tartt's latest, after a ten year wait, does not disappoint. Described as Dickensian by some, the story centers on Theodore Decker, a young boy who tragically loses his mother. Left virtually alone he clings to a small painting of a goldfinch as if it were a tie to her and his past. Soon we follow Theo across the country to Las Vegas and back to NYC. Along the way he encounters wonderfully rich characters who care for him for better or worse. Fans of Tartt will find this a welcome return to her storytelling prowess. New readers may find themselves seeking out her short backlist.
Annotation:As this novel begins, Peter Els is a retired professor and composer (one of those difficult, modern types) who has popped up on the radar of Homeland Security for suspected bioterrorism. Huh? The brilliant Powers is back with another ridiculously brainy novel that explores love, music and a bit of chemistry. There's lots of insightful writing here about the history of avant garde music, like the true story behind Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time (composed in a concentration camp) and some fun material about the modern music scene in Champaign–Urbana in the 60s (guest-starring John Cage). But Peter's intense relationships (with his first love/muse, his wife, his best friend/sometime collaborator and his daughter) make what could have been a show-offy exercise into a heartfelt life story. Fans of modern classical music (or books by Alex Ross) will love this.
Annotation:MacArthur genius grant recipient Goldstein puts a modern spin on the teachings of Plato by popping him right into the present day in this clever book. Goldstein imagines Plato on a speaking tour visiting such places as Google headquarters and the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Original and full of serious scholarship in an accessible and engaging format, this book is a standout.
Annotation:Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff writer at the New Yorker, reports on the five mass extinctions that have taken place on Earth, the last of which was an asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. The sixth extinction of the title is the ongoing human-caused destruction of our ecosystem. Well-researched, accessible, and alarming, The Sixth Extinction is a riveting mix of science and history and a wake-up call which has been compared to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.
Annotation:Billed as a scary literary thriller, McMahon's latest delivers the chills as she tells the stories of Sara and Ruthie. Sara is a mother who loses a child in the early part of the last century. Ruthie is a young woman who is left to care for her younger sister while she also searches for their mother who suddenly goes missing. Place, specifically an old farm house in Vermont, is what the two women separated by a century share in common. Booklist gives it a glowing starred review: "This mystery-horror crossover is haunting, evocative, and horrifically beautiful, a triumph."
Annotation:A man is sailing by himself at sea when his ship is damaged, and then things get more challenging. There's just one actor in this entire movie, an excellent Robert Redford, and there's almost no dialogue. Yet Redford commands our attention as this unnamed hero taps into his impressive resourcefulness to cope with his situation. Pair this with Gravity (or Cast Away) for a double-feature on the timeless theme of humanity struggling against the elements in an effort to survive.
Annotation:While Superman purists may have some objections to the latest in this franchise, it is top-notch superhero fun. Beautifully shot with noteworthy special effects, it does a nice job of furthering the storyline of a character many have grown up with. As an added bonus, Michael Shannon, who once graced the Steppenwolf stage, does a bang up job as supervillain General Zod.
Annotation:Bob Hoskins, a classic English bulldog of an actor, passed away recently. If you're interested in his work, you can't go wrong with his iconic performance in the one-of-a-kind Who Framed Roger Rabbit, an 80s blockbuster that brought him a huge audience. There's also The Long Good Friday (which brought him early acclaim), the disturbing Felicia's Journey, Mermaids and many more. On the sweeter side, he was charming in a late role opposite Judi Dench in this film, Mrs. Henderson Presents, one of those slightly naughty films starring mature actors that the British are so good at.
Annotation:There was too little publicity for this one when it was in theaters, which is a shame. If the fact that it's based on a YA novel (by Tim Tharp) might dissuade you from trying this, don't let it. There's no dystopian future here and no vampires (enjoyable as those things can be), just good storytelling, memorable characters and should-have-been-nominated acting from both Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller. Party guy Sutter (a budding alcoholic) is more or less on the rebound from his girlfriend when he meets shy girl Aimee, who takes a shine to him immediately. So begins an awkward relationship that teaches them both a lot about themselves and about life. It's hard not to root for this pair, even when all indications are that someone could get hurt. Fans of Perks of Being a Wallflower will love this one. With Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brie Larson and Bob Odenkirk all strong in supporting roles.
Annotation:This past December, something uncharacteristic happened in the hype-driven music industry: one of the biggest pop stars surprised the world with a new album. Lucky fans soon discovered that the self-titled album was not just a vehicle for a clear-cut single but a true album of 14 tracks exploring topics such as motherhood, beauty, and sexual confidence. It's as polished as the star herself but also emotionally revealing, soulful, and not to be missed.
Annotation:Imagine Dragons has taken off in a big way. They were nominated for a Best Record of the Year Grammy for "Radioactive" and took home the prize for Best Rock Performance. That's enough of a reason to give these boys a listen. You just might be surprised, as their other single, "It's Time" has a completely different sound. In any case why not see what all the fanfare is about?
Annotation:It's inspiring when a band with strong sales, a large following and plenty of accolades (like winning an Album of the Year Grammy for their last album) decides to take some risks with their sound. It's even more exciting when they pull it off, as this renowned indie band mostly has (and thrillingly so) with their ambitious new double-album, earning comparisons to Roxy Music, Talking Heads and Radiohead among other classics. It's a somewhat weirder project than they've released in the past, with several long tracks and some hard-edged touches and sounds (more electronic than in the past, due partly to production by James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem), but it's still undeniably an Arcade Fire album. Longtime fans will mostly love this, and it may win over some skeptics, too.
Annotation:The Dum Dum Girls have been garnering under-the-radar buzz for a while. Their third studio album introduces listeners to a more polished, cleaner sound. The songs on this album draw heavily from 80s new wave with a twist on 60s girl group music that has always been a part of the Dum Dum Girls' sound. Frontwoman Dee Dee Penny has the chops to write infectious pop songs, and her abilities are on display here. There's not a bad song in the bunch.