Books We Have Read and Discussed
December 2010 Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (Sharron) Emily Bronte’ s only novel, Wuthering Heights remains one of literature s most disturbing explorations into the dark side of romantic passion. Heathcliff and Cathy believe they’re destined to love each other forever, but when cruelty and snobbery separate them, their untamed emotions literally consume them.
November 2010 When a Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin (Jean) In this exquisitely written, deeply moving account of the death of a father played out against the backdrop of the collapse of the southern African nation of Zimbabwe, seasoned journalist Godwin has produced a memoir that effortlessly manages to be almost unbearably personal while simultaneously laying bare the cruel regime of longstanding president Robert Mugabe. In 1996 when his father suffers a heart attack, Godwin returns to Africa and sparks the central revelation of the bookâ€”the father is Jewish and has hidden it from Godwin and his siblings.
October 2010 Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (Angela) Ford’s strained debut concerns Henry Lee, a Chinese-American in Seattle who, in 1986, has just lost his wife to cancer. After Henry hears that the belongings of Japanese immigrants interned during WWII have been found in the basement of the Panama Hotel, the narrative shuttles between 1986 and the 1940s in a predictable story that chronicles the losses of old age and the bewilderment of youth. Henry recalls the difficulties of life in America during WWII, when he and his Japanese-American school friend, Keiko, wandered through wartime Seattle.
September 2010 West with the Night by Beryl Markum (Carol) Born in England in 1902, Markham was taken by her father to East Africa in 1906. She spent her childhood playing with native Maruni children and apprenticing with her father as a trainer and breeder of racehorses. In the 1930s, she became an African bush pilot, and in September 1936, became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west.
August 2010 Rebecca by Daphne de Maurier (Susan) Rebecca is a novel of mystery and passion, a dark psychological tale of secrets and betrayal, dead loves and an estate called Manderley that is as much a presence as the humans who inhabit it: “when the leaves rustle, they sound very much like the stealthy movement of a woman in evening dress, and when they shiver suddenly and fall, and scatter away along the ground, they might be the pitter, patter of a woman’s hurrying footsteps, and the mark in the gravel the imprint of a high-heeled satin shoe.”
July 2010 Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (Robin) This brilliant novel revolves around what is broken — limbs, family ties, trust — and the process of rebuilding them. It starts with the birth of twin boys to a nursing nun, Sister Mary Praise Joseph, in a small hospital on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; an event which no one had expected: “The everyday miracle of conception had taken place in the one place it should not have: in Sister Mary Praise Joseph’s womb.”
June 2010 Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller (Michelle) A classic is born in this tender, intensely moving and even delightful journey through a white African girl’s childhood. Born in England and now living in Wyoming, Fuller was conceived and bred on African soil during the Rhodesian civil war (1971-1979), a world where children over five “learn[ed] how to load an FN rifle magazine, strip and clean all the guns in the house, and ultimately, shoot-to-kill.” With a unique and subtle sensitivity to racial issues, Fuller describes her parents’ racism and the wartime relationships between blacks and whites through a child’s watchful eyes.
May 2010 Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (Judy) Thirteen linked tales from Strout (Abide with Me, etc.) present a heart-wrenching, penetrating portrait of ordinary coastal Mainers living lives of quiet grief intermingled with flashes of human connection. The opening Pharmacy focuses on terse, dry junior high-school teacher Olive Kitteridge and her gregarious pharmacist husband, Henry, both of whom have survived the loss of a psychologically damaged parent, and both of whom suffer painful attractions to co-workers.
April 2010 Sarah’s Key by DeRosnay (Sharron) De Rosnay’s U.S. debut fictionalizes the 1942 Paris roundups and deportations, in which thousands of Jewish families were arrested, held at the VÃ©lodrome d’Hiver outside the city, then transported to Auschwitz. Forty-five-year-old Julia Jarmond, American by birth, moved to Paris when she was 20 and is married to the arrogant, unfaithful Bertrand TÃ©zac, with whom she has an 11-year-old daughter. Julia writes for an American magazine and her editor assigns her to cover the 60th anniversary of the VÃ©l’ d’Hiv’ roundups.
March 2010 Mao’s Last Dancer by Cunxin (Carol) An extraordinary memoir of a peasant boy raised in rural Maoist China who was plucked from his village to study ballet and went on to become one of the greatest dancers of his generation.
February 2010 The Plague of Doves by Erdrich (Kelly) Erdrich’s 13th novel, a multigenerational tour de force of sin, redemption, murder and vengeance, finds its roots in the 1911 slaughter of a farming family near Pluto, N.Dak. The family’s infant daughter is spared, and a posse forms, incorrectly blames three Indians and lynches them. One, Mooshum Milk, miraculously survives. Over the next century, descendants of both the hanged men and the lynch mob develop relationships that become deeply entangled, and their disparate stories are held together via principal narrator Evelina, Mooshum Milk’s granddaughter, who comes of age on an Indian reservation near Pluto in the 1960s and ’70s and forms two fateful adolescent crushes: one on bad-boy schoolmate Corwin Peace and one on a nun.
January 2010 Still Alice by Lisa Genova (Jo) Neuroscientist and debut novelist Genova mines years of experience in her field to craft a realistic portrait of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Alice Howland has a career not unlike Genova’sâ€”she’s an esteemed psychology professor at Harvard, living a comfortable life in Cambridge with her husband, John, arguing about the usual (making quality time together, their daughter’s move to L.A.) when the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s begin to emerge. First, Alice can’t find her Blackberry, then she becomes hopelessly disoriented in her own town. Alice is shocked to be diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s
December 2009 Louisiana Women: Their Lives and Times Ed. Janet Allured (Barbara). With its beautifully conceived framework and its compelling, highly readable essays, Louisiana Women restores important, but neglected women to the historical narrative, from the colonial period to the present. Yet it is more than just an exercise in recovery. Each of the essays uses the lives of particular women to highlight broader themes in the state’s history–and the history of the South as well. Louisiana Women is a shining example of how women’s history transforms our understanding of history more generally.
November 2009 The Help by Kathryn Stockett (Martha) In writing about such a troubled time in American history, Southern-born Stockett takes a big risk, one that paid off enormously. Critics praised Stockett’s skillful depiction of the ironies and hypocrisies that defined an era, without resorting to depressing or controversial clichâˆšÂ©s. Rather, Stockett focuses on the fascinating and complex relationships between vastly different members of a household. Additionally, reviewers loved (and loathed) Stockett’s three-dimensional charactersâ€”and cheered and hissed their favorites to the end.
October 2009 The Safety of Secrets by DeLaune Michel (Author teleconference) Michelâ€™s follow-up to Aftermath of Dreaming (2006) is the tale of two childhood best friends who fled their Louisiana roots for Los Angeles. Fiona is a moderately successful, married actress who has just learned she is expecting a child. Patricia is the one with the superstar career: as the host of a sports reality show, she is a high-profile celebrity, as is her new husband, Zane, a dashing but shallow movie star.
September 2009 Broken For You by Sephanie Kallos (Susan) “The dead, Margaret thought. They can be so loud.” So muses the protagonist of this dreamy, powerful tale of familial warring, secrets and redemption. When elderly Margaret Hughes discovers that she has a malignant brain tumor, she refuses treatment and decides to take a nice young tenant into her huge, lonely Seattle mansion for company. What she gets is Wanda Schultz, a tough-as-nails stage manager who is secretly seeking the man who left her and prone to inexplicable weeping breakdowns. Wanda, ignorant of Margaret’s illness, is intrigued by the museum-like house and its eccentric ownerâ€”so when Margaret unexpectedly invites her to a drink-champagne-and-break-the-priceless-antique-china party for two, she’s delighted. But a dark history lurks; the houseful of gorgeous antique porcelain comes from Margaret’s father’s WWII pilfering of European Jewish homes.
August 2009 The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Schaffer (Cassie) The letters comprising this small charming novel begin in 1946, when single, 30-something author Juliet Ashton (nom de plume Izzy Bickerstaff) writes to her publisher to say she is tired of covering the sunny side of war and its aftermath. When Guernsey farmer Dawsey Adams finds Juliet’s name in a used book and invites articulateâ€”and not-so-articulateâ€”neighbors to write Juliet with their stories, the book’s epistolary circle widens, putting Juliet back in the path of war stories. The occasionally contrived letters jump from incident to incidentâ€”including the formation of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society while Guernsey was under German occupationâ€”and person to person in a manner that feels disjointed.
July 2009 The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffry Toobin (Martha) The Nine is a welcome addition to the spate of recent Supreme Court histories (see Jan Crawford Greenburg’s Supreme Conflict, ***1/2 May/June 2007). Informative and authoritative, Jeffrey Toobin’s account draws on exclusive interviews with the principals (one critic cited a possible breach of secrecy) and offers colorful anecdotes about the members of the Court. The most important parts of the book explore Sandra Day O’Connor’s critical swing votes, Clinton’s impeachment hearings, and the Court’s role in Bush v. Gore.
June 2009 The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones (Martha Lou) A recently widowed American food writer finds solace and loveâ€”and the most inspiring food she’s ever encounteredâ€”during a visit to China in Mones’s sumptuous latest. Still reeling from husband Matt’s accidental death a year ago, food writer Maggie McElroy is flummoxed when a paternity claim is filed against Matt’s estate from Beijing, where he sometimes traveled for business. Before Maggie embarks on the obligatory trip to investigate, her editor assigns her a profile on Sam Liang, a half-Chinese American chef living in Beijing who is about to enter a prestigious cooking competition.
May 2009 The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (Carol) In a bourgeois apartment building in Paris, we encounter RenÃ©e, an intelligent, philosophical, and cultured concierge who masks herself as the stereotypical uneducated â€œsuperâ€ to avoid suspicion from the buildingâ€™s pretentious inhabitants. Also living in the building is Paloma, the adolescent daughter of a parliamentarian, who has decided to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday because she cannot bear to live among the rich. Although they are passing strangers, it is through RenÃ©eâ€™s observations and Palomaâ€™s journal entries that The Elegance of the Hedgehog reveals the absurd lives of the wealthy. That is until a Japanese businessman moves into the building and brings the two characters together.
April 2009 The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammitt (Angela) The plot, for those three people who are unaware, is as follows; Detective Sam Spade has unwittingly become a pawn in a bizarre game of chess. After his partner Miles is killed, he finds himself immersed in a convoluted plot involving a double-dealing moll, a sly fat man, a creepy small man, and a treasured statue of a bird that, if it exists, is worth unimaginable riches. But Spade is unwilling to be used in such a fashion, and starts to set himself up as a player in the scheme, all the while trying madly to figure out exactly what he should do.
March 2009 Loving Frank: A Novel by Nancy Horan (Judy) Horan’s ambitious first novel is a fictionalization of the life of Mamah Borthwick Cheney, best known as the woman who wrecked Frank Lloyd Wright’s first marriage. Despite the title, this is not a romance, but a portrayal of an independent, educated woman at odds with the restrictions of the early 20th century. Frank and Mamah, both married and with children, met when Mamah’s husband, Edwin, commissioned Frank to design a house. Their affair became the stuff of headlines when they left their families to live and travel together, going first to Germany, where Mamah found rewarding work doing scholarly translations of Swedish feminist Ellen Key’s books. Frank and Mamah eventually settled in Wisconsin, where they were hounded by a scandal-hungry press, with tragic repercussions. Horan puts considerable effort into recreating Frank’s vibrant, overwhelming personality, but her primary interest is in Mamah, who pursued her intellectual interests and love for Frank at great personal cost. As is often the case when a life story is novelized, historical fact inconveniently intrudes: Mamah’s life is cut short in the most unexpected and violent of ways, leaving the narrative to crawl toward a startlingly quiet conclusion. Nevertheless, this spirited novel brings Mamah the attention she deserves as an intellectual and feminist.
February 2009 Moloka’i by Alan Brennert (Sharron) Brennert’s sweeping debut novel tracks the grim struggle of a Hawaiian woman who contracts leprosy as a child in Honolulu during the 1890s and is deported to the island of Moloka’i, where she grows to adulthood at the quarantined settlement of Kalaupapa. Rachel Kalama is the plucky, seven-year-old heroine whose family is devastated when first her uncle Pono and then she develop leprous sores and are quarantined with the disease. While Rachel’s symptoms remain mild during her youth, she watches others her age dying from the disease in near total isolation from family and friends. Rachel finds happiness when she meets Kenji Utagawa, a fellow leprosy victim whose illness brings shame on his Japanese family. After a tender courtship, Rachel and Kenji marry and have a daughter, but the birth of their healthy baby brings as much grief as joy, when they must give her up for adoption to prevent infection. The couple cope with the loss of their daughter and settle into a productive working life until Kenji tries to stop a quarantined U.S. soldier from beating up his girlfriend and is tragically killed in the subsequent fight. The poignant concluding chapters portray Rachel’s final years after sulfa drugs are discovered as a cure, leaving her free to abandon Moloka’i and seek out her family and daughter. Brennert’s compassion makes Rachel a memorable character, and his smooth storytelling vividly brings early 20th-century Hawaii to life. Leprosy may seem a macabre subject, but Brennert transforms the material into a touching, lovely account of a woman’s journey as she rises above the limitations of a devastating illness.
January 2009 Astrid & Veronika by Linda Olson (Kelly) Veronika, a 30-year-old Swedish writer, rents a home in a remote village to finish work on her second novel. Her only neighbor for miles is Astrid, a reclusive octogenarian who has earned a reputation (perhaps undeserved) as the village witch. Veronika and Astrid gradually become friends, taking long walks and sipping wine made from the wild strawberries in Astrid’s garden. Each shares painful secrets along the way. Veronika abandoned a devoted boyfriend to take up with a bartender from New Zealand. They fell passionately in love, then tragedy befell him, leaving Veronika incapacitated by grief. Astrid endured sexual abuse from her father and a long loveless marriage to a man chosen by him. Until now, she has never told anyone the truth about her infant daughter’s death.
December 2008 The Madonnas of Leningrad: A Novel by Debra Dean (Susan) Russian emigrÃ© Marina Buriakov, 82, is preparing for her granddaughter’s wedding near Seattle while fighting a losing battle against Alzheimer’s. Stuggling to remember whom Katie is marrying (and indeed that there is to be a marriage at all), Marina does remember her youth as a Hermitage Museum docent as the siege of Leningrad began; it is into these memories that she disappears. After frantic packing, the Hermitage’s collection is transported to a safe hiding place until the end of the war. The museum staff and their families remain, wintering (all 2,000 of them) in the Hermitage basement to avoid bombs and marauding soldiers. Marina, using the technique of a fellow docent, memorizes favorite Hermitage works; these memories, beautifully interspersed, are especially vibrant. Dean, making her debut, weaves Marina’s past and present together effortlessly. The dialogue around Marina’s forgetfulness is extremely well done, and the Hermitage material has depth.
November 2008 Rising Tede: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America In the spring of 1927, America witnessed perhaps its greatest natural disaster: a flood that profoundly changed race relations, government, and society in the Mississippi River valley region. Barry (The Transformed Cell, LJ 9/1/92) presents here a fascinating social history of the effects of the massive flood. More than 30 feet of water stood over land inhabited by nearly one million people. Almost 300,000 African Americans were forced to live in refugee camps for months. Many people, both black and white, left the land and never returned. Using an impressive array of primary and secondary sources, Barry clearly traces and analyzes how the changes produced by the flood in the lower South came into conflict and ultimately destroyed the old planter aristocracy, accelerated black migration to the North, and foreshadowed federal government intervention in the region’s social and economic life during the New Deal. by John Barry (Martha Lou)
October 2008 Mudbound by Hillary Jordan (Jo) In 1946, Laura McAllan, a college-educated Memphis schoolteacher, becomes a reluctant farmer’s wife when her husband, Henry, buys a farm on the Mississippi Delta, a farm she aptly nicknames Mudbound. Laura has difficulty adjusting to life without electricity, indoor plumbing, readily accessible medical care for her two children and, worst of all, life with her live-in misogynous, racist, father-in-law. Her days become easier after Florence, the wife of Hap Jackson, one of their black tenants, becomes more important to Laura as companion than as hired help. Catastrophe is inevitable when two young WWII veterans, Henry’s brother, Jamie, and the Jacksons’ son, Ronsel, arrive, both battling nightmares from horrors they’ve seen, and both unable to bow to Mississippi rules after eye-opening years in Europe. Jordan convincingly inhabits each of her narrators, though some descriptive passages can be overly florid, and the denouement is a bit maudlin. But these are minor blemishes on a superbly rendered depiction of the fury and terror wrought by racism.
September 2008 The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (Angela) Death himself narrates the World War II-era story of Liesel Meminger from the time she is taken, at age nine, to live in Molching, Germany, with a foster family in a working-class neighborhood of tough kids, acid-tongued mothers, and loving fathers who earn their living by the work of their hands. The child arrives having just stolen her first bookâ€“although she has not yet learned how to readâ€“and her foster father uses it, The Gravediggers Handbook, to lull her to sleep when shes roused by regular nightmares about her younger brothers death.
August 2008 Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson (Susan) Some failures lead to phenomenal successes, and this American nurse’s unsuccessful attempt to climb K2, the world’s second tallest mountain, is one of them. Dangerously ill when he finished his climb in 1993, Mortenson was sheltered for seven weeks by the small Pakistani village of Korphe; in return, he promised to build the impoverished town’s first school, a project that grew into the Central Asia Institute, which has since constructed more than 50 schools across rural Pakistan and Afghanistan.
July 2008 Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt (Martha Lou) Stephen Greenblatt, the charismatic Harvard professor who “knows more about Shakespeare than Ben Jonson or the Dark Lady did” (John Leonard, Harper’s), has written a biography that enables us to see, hear, and feel how an acutely sensitive and talented boy, surrounded by the rich tapestry of Elizabethan lifeâ€”full of drama and pageantry, and also cruelty and dangerâ€”could have become the world’s greatest playwright.
June 2008 The Devil in the White City by Eric Larson (Lisa) Author Erik Larson imbues the incredible events surrounding the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair with such drama that readers may find themselves checking the book’s categorization to be sure that The Devil in the White City is not, in fact, a highly imaginative novel. Larson tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the fair’s construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor.
May 2008 Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (Barbara) A radical departure from Follett’s novels of international suspense and intrigue, this chronicles the vicissitudes of a prior, his master builder, and their community as they struggle to build a cathedral and protect themselves during the tumultuous 12th century, when the empress Maud and Stephen are fighting for the crown of England after the death of Henry I.
April 2008 Montana 1948 by Larry Watson (Jo) A stark tragedy unfolds in Watson’s taut, memorable novel, the winner of the publisher’s National Fiction Prize. During the summer of 1948, a solid, middle-class family in a small Montana town is wrenched apart by scandal, murder and suicide. Narrator David Hayden tells the story as an adult looking back at the traumatic events that scarred yet matured him when he was 12. His pious Lutheran mother informs his father, Wesley, the county sheriff, that David’s uncle Frank, a doctor, has been molesting and raping Native American girls during routine medical exams. Uncle Frank’s latest victim is Marie Little Soldier, the Haydens’ Sioux housekeeper. When Marie dies, presumably of pneumonia, David provides key evidence that implicates his uncle in her murder.
March 2008 The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty byJulia Flynn Siler (Angela). Set in California’s lush Napa Valley and spanning four generations of a talented and visionary family, The House of Mondavi is a tale of genius, sibling rivalry, and betrayal. From 1906, when Italian immigrant Cesare Mondavi passed through Ellis Island, to the Robert Mondavi Corp.’s twenty-first-century battle over a billion-dollar fortune, award-winning journalist Julia Flynn brings to life both the place and the people in this riveting family drama.
February 2008 The Curious Incident of th Dog in the Night by Mark Haddon (Lisa). Mark Haddon’s bitterly funny debut novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is a murder mystery of sorts–one told by an autistic version of Adrian Mole. Fifteen-year-old Christopher John Francis Boone is mathematically gifted and socially hopeless, raised in a working-class home by parents who can barely cope with their child’s quirks. He takes everything that he sees (or is told) at face value, and is unable to sort out the strange behavior of his elders and peers.
January 2008 Isle of Canes by Elizabeth Shown Mills (Martha Lou). From the Author: For years I have worked on Isle of Canes-a four-generation saga that startes with Coincoin’s African-born parents in 1737 and follows the family into the early 1900’s, by which time Jim Crow had stripped them of their fortune and forced them from their “mansion houses” into the hoary cabins once occupied by their slaves. Coincoin’s story is, innately, a melding of Roots with Gone with the Wind.
December 2007 The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen. (No leader). The Last Town on Earth centers on the inhabitants of a small logging town in Washington and what happens when they take drastic measures (quarantine) to try and protect themselves from the virulent and deadly flu epidemic of 1918. When a deserting WWI soldier demands sanctuary, events are set in motion that change the town forever.
November 2007 Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky (Jo). Celebrated in pre-WWII France for her bestselling fiction, the Jewish Russian-born Nemirovsky was shipped to Auschwitz in the summer of 1942, months after this long-lost masterwork was composed. Nemirovsky, a convert to Catholicism, began a planned five-novel cycle as Nazi forces overran northern France in 1940. This gripping “suite,” collecting the first two unpolished but wondrously literary sections of a work cut short, have surfaced more than six decades after her death. The first, “Storm in June,” chronicles the connecting lives of a disparate clutch of Parisians, among them a snobbish author, a venal banker, a noble priest shepherding churlish orphans, a foppish aesthete and a loving lower-class couple, all fleeing city comforts for the chaotic countryside, mere hours ahead of the advancing Germans. The second, “Dolce,” set in 1941 in a farming village under German occupation, tells how peasant farmers, their pretty daughters and petit bourgeois collaborationists coexisted with their Nazi rulers.
October 2007 The Maytrees: A Novel by Annie Dillard (Susan). Lou Bigelow meets her husband-to-be, Toby Maytree, when Toby returns to Provincetown following WWII. In the house Lou inherits from her mother, they read, cook soup, play games with friends, vote and raise a child. Toby writes poetry and does odd jobs; Lou paints. Years into the marriage, Toby suddenly decamps to Maine with another local woman, Deary Hightoe; flash forward six years to Lou reading Toby’s semimonthly letters (and Deary’s marginal notes) “with affectionate interest.” Thus, when Deary’s heart falters 20 years later and Toby brings her home to Lou for hospice care, Lou puts up water for tea and gets going. She feels too much, not too little, for mere drama, although people who don’t know her misread her.
Septemer 2007 A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmeal Beah (Lisa). This account by a young man who, as a boy of 12, gets swept up in Sierra Leone’s civil war goes beyond even the best journalistic efforts in revealing the life and mind of a child abducted into the horrors of warfare. Beah’s harrowing journey transforms him overnight from a child enthralled by American hip-hop music and dance to an internal refugee bereft of family, wandering from village to village in a country grown deeply divided by the indiscriminate atrocities of unruly, sociopathic rebel and army forces.
August 2007 Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (Jo). Thirteen chapters provide a monthly snapshot of Jason Taylor’s life in small-town England from January 1982 to January 1983. Whether the 13-year-old narrator is battling his stammer or trying to navigate the social hierarchy of his schoolmates or watching the slow disintegration of his parents’ marriage, he relates his story in a voice that is achingly true to life. Each chapter becomes a skillfully drawn creation that can stand on its own, but is subtly interwoven with the others. While readers may not see the connectedness in the first two thirds of the book, the final three sections skillfully bring the threads together. The author does not pull any punches when it comes to the casual cruelty that adolescent boys can inflict on one another, but it is this very brutality that underscores the sweetness of which they are also capable.
July 2007 Skip
June 2007 Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (Angela). Tracing the intricacies (not to mention the economics) of 19th-century British mating rituals with a sure hand and an unblinking eye. As usual, Austen trains her sights on a country village and a few families–in this case, the Bennets, the Philips, and the Lucases. Into their midst comes Mr. Bingley, a single man of good fortune, and his friend, Mr. Darcy, who is even richer. Mrs. Bennet, who married above her station, sees their arrival as an opportunity to marry off at least one of her five daughters.
May 2007 March (Lead by Delma Porter from McNeese). Brooks’s second novel imagines the Civil War experiences of Mr. March, the absent father in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. An idealistic Concord cleric, March becomes a Union chaplain and later finds himself assigned to be a teacher on a cotton plantation that employs freed slaves, or “contraband.” His narrative begins with cheerful letters home, but March gradually reveals to the reader what he does not to his family: the cruelty and racism of Northern and Southern soldiers, the violence and suffering he is powerless to prevent and his reunion with Grace, a beautiful, educated slave whom he met years earlier as a Connecticut peddler to the plantations.
April 2007 The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast by Douglas Brinkley (Brenda & Susan). Bestselling historian Douglas Brinkley, a professor at Tulane University, lived through the destruction of Hurricane Katrina with his fellow New Orleans residents, and now in The Great Deluge he has written one of the first complete accounts of that harrowing week, which sorts out the bewildering events of the storm and its aftermath, telling the stories of unsung heroes and incompetent officials alike. Get a sample of his story–and clarify your own memories–by looking through the detailed timeline he has put together of the preparation, the hurricane, and the response to one of the worst disasters in American history.
March 2007 Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (Martha Lou). With its spotlight on elephants, Gruen’s romantic page-turner hinges on the human-animal bonds that drove her debut and its sequel (Riding Lessons and Flying Changes)Ã¢â‚¬â€but without the mass appeal that horses hold. The novel, told in flashback by nonagenarian Jacob Jankowski, recounts the wild and wonderful period he spent with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a traveling circus he joined during the Great Depression. When 23-year-old Jankowski learns that his parents have been killed in a car crash, leaving him penniless, he drops out of Cornell veterinary school and parlays his expertise with animals into a job with the circus, where he cares for a menagerie of exotic creatures
February 2007 Raising Fences: A Black Man’s Love Story by Michael Datcher (Sharron). Datcher’s debut confronts the psychosocial damage caused by fatherlessness. In this case, the paternal absence is compounded by abandonment by Datcher’s mother. A former editor-in-chief at Image magazine, and now a successful poet and writer, the author spent part of his childhood in Long Beach, Calif., obsessed with the idea of becoming a husband and father, but determined not to become an absentee dad like many of the men in his African-American community. As a young boy, he idolized his adoptive mother, who acted as an emotional anchor for him during the turbulent years of his adolescence in the 1970s.
January 2007 Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (Judy). See’s engrossing novel set in remote 19th-century China details the deeply affecting story of lifelong, intimate friends (laotong, or “old sames”) Lily and Snow Flower, their imprisonment by rigid codes of conduct for women and their betrayal by pride and love. While granting immediacy to Lily’s voice, See (Flower Net) adroitly transmits historical background in graceful prose. Her in-depth research into women’s ceremonies and duties in China’s rural interior brings fascinating revelations about arranged marriages, women’s inferior status in both their natal and married homes, and the Confucian proverbs and myriad superstitions that informed daily life. Beginning with a detailed and heartbreaking description of Lily and her sisters’ foot binding (“Only through pain will you have beauty. Only through suffering will you have peace”), the story widens to a vivid portrait of family and village life.
December 2006 A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (Anita). Meet Ignatius J. Reilly, the hero of John Kennedy Toole’s tragicomic tale, A Confederacy of Dunces. This 30-year-old medievalist lives at home with his mother in New Orleans, pens his magnum opus on Big Chief writing pads he keeps hidden under his bed, and relays to anyone who will listen the traumatic experience he once had on a Greyhound Scenicruiser bound for Baton Rouge. But Ignatius’s quiet life of tyrannizing his mother and writing his endless comparative history screeches to a halt when he is almost arrested by the overeager Patrolman Mancuso–who mistakes him for a vagrant–and then involved in a car accident with his tipsy mother behind the wheel. One thing leads to another, and before he knows it, Ignatius is out pounding the pavement in search of a job.
November 2006 The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (Alison). A finalist for both the 1990 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Things They Carried marks a subtle but definitive line of demarcation between Tim O’Brien’s earlier works about Vietnam, the memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone and the fictional Going After Cacciato, and this sly, almost hallucinatory book that is neither memoir nor novel nor collection of short stories but rather an artful combination of all three. Vietnam is still O’Brien’s theme, but in this book he seems less interested in the war itself than in the myriad different perspectives from which he depicts it.
October 2006 The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Jo). The time is the 1950s; the place, Barcelona. Daniel Sempere, the son of a widowed bookstore owner, is 10 when he discovers a novel, The Shadow of the Wind, by JuliÃƒÂ¡n Carax. The novel is rare, the author obscure, and rumors tell of a horribly disfigured man who has been burning every copy he can find of Carax’s novels. The man calls himself LaÃƒÂn Coubert-the name of the devil in one of Carax’s novels. The colorful cast of characters, the gothic turns and the straining for effect only give the book the feel of para-literature or the Hollywood version of a great 19th-century novel.
September 2006 The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Martha Lou). Self-made, self-invented millionaire Jay Gatsby embodies some of Fitzgerald’s–and his country’s–most abiding obsessions: money, ambition, greed, and the promise of new beginnings. “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning–” Gatsby’s rise to glory and eventual fall from grace becomes a kind of cautionary tale about the American Dream.
August 2006 Plainsong by Kent Haruf (Judy). In the same way that the plains define the American landscape, small-town life in the heartlands is a quintessentially American experience. Holt, Colo., a tiny prairie community near Denver, is both the setting for and the psychological matrix of Haruf’s beautifully executed new novel. Alternating chapters focus on eight compassionately imagined characters whose lives undergo radical change during the course of one year.
July 2006 The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt (Anita). Berendt moves to Venice in 1997, just three days after the city’s famed Fenice opera house burns down during a restoration. The Venetian chattering classes, among whom Berendt finds a home, want to know whether it was an accident or arson. Initially, Berendt investigates, but is soon distracted by the city’s charming denizens. Early on, he’s warned, “Everyone in Venice is acting,” which sets the stage for fascinating portraits: a master glassblower creating an homage to the fire in vases, an outspoken surrealist painter, a tenacious prosecutor and others. As the infamous Italian bureaucracy drags out the investigation, Berendt spends more time schmoozing with the expatriate community in long discussions about its role in preserving local art, culture and architecture. By the time the Fenice is rebuilt and reopens, Berendt has delivered an intriguing mosaic of modern life in Venice, which makes for first-rate travel writing, albeit one that lacks a compelling core story to keep one reading into the night.
June 2006 Midwives by Chris Bojhalin (Martha) Teleconference with author. (Highly recommend teleconference with Mr. Bojhalin.) On a violent, stormy winter night, a home birth goes disastrously wrong. The phone lines are down, the roads slick with ice. The midwife, unable to get her patient to a hospital, works frantically to save both mother and child while her inexperienced assistant and the woman’s terrified husband look on. The mother dies but the baby is saved thanks to an emergency C-section. And then the nightmare begins: the assistant suggests that maybe the woman wasn’t really dead when the midwife operated:
May 2006 The Constant Gardner by John LeCarre (Sharron). As the world seems to move ever further beyond the comparatively clear-cut choices of the Cold War into a moral morass in which greed and cynicism seem the prime movers, le Carr ‘s work has become increasingly radical, and this is by far his most passionately angry novel yet. Its premise is – cynical pharmaceutical firm allied with devious doctors attempts to foist on the world a flawed but potentially hugely profitable drug. Le Carr has placed the prime action in Africa, where the drug is being surreptitiously tested on poor villagers. Tessa Quayle, married to a member of the British High Commission staff in corruption-riddled contemporary Kenya, gets wind of it and tries in vain to blow the whistle on the manufacturer and its smarmy African distributor.
April 2006 Across the Water by Curt Iles (Curt). Curt Iles is a local author who has written about his faith journey to the far east in the aftermath of the Tsumani . He also relates his Dry Creek community’s response to hurricainew Katrina and Rita. Stories are told about the many people that he met and helped. Book available in DeRidder at Author’s Alley.
February 2006 Blood Done Sign My Name by Timothy Tyson (Martha Lou). In this outstanding personal history, Tyson, a professor of African-American studies who’s white, unflinchingly examines the civil rights struggle in the South. The book focuses on the murder of a young black man, Henry Marrow, in 1970, a tragedy that dramatically widened the racial gap in the author’s hometown of Oxford, N.C. Tyson portrays the killing and its aftermath from multiple perspectives, including that of his contemporary, 10-year-old self; his progressive Methodist pastor father, who strove to lead his parishioners to overcome their prejudices; members of the disempowered black community; one of the killers; and his older self, who comes to Oxford with a historian’s eye.
January 2006 The Brothers K by David James Duncan (Judy). a complex tapestry of family tensions, baseball, politics and religion, by turns hilariously funny and agonizingly sad. Highly inventive formally, the novel is mainly narrated by Kincaid Chance, the youngest son in a family of four boys and identical twin girls, the children of Hugh Chance, a discouraged minor-league ballplayer whose once-promising career was curtained by an industrial accident, and his wife Laura, an increasingly fanatical Seventh-Day Adventist. The plot traces the working-out of the family’s fate from the beginning of the Eisenhower years through the traumas of Vietnam. One son becomes an atheist and draft resister; another immerses himself in Eastern religions, while the third, the most genuinely Christian of the children, ends up in Southeast Asia. In spite of the author’s obvious affection for the sport, this is not a baseball novel; it is, as Kincaid says, “the story of an eight-way tangle of human beings, only one-eighth of which was a pro ballpayer.”
December 2005 Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell (Sharron). Blink is about the first two seconds of looking–the decisive glance that knows in an instant. Gladwell, the best-selling author of The Tipping Point, campaigns for snap judgments and mind reading with a gift for translating research into splendid storytelling. Building his case with scenes from a marriage, heart attack triage, speed dating, choking on the golf course, selling cars, and military maneuvers, he persuades readers to think small and focus on the meaning of “thin slices” of behavior. The key is to rely on our “adaptive unconscious”–a 24/7 mental valet–that provides us with instant and sophisticated information to warn of danger, read a stranger, or react to a new idea.
November 2005 Ireland by Frank Delaney (Martha). BBC reporter Delaney’s fictionalized history of his native country, an Irish bestseller, is a sprawling, riveting read, a book of stories melding into a novel wrapped up in an Irish history text. In 1951, when Ronan O’Mara is nine, he meets the aging itinerant Storyteller, who emerges out a “silver veil” of Irish mist, hoping to trade a yarn for a hot meal. Welcomed inside, the Storyteller lights his pipe and begins, telling of the architect of Newgrange, who built “a marvelous, immortal structure… before Stonehenge in England, before the pyramids of Egypt,” and the dentally challenged King Conor of Ulster, who tried, and failed, to outsmart his wife. The stories utterly captivate the young Ronan, and they’ll draw readers in, too, with their warriors and kings, drinkers and devils, all rendered cleanly and without undue sentimentality.
October 2005 Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised our Nation by Cokie Roberts (Barbara). Focusing mainly on the wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers of the Founding Fathers, this lively and engaging title chronicles the adventures and contributions of numerous women of the era between 1740 and 1797. Roberts includes a surprising amount of original writings, but uses modern language and spellings to enable readers to enjoy fully the wit and wisdom of these remarkable individuals. While their men were away serving as soldiers, statesmen, or ambassadors, the women’s lives were fraught with difficulty and danger. They managed property, and raised their children and often those of deceased relatives, while trying to make their own contributions to the cause of liberty. They acted as spies, coordinated boycotts, and raised funds for the army.
September 2005 The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd. (Jo) The soulful tale of Jessie Sullivan, a middle-aged woman whose stifled dreams and desires take shape during an extended stay on Egret Island, where she is caring for her troubled mother, Nelle. While Kidd places an obvious importance on the role of mysticism and legend in this tale, including the mysterious mermaid’s chair at the center of the island’s history, the relationships between characters is what gives this novel its true weight.
August 2005 The United States of Europe: The New Superpower and the End of American Supremacy by T. R. Reid. While the United States flexes its economic and military muscles around the world as the dominant global player, it may soon have company. According to the Washington Post‘s T.R. Reid, the nations of Europe are setting aside differences to form an entity that’s gaining strength, all seemingly unbeknownst to the U.S. and its citizens. The new Europe, Reid says, “has more people, more wealth, and more trade than the United States of America,” plus more leverage gained through membership in international organizations and generous foreign aid policies that reap political clout. Reid tells how European countries were willing to discontinue their individual centuries-old currencies and adopt the Euro, the monetary unit that is now a dominant force in world markets. This is noteworthy not just for exploring the considerable economic impact of the Euro, but also for what that spirit of cooperation means for every facet of Europe in the 21st century, where governments and citizens alike believe that the rewards of banding together are worth a loss in sovereignty.
July 2005 The Pact by Jodi Picoult. Teenage suicide is the provocative topic that Picoult plumbs, with mixed results, in her fifth novel. Popular high-school swimming star Chris Harte and talented artist Em Gold bonded as infants; their parents have been next-door neighbors and best friends for 18 years. When they fall in love, everyone is ecstatic. Everyone, it turns out, except for Em, who finds that sex with Chris feels almost incestuous. Her emotional turmoil, compounded by pregnancy, which she keeps secret, leads to depression, despair and a desire for suicide, and she insists that Chris prove his love by pulling the trigger. The gun is fired in the first paragraph, and so the book opens with a jolt of adrenaline.
June 2005 I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe. Dupont University–the Olympian halls of learning housing the cream of America’s youth, the roseate Gothic spires and manicured lawns suffused with tradition . . . Or so it appears to beautiful, brilliant Charlotte Simmons, a sheltered freshman from North Carolina. But Charlotte soon learns, to her mounting dismay, that for the uppercrust coeds of Dupont, sex, Cool, and kegs trump academic achievement every time.
May 2005 The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. (Martha) The Kite Runner follows the story of Amir, the privileged son of a wealthy businessman in Kabul, and Hassan, the son of Amir’s father’s servant. As children in the relatively stable Afghanistan of the early 1970s, the boys are inseparable. They spend idyllic days running kites and telling stories of mystical places and powerful warriors until an unspeakable event changes the nature of their relationship forever, and eventually cements their bond in ways neither boy could have ever predicted. Even after Amir and his father flee to America, Amir remains haunted by his cowardly actions and disloyalty. In part, it is these demons and the sometimes impossible quest for forgiveness that bring him back to his war-torn native land after it comes under Taliban rule. (“…I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded, not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.”)
April 2005 Odd Girl Out: Hidden Culture of Agression in Girls by Racel Simmons. There is little sugar but lots of spice in journalist Rachel Simmons’s brave and brilliant book that skewers the stereotype of girls as the kinder, gentler gender. Odd Girl Out begins with the premise that girls are socialized to be sweet with a double bind: they must value friendships; but they must not express the anger that might destroy them. Lacking cultural permission to acknowledge conflict, girls develop what Simmons calls “a hidden culture of silent and indirect aggression.” The author, who visited 30 schools and talked to 300 girls, catalogues chilling and heartbreaking acts of aggression, including the silent treatment, note-passing, glaring, gossiping, ganging up, fashion police, and being nice in private/mean in public. She decodes the vocabulary of these sneak attacks, explaining, for example, three ways to parse the meaning of “I’m fat.” March 2005 The Ladder of Years by Ann Tyler. (No leader) BALTIMORE WOMAN DISAPPEARS DURING FAMILY VACATION, declares the headline. Forty-year-old Delia Grinstead is last seen strolling down the Delaware shore, wearing nothing more than a bathing suit and carrying a beach tote with five hundred dollars tucked inside. To her husband and three almost-grown children, she has vanished without trace or reason. But for Delia, who feels like a tiny gnat buzzing around her family’s edges, “walking away from it all” is not a premeditated act but an impulse that will lead her into a new, exciting, and unimagined life. . . .
February 2005 The Lovely Bones by Ann Sebold. (Laura) Alice Sebold’s haunting and heartbreaking debut novel, The Lovely Bones, unfolds from heaven, where “life is a perpetual yesterday” and where Susie narrates and keeps watch over her grieving family and friends, as well as her brazen killer and the sad detective working on her case. As Sebold fashions it, everyone has his or her own version of heaven. Susie’s resembles the athletic fields and landscape of a suburban high school: a heaven of her “simplest dreams,” where “there were no teachers…. We never had to go inside except for art class…. The boys did not pinch our backsides or tell us we smelled; our textbooks were Seventeen and Glamour and Vogue.”
January 2005 East of Eden by John Steinbeck. (Jo) Novel by John Steinbeck, published in 1952. It is a symbolic recreation of the biblical story of Cain and Abel woven into a history of California’s Salinas Valley. With East of Eden Steinbeck hoped to reclaim his standing as a major novelist, but his broad depictions of good and evil come at the expense of subtlety in characterization and plot and it was not a critical success. Spanning the period between the American Civil War and the end of World War I, the novel highlights the conflicts of two generations of brothers; the first being the kind, gentle Adam Trask and his wild brother Charles. Adam eventually marries Cathy Ames, an evil, manipulative, and beautiful prostitute; she betrays him, joining Charles on the very night of their wedding. Later, after giving birth to twin boys, she shoots Adam and leaves him to return to her former profession. In the shadow of this heritage Adam raises their sons, the fair-haired, winning, yet intractable Aron, and the dark, clever Caleb. This second generation of brothers vie for their father’s approval. In bitterness Caleb reveals the truth about their mother to Aron, who then joins the army and is killed in France.
December 2004 Christmas Stories from Louisiana by Dorothy Robbins. (Martha) Fiction that ranges over the many moods and spirits of Yuletide in the Pelican State Edited by Dorothy Dodge Robbins and Kenneth Robbins, with stories by Robert Olen Butler, Kelly Cherry, Kate Chopin, Debra Gray De Nous and O’Neil De Noux, Laura J. Dulaney, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Harnett T. Kane, James Knudsen, Patty Friedmann Muchmore, Solomon Northrup, Katherine Anne Porter, Kenneth Robbins, Lyle Saxon, Genaro Ky Ly Smith, Cheryl St. Germain, and Ruth McEnery Stuart. Illustrations by Francis X. Pavy.
November 2004 The Dive From Clausen’s Pier : A Novel by Ann Packer. (Sharron) Carrie Bell is the worst person in the world. Or so she would have you think. In the gripping, carefully paced debut novel of personal epiphany, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, by O. Henry Award winner Ann Packer, Carrie’s very survival is dependent upon her leaving her fiancÃƒÆ’Ã†â€™Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â©, even after he dives into shallow water at a Memorial Day picnic and becomes paralyzed. Things hadn’t been going so well for the Madison, Wisconsin, high school and college sweethearts. Carrie knew, deep down, that she wasn’t going to become Mrs. Michael Mayer. But expectations and pressure from all sides–his family, her mother, her best friend Jamie, Mike’s best friend Rooster–force Carrie to shut herself up in her room and sew outfits of her own design as if in a trance. Then one night she slips out of the only universe she’s ever known.
October 2004 Skip
September 2004: The Language of Light by Meg Waite Clayton. (Telephone conference with author.) Set in the old-moneyed horse country of Maryland, the story of a young mother trying to put her life back together after the death of her husband Nelly Grace moves her two young children to a privileged, horse-breeding world in the Baltimore countryside, after the unexpected death of her husband. Struggling to build a new life, Nelly finds herself swept up in the traditions and social politics of this insular world. Emma, the matriarch of the fox-hunting community, offers Nelly guidance and friendship until past and present secrets begin to unfold. Encouraged by Emma and her grown son, Dac, Nelly rekindles her desire to become a photojournalist, like her father. As she sets to work with her camera, though, she realizes her success is tangled up not only in her feelings about her husband’s death, but also in her relationship with her father, a man who has allowed fame and ambition to come before his family. Then her father comes to visit, and Nelly’s fragile new beginning is thrown into chaos. A brilliant old-fashioned read, filled with secrets and surprises, The Language of Light is a beautifully told story of a woman moving into the future by uncovering the past.
August 2004: Cane River by Lalita Tademy. :(Brenda) Lalita Tademy’s riveting family saga chronicles four generations of women born into slavery along the Cane River in Louisiana. It is also a tale about the blurring of racial boundaries: great-grandmother Elisabeth notices an unmistakable “bleaching of the line” as first her daughter Suzette, then her granddaughter Philomene, and finally her great-granddaughter Emily choose (or are forcibly persuaded) to bear the illegitimate offspring of the area’s white French planters. In many cases these children are loved by their fathers, and their paternity is widely acknowledged. However, neither state law nor local custom allows them to inherit wealth or property, a fact that gives Cane River much of its narrative drive.
July 2004: Life of Pi by Yann Martel. (Mary) The son of a zookeeper, Pi Patel has an encyclopedic knowledge of animal behavior and a fervent love of stories. When Pi is sixteen, his family emigrates from India to North America aboard a Japanese cargo ship, along with their zoo animals bound for new homes. The ship sinks. Pi finds himself alone in a lifeboat, his only companions a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and Richard Parker, a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Soon the tiger has dispatched all but Pi, whose fear, knowledge, and cunning allow him to coexist with Richard Parker for 227 days while lost at sea. When they finally reach the coast of Mexico, Richard Parker flees to the jungle, never to be seen again. The Japanese authorities who interrogate Pi refuse to believe his story and press him to tell them “the truth.” After hours of coercion, Pi tells a second story, a story much less fantastical, much more conventional–but is it more true?
June 2004: Three Junes by Julia Glass. (Marti). An astonishing first novel that traces the lives of a Scottish family over a decade as they confront the joys and longings, fulfillments and betrayals of love in all its guises.
May 2004: Abraham : A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths by Bruce Feiler. (Martha) At a time when conflicts among three of the world’s major religions–Islam, Judaism, and Christianity–are in the global spotlight, Bruce Feiler offers a stunning biography of the one man who unites all three religions: Abraham. “The most mesmerizing story of Abraham’s life–his offering a son to God–plays a pivotal role in the holiest week of the Christian year, at Easter,” writes Feiler. “The story is recited at the start of the holiest fortnight in Judaism, on Rosh Hashanah. The episode inspires the holiest day in Islam, ‘Id al-Adha,‘ the Feast of the Sacrifice, at the climax of the Pilgrimage. And yet the religions can’t even agree on which son he tried to kill.” Herein lies the irony and perfection of Feiler’s timing. As we struggle to find a path to peace among these three religions, all warring in Jerusalem, near the stone where Abraham brought his son for sacrifice, this captivating biography speaks to Abraham as the metaphor he is: the historically elusive man who embodies three religions, a character who has shape-shifted over the millennia to serve the clashing goals and dogma of each religion.
April 2004: Middlesex : A Novel by Jeffrey Eugenides. (Martha Lou) Eugenides weaves together a kaleidoscopic narrative spanning 80 years of a stained family history, from a fateful incestuous union in a small town in early 1920s Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit; from the early days of Ford Motors to the heated 1967 race riots; from the tony suburbs of Grosse Pointe and a confusing, aching adolescent love story to modern-day Berlin. Eugenides’s command of the narrative is astonishing. He balances Cal/Callie’s shifting voices convincingly, spinning this strange and often unsettling story with intelligence, insight, and generous amounts of humor:
March 2004: A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines . (Kelly)In a small Cajun community in 1940s Louisiana, a young black man is about to go to the electric chair for murder. A white shopkeeper had died during a robbery gone bad; though the young man on trial had not been armed and had not pulled the trigger, in that time and place, there could be no doubt of the verdict or the penalty. From the author of A Gathering of Old Men and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman comes a deep and compassionate novel. A young man who returns to 1940s Cajun country to teach visits a black youth on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Together they come to understand the heroism of resisting.
February 2004: Atonement by Ian McEwan. (Susan) This haunting novel, which just failed to win the Booker this year, is at once McEwan at his most closely observed and psychologically penetrating, and his most sweeping and expansive. It is in effect two, or even three, books in one, all masterfully crafted. The first part ushers us into a domestic crisis that becomes a crime story centered around an event that changes the lives of half a dozen people in an upper-middle-class country home on a hot English summer’s day in 1935.
January 2004: John Adams by David McCullough (Jo) Here a preeminent master of narrative history takes on the most fascinating of our founders to create a benchmark for all Adams biographers. With a keen eye for telling detail and a master storyteller’s instinct for human interest, McCullough (Truman; Mornings on Horseback) resurrects the great Federalist (1735-1826), revealing in particular his restrained, sometimes off-putting disposition, as well as his political guile.
December 2003: Skip
November 2003: The Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau. (Martha Lou) What happens if a wealthy, white Southern man falls in love, marries, and has children with his black housekeeper after his white wife has died? If he lives in the country and is discreet, if his light-skinned children are sent off to school and he never tells anyone he is actually married, perhaps nothing. But what about his children and grandchildren? Winner of the 1964 Pulitzer Prize, The Keepers of the House attacks the hypocrisy of Southern racism and examines the results of rage
October 2003: Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz. (Mary) The novels of The Cairo Trilogy trace three generations of the family of tyrannical patriarch Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, who rules his household with a strict hand while living a secret life of self-indulgence. Palace Walk introduces us to his gentle, oppressed wife, Amina, his cloistered daughters, Aisha and Khadija, and his three sonsÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œthe tragic and idealistic Fahmy, the dissolute hedonist Yasin, and the soul-searching intellectual Kamal. Al-Sayyid Ahmad’s rebellious children struggle to move beyond his domination in Palace of Desire, as the world around them opens to the currents of modernity and political and domestic turmoil brought by the 1920s.
September 2003: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. (Kelly) With The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown masterfully concocts an intelligent and lucid thriller that marries the gusto of an international murder mystery with a collection of fascinating esoteria culled from 2,000 years of Western history.
August 2003: Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast by Mike Tidwell. (Barbara) This lyrically intense travelogue will provide historians of the not too distant future with a guide to a vanishing landscape and a lost culture. Tidwell (Mountains of Heaven) graphically recounts catching rides on shrimp boats and crab boats through the dark water swamps of southern Louisiana into the heart of Cajun country. Here, among the great blue heron, spoonbill, gar and gator, the reader meets bayou folk-from the honest and generous fishermen, who provide the author with room, board and transport for his work as a deck hand, to the disheveled backwoods healer who intrigues and tantalizes the writer with his shamanistic spells and incantations.
July 2003: The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. (Judy) In Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, 14-year-old Lily Owen, neglected by her father and isolated on their South Carolina peach farm, spends hours imagining a blissful infancy when she was loved and nurtured by her mother, Deborah, whom she barely remembers. These consoling fantasies are her heart’s answer to the family story that as a child, in unclear circumstances, Lily accidentally shot and killed her mother. All Lily has left of Deborah is a strange image of a Black Madonna, with the words “Tiburon, South Carolina” scrawled on the back. The search for a mother, and the need to mother oneself, are crucial elements in this well-written coming-of-age story set in the early 1960s against a background of racial violence and unrest.
June 2003: Red Clay, Blue Cadillac: Stories of 12 Southern Women by Michael Malone. (Billie) The first four selections in this collection of 12 stories are so sterling in their style and structure, so well crafted, captivating and entertaining, that the reader wants to slow down and savor their authentic voices and characterizations, qualities that have led Malone to major writing awards (the Edgar, the O. Henry).
May 2003: The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness by Simon Wiesenthal. (Barbara) Author Simon Weisenthal recalls his demoralizing life in a concentration camp and his envy of the dead Germans who have sunflowers marking their graves. At the time he assumed his grave would be a mass one, unmarked and forgotten. Then, one day, a dying Nazi soldier asks Weisenthal for forgiveness for his crimes against the Jews. What would you do? This important book and the provocative question it poses is birthing debates, symposiums, and college courses.
April 2003: The Secret History by Donna Tartt (Kelly) This well-written first novel attempts to be several things: a psychological suspense thriller, a satire of collegiate mores and popular culture, and a philosophical bildungsroman. Supposedly brilliant students at a posh Vermont school (Bennington in thin disguise) are involved in two murders, one supposedly accidental and one deliberate. The book’s many allusions, both literary and classical (the students are all classics majors studying with a professor described as both a genius and a deity)
March 2003: My Forbidden Face: Growing Up Under the Taliban: A Young Woman’s Story by Latifa (Mary) Readers who want to know what life was really like when the Taliban ruled Kabul should turn off CNN and read this book. Latifa (who writes under a pseudonym) was a 16-year-old aspiring journalist when her brother rushed home one day in late 1996 with word that the white flag of the Taliban flew over their school and mosque. She writes, “We knew the Taliban were not far away… but no one truly believed they would manage to enter Kabul.” The bizarre edicts of the women-suppressing regime slowly become a reality: women weren’t allowed outside the home unless they were shrouded in a “chadri”
February 2003: Ava’s Man by Rick Bragg (Jo) The same fierce pride and love that animated All Over but the Shoutin’ glow in Rick Bragg’s new book. In fact, he informs us in the prologue that it was the readers of his bestselling 1997 memoir about his mother’s struggle to raise three sons out of dire poverty who told him what he had to write about next. “People asked me where I believed my own momma’s heart and backbone came from … they said I short-shrifted them in the first book.” Bragg sets out to make amends in this heartfelt biography of his maternal grandfather, Charlie Bundrum, who with wife Ava nurtured seven children through hard times that never seemed to ease in rural Alabama and Georgia.
January 2003: Peace Like a River by Leif Enger (Lilly) To the list of great American child narrators that includes Huck Finn and Scout Finch, let us now add Reuben “Rube” Land, the asthmatic 11-year-old boy at the center of Leif Enger’s remarkable first novel, Peace Like a River. Rube recalls the events of his childhood, in small-town Minnesota circa 1962, in a voice that perfectly captures the poetic, verbal stoicism of the northern Great Plains. “Here’s what I saw,” Rube warns his readers. “Here’s how it went. Make of it what you will.” And Rube sees plenty. In the winter of his 11th year, two schoolyard bullies break into the Lands’ house, and Rube’s big brother Davy guns them down with a Winchester. Shortly after his arrest, Davy breaks out of jail and goes on the lam. Swede is Rube’s younger sister, a precocious writer who crafts rhymed epics of romantic Western outlawry. Shortly after Davy’s escape, Rube, Swede, and their father, a widowed school custodian, hit the road too, swerving this way and that across Minnesota and North Dakota, determined to find their lost outlaw Davy. In the end it’s not Rube who haunts the reader’s imagination, it’s his father, torn between love for his outlaw son and the duty to do the right, honest thing. Enger finds something quietly heroic in the bred-in-the-bone Minnesota decency of America’s heartland. Peace Like a River opens up a new chapter in Midwestern literature.
December 2002: We will read a short Christmas story and meet at Mary’s for fellowship. (Skipping Christmas)
November 2002: Frankenstein by Mary Shelly. (Mary) Frankenstein, loved by many decades of readers and praised by such eminent literary critics as Harold Bloom, seems hardly to need a recommendation. If you haven’t read it recently, though, you may not remember the sweeping force of the prose, the grotesque, surreal imagery, and the multilayered doppelgÃƒÆ’Ã†â€™Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â¤nger themes of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece. As fantasy writer Jane Yolen writes of this (the reviewer’s favorite) edition, “The strong black and whites of the main text [illustrations] are dark and brooding, with unremitting shadows and stark contrasts. But the central conversation with the monster–who owes nothing to the overused movie image ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â¦ but is rather the novel’s charnel-house composite–is where [Barry] Moser’s illustrations show their greatest power … The viewer can all but smell the powerful stench of the monster’s breath as its words spill out across the page. Strong book-making for one of the world’s strongest and most rearkable books.”
October 2002: Pope Joan by Donna Wolfolk Cross. Cross makes an excellent, entertaining case in her work of historical fiction that, in the Dark Ages, a woman sat on the papal throne for two years. Born in Ingelheim in A.D. 814 to a tyrannical English canon and the once-heathen Saxon he made his wife, Joan shows intelligence and persistence from an early age. We had a great teleconference with the author. We highly recommend doing so if you haven’t already.
September 2002: White Teeth by Zadie Smith (Jo) Epic in scale and intimate in approach, White Teeth is a formidably ambitious debut. First novelist Zadie Smith takes on race, sex, class, history, and the minefield of gender politics, and such is her wit and inventiveness that these weighty subjects seem effortlessly light. She also has an impressive geographical range, guiding the reader from Jamaica to Turkey to Bangladesh and back again. Still, the book’s home base is a scrubby North London borough, where we encounter Smith’s unlikely heroes: prevaricating Archie Jones and intemperate Samad Iqbal, who served together in the so-called Buggered Battalion during World War II. In the ensuing decades, both have gone forth and multiplied: Archie marries beautiful, bucktoothed Clara–who’s on the run from her Jehovah’s Witness mother–and fathers a daughter. Samad marries stroppy Alsana, who gives birth to twin sons. Here is multiculturalism in its most elemental form: “Children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical checks.”
August 2002: Saving Grace by Lee Smith (Kelly) Florida Grace (“Florida for the state I was born in,
Grace for the grace of God” ) pours out her life story in a voice as clear and sweet as mountain water. And what a story it is: raised by her charismatic father, an itinerant, serpent-handling preacher, and her devout, long-suffering mother, Gracie harbors a secret hatred of Jesus. She yearns to live in a brick house and to have a Barbie doll instead of having to travel and to live with strangers in tents and old school buses. Her father believes that God will provide and turns a blind eye to his family’s poverty and suffering. The first chance she gets, she marries the duty-bound Reverend Travis Word, but by the time she turns 33, she feels like an old woman. She eventually comes full circle at Uncle Slidell’s Christian Fun Golf Course, for at hole number 10, “The First Christmas,” she hears the baby Jesus cry out to her. Returning to a North Carolina cabin, the site of her few happy childhood memories, Gracie discovers she has the gift of second sight and reunites with the serpent-handling congregation her father originally founded. Popular southern writer Smith sweeps readers in with her fascinating portrayal of a bizarre, arcane religious cult; in particular, the scenes depicting religous ecstasy are mesmerizing.
July 2002: Skip
June 2002: Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail by Malika Oufkir. (Barbara) At the age of 5, Malika Oufkir, eldest daughter of General Oufkir, was adopted by King Muhammad V of Morocco and sent to live in the palace as part of the royal court. There she led a life of unimaginable privilege and luxury alongside the king’s own daughter. King Hassan II ascended the throne following Muhammad V’s death, and in 1972 General Oufkir was found guilty of treason after staging a coup against the new regime, and was summarily executed. Immediately afterward, Malika, her mother, and her five siblings were arrested and imprisoned, despite having no prior knowledge of the coup attempt. They were first held in an abandoned fort, where they ate moderately well and were allowed to keep some of their fine clothing and books. Conditions steadily deteriorated, and the family was eventually transferred to a remote desert prison, where they suffered a decade of solitary confinement, torture, starvation, and the complete absence of sunlight. Oufkir’s horrifying descriptions of the conditions are mesmerizing, particularly when contrasted with her earlier life in the royal court, and many graphic images will long haunt readers. Her account of their final flight to freedom makes for breathtaking reading. Stolen Lives is a remarkable book of unfathomable deprivation and the power of the human will to survive.
May 2002: Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong (Lisa) The picture of Islam as a violent, backward, and insular tradition should be laid to rest, says Karen Armstrong, bestselling author of Muhammad and A History of God. Delving deep into Islamic history, Armstrong sketches the arc of a story that begins with the stirring of revelation in an Arab businessman named Muhammad. His concern with the poor who were being left behind in the blush of his society’s new prosperity sets the tone for the tale of a culture that values community as a manifestation of God. Muhammad’s ideas catch fire, quickly blossoming into a political empire. As the empire expands and the once fractured Arabs subdue and overtake the vast Persian domain, the story of a community becomes a panoramic drama. With great dexterity, Armstrong narrates the Sunni-Shi’ite schism, the rise of Persian influence, the clashes with Western crusaders and Mongolian conquerors, and the spiritual explorations that traced the route to God. Armstrong brings us through the debacle of European colonialism right up to the present day, putting Islamic fundamentalism into context as part of a worldwide phenomenon. Islam: A Short History, like Bruce Lawrence’s Shattering the Myth and Mark Huband’s Warriors of the Prophet, introduces us to a faith that beckons like a minaret to those who dare to venture beyond the headlines.
April 2002: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (June) Like the comic books that animate and inspire it, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is both larger than life and of it too. Complete with golems and magic and miraculous escapes and evil nemeses and even hand-to-hand Antarctic battle, it pursues the most important questions of love and war, dreams and art, across pages brimming with longing and hope. Samuel Klayman–self-described little man, city boy, and Jew–first meets Josef Kavalier when his mother shoves him aside in his own bed, telling him to make room for their cousin, a refugee from Nazi-occupied Prague. It’s the beginning, however unlikely, of a beautiful friendship. In short order, Sam’s talent for pulp plotting meets Joe’s faultless, academy-trained line, and a comic-book superhero is born. A sort of lantern-jawed equalizer clad in dark blue long underwear, the Escapist “roams the globe, performing amazing feats and coming to the aid of those who languish in tyranny’s chains!” Before they know it, Kavalier and Clay (as Sam Klayman has come to be known) find themselves at the epicenter of comics’ golden age.
March 2002: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (Susan) With a compassionate realism and narrative sweep that recall the work of Charles Dickens, this magnificent novel captures all the cruelty and corruption, dignity and heroism, of India. The time is 1975. The place is an unnamed city by the sea. The government has just declared a State of Emergency, in whose upheavals four strangers–a spirited widow, a young student uprooted from his idyllic hill station, and two tailors who have fled the caste violence of their native village–will be thrust together, forced to share one cramped apartment and an uncertain future. As the characters move from distrust to friendship and from friendship to love, A Fine Balance creates an enduring panorama of the human spirit in an inhuman state.
February 2002: Fortune’s Rocks by Anita Shreve. (Lisa). The year is 1899, and Olympia Biddeford, the headstrong daughter of a Boston Brahmin family, has decided to test the limits of her cloistered world. Spending the summer at her father’s New Hampshire estate, the teenage heroine of Fortune’s Rocks is entranced with the visiting salon of artists, writers, and lawyers. She’s especially captivated, however, by John Haskell, a charismatic physician who ministers to the blue-collar community in the nearby mill towns. This middle-aged Good Samaritan hires Olympia to assist him as a nurse, and their collaboration soon evolves into a fiery love affair. Alas, it’s only a matter of weeks before this passionate exercise in managed care is exposed–with disastrous consequences for the young, impregnated heroine. Even her adoring father now considers her “an overplump sixteen-year-old girl whose judgment can no longer be trusted,” and insists that she break off her relationship. The author did some meticulous research for her New England background, which gives this study of one particular wayward woman some extra historical heft.
January 2002: Servants of the Map by Andrea Barrett We were very fortunate to be able to preview the book and have a tele-conference book discussion group with the author. It was very interesting and we would recommend it to anyone who has the chance. [No one limns the opposing pull of inner and outer worlds more eloquently than Andrea Barrett. Her naturalists, explorers, scientists, and healers are driven to work and above all to know; they categorize, theorize, and collect the phenomena of the natural world with an urgency that feels like physical need. But they are motivated equally by desire and loneliness, and the theme of domestic life runs like a countermelody through each of the six lovely, deeply memorable stories in Servants of the Map. The narrator of the title story, a cartographer in the Grand Trigonometrical Survey of India, is a timid, home- and family-loving man, but the Himalayas strike him with the force of a revelation. The heroine of the lyrical “Theories of Rain” is a creature of strong feelings and appetites, driven to ask questions about the world around her in the same spirit as she longs for a neighbor and mourns the brother separated from her in childhood. Her scientific curiosity is scarcely different from her desire: “Through that channel of longing, the world enters me.”]
November 2001: We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates. (Anne) A happy family, the Mulvaneys. After decades of marriage, Mom and Dad are still in love–and the proud parents of a brood of youngsters that includes a star athlete, a class valedictorian, and a popular cheerleader. Home is an idyllic place called High Point Farm. And the bonds of attachment within this all-American clan do seem both deep and unconditional. But as we all know, Eden can’t last forever. And in the hands of Joyce Carol Oates, who’s chronicled just about every variety of familial dysfunction, you know the fall from grace is going to be a doozy. By the time all is said and done, a rape occurs, a daughter is exiled, much alcohol is consumed, and the farm is lost. We Were the Mulvaneys is populated with such richly observed and complex characters that we can’t help but care about them, even as we wait for disaster to strike them down.
October 2001: The Awakening and Other Stories by Kate Chopin. (Susan). The Awakening shocked turn-of-the-century readers with its forthright treatment of sex and suicide. Departing from literary convention, Kate Chopin failed to condemn her heroine’s desire for an affair with the son of a Louisiana resort owner, whom she meets on vacation. The power of sensuality, the delusion of ecstatic love, and the solitude that accompanies the trappings of middle- and upper-class life are the themes of this now-classic novel. As Kaye Gibbons points out in her Introduction, Chopin “was writing American realism before most Americans could bear to hear that they were living it.” (This Modern Library Paperback Classics edition includes selected stories from Chopin’s Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie.) (We are fortunate to live within an hour or so’s drive from her home and now museum in Cloutierville, La and plan an outing after we read the book.)
September 2001: Paper Daughter by Elaine Mar. (Kelly) Born in Hong Kong to parents who immigrated there from the Toishan region of mainland China, Elaine Mar came to America in 1972, when she was not quite 6. Colorado was quite a shock to a girl who had previously shared a five-room apartment with four other families. Mar’s pungent memoir of her odyssey from poor immigrant to Harvard undergraduate shatters stereotypes about Asians as the “model minority.” She was a smart girl and a good student who soon preferred the American name Elaine and “only spoke Chinese when absolutely necessary.” Honestly chronicling conflicts with her parents, whose horizons and expectations seemed unbearably limited, Mar outlines her youthful rebellion and their response with mature understanding. Her observation of American life is as clear-eyed and unsentimental as her self-portrait of a girl adrift between two
August 2001: Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. Girl with a Pearl Earring centers on the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s prosperous Delft household during the 1660s. When Griet, the novel’s quietly perceptive heroine, is hired as a servant, turmoil follows. First, the 16-year-old narrator becomes increasingly intimate with her master. Then Vermeer employs her as his assistant–and ultimately has Griet sit for him as a model. Chevalier vividly evokes the complex domestic tensions of the household, ruled over by the painter’s jealous, eternally pregnant wife and his taciturn mother-in-law. At times the relationship between servant and master seems a little anachronistic. Still, Girl with a Pearl Earring does contain a final delicious twist. (This one also was great for discussion. Our leader brought a book of his paintings which added to the discussion.)
July 2001: The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. The red tent is the place where women gathered during their cycles of birthing, menses, and even illness. Like the conversations and mysteries held within this feminine tent, this sweeping piece of fiction offers an insider’s look at the daily life of a biblical sorority of mothers and wives and their one and only daughter, Dinah. Told in the voice of Jacob’s daughter Dinah (who only received a glimpse of recognition in the Book of Genesis), we are privy to the fascinating feminine characters who bled within the red tent. (We had a great discussion with this book.)
June 2001: In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescurer by Irene Gut Opdyke. When World War II began, Irene Gutowna was a 17-year-old Polish nursing student. Six years later, she writes in this inspiring memoir, “I felt a million years old.” In the intervening time she was separated from her family, raped by Russian soldiers, and forced to work in a hotel serving German officers. Sickened by the suffering inflicted on the local Jews, Irene began leaving food under the walls of the ghetto. Soon she was scheming to protect the Jewish workers she supervised at the hotel, and then hiding them in the lavish villa where she served as housekeeper to a German major. When he discovered them in the house, Gutowna became his mistress to protect her friends–later escaping him to join the Polish partisans during the Germans’ retreat. The author presents her extraordinary heroism as the inevitable result of small steps taken over time, but her readers will not agree as they consume this thrilling adventure story, which also happens to be a drama of moral choice and courage. Although adults will find Irene’s tale moving, it is appropriately published as a young adult book. Her experiences while still in her teens remind adolescents everywhere that their actions count, that the power to make a difference is in their hands. (Anne)
May 2001: The Tortilla Curtain by T. Coraghessan Boyle. From the day of Delaney Mossbacher’s accident on the canyon road, his life and that of Candido Rincon continue to collide. Though cultures apart, Candido’s homelessness and Delaney’s yuppie paranoia make their interactions tragic and inevitable. Boyle presents interesting characters to the listener but seems to want to rush us through the story. The frenetic pace reflects Delaney’s world better than Candido’s. (Susan)
April 2001: RELIC Series. We will not meet this month in order for members to participate in the library’s RELIC Series which is titled Louisiana Characters. Meetings are start March 8th on Thursdays from 6-8:00 for six weeks.
March 2001: Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende. Until Isabel Allende burst onto the scene with her 1985 debut, The House of the Spirits, Latin American fiction was, for the most part, a boys’ club comprising such heavy hitters as Gabriel GarcÃƒÆ’Ã†â€™Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Âa MÃƒÆ’Ã†â€™Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â¡rquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and Mario Vargas Llosa. But the Chilean Allende shouldered her way in with her magical realist multi-generational tale of the Trueba family, followed it up with four more novels and a spate of nonfiction, and has remained in a place of honor ever since. Her sixth work of fiction, Daughter of Fortune, shares some characteristics with her earlier works: the canvas is wide, the characters are multi-generational and multi-ethnic, and the protagonist is an unconventional woman who overcomes enormous obstacles to make her way in the world. Yet one cannot accuse Allende of telling the same story twice; set in the mid-1800s, this novel follows the fortunes of Eliza Sommers, Chilean by birth but adopted by a British spinster, Rose Sommers, and her bachelor brother, Jeremy, after she’s abandoned on their doorstep. (Mary)
February 2001: Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence by Robin Karr-Morse. Hardly a week goes by without a headline screaming out the details of another heinous crime committed by an adolescent or young child. A 14-year-old massacres his classmates at a school prayer circle, two even younger boys fire into a crowd of middle school children killing five people, a student kills his teacher at the school prom. There is no doubt that crimes committed by children are increasing at an alarming rate and the big question is why? The authors of Ghosts from the Nursery produce compelling if not controversial evidence that violent behavior is learned and cultivated in the first few months of childhood development. Even more startling, the authors Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith S. Wiley believe that a predisposition to violent behavior can be learned before birth. A “chemical wash” of toxins such as drugs and alcohol, combined with a mother’s stress hormones generated from rage or fear can directly effect the babies brain development. Illustrative case studies and anecdotes make for a fascinating and factually “fat” read. Lacking in the book is an acknowledgment of the larger picture–not all children raised in violent homes will become violent, and on an even larger scale, there is no mention of other contributing factors leading to teen violence. Would crimes be cut if guns weren’t so readily available? Still, Ghosts from the Nursery is an engrossing book, which is bound to generate hot debate in the scientific world. (Lisa)
January 2001: One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd by Jim Fergus. An American western with a most unusual twist, this is an imaginative fictional account of the participation of May Dodd and others in the controversial “Brides for Indians” program, a clandestine U.S. government-sponsored program intended to instruct “savages” in the ways of civilization and to assimilate the Indians into white culture through the offspring of these unions. May’s personal journals, loaded with humor and intelligent reflection, describe the adventures of some very colorful white brides (including one black one), their marriages to Cheyenne warriors, and the natural abundance of life on the prairie before the final press of the white man’s civilization. Fergus is gifted in his ability to portray the perceptions and emotions of women. He writes with tremendous insight and sensitivity about the individual community and the political and religious issues of the time, many of which are still relevant today. This book is artistically rendered with meticulous attention to small details that bring to life the daily concerns of a group of hardy souls at a pivotal time in U.S. history. (jo)
Nov. 2000: Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia by Jean P. Sasson. While living in Saudi Arabia, Jean Sasson befriends a woman named Sultana. Sultana wants her life to be known and she gives Jean her diaries and notes, entrusting her to write her life story. Jean does, changing names and places for Sultana’s protection. The result is a vivid depiction of the restrictions of Saudi Arabian society and the raw, corrupt, and unquestionable power of the royal males and religious leaders. Born into the royal family in 1956, the independent Sultana is the tenth daughter and the youngest of her mother’s living children. By age fifteen, Sultana has seen her brother participate in the rape of an eight-year-old, brought her seventeen-year-old sister home after an attempted suicide because of her forced marriage to a sadistic fifty-three-year-old man, and buried her mother. Sultana marries, and at home she dresses as she pleases and voices her opinions about the inequities she lives, though usually her views are ignored. Outside her home she must cover herself completely in black and is expected to be subservient in every way. Talks with Marci, her Filipino maid since birth, expose Sultana to the countless wrongs suffered by foreign workers in Saudi Arabia. Sultana’s lifestyle – which includes four homes, shopping trips to Europe, and gardens in the desert -contrasts sharply with what she learns from Marci and causes her further anguish and anger. Princess is an intimate look at one woman’s struggle against the injustices of an extremely repressive society. (Barbara)
Sept. 2000: The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing. The married couple in this novel pull off a remarkable achievement: They purchase a three-story house with oodles of bedrooms, and, on a middle-class income, in the ’70s, fill it to the brim with happy children and visiting relatives. Their holiday gatherings are sumptuous celebrations of life and togetherness. And then the fifth child arrives. He’s just a child–he’s not supernatural. But is he really human? This is an elegantly written tale that the New York Times called “a horror story of maternity and the nightmare of social collapse . . . a moral fable of the genre that includes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and George Orwell’s 1984.”
August 2000: Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund. It has been said that one can see farther only by standing on the shoulders of giants. Ahab’s Wife, Sena Naslund’s epic work of historical fiction, honors that aphorism, using Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick as looking glass into early-19th-century America. Through the eye of an outsider, a woman, she suggests that New England life was broader and richer than Melville’s manly world of men, ships, and whales. This ambitious novel pays tribute to Melville, creating heroines from his lesser characters, and to America’s literary heritage in general. (Mary)
June 2000: Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue by Wendy Shalit. The 23-year-old author first heard of “modestyniks”–Orthodox Jewish women who withhold physical contact from men until marriage–while a freshman at Williams College. She was initially fascinated by the way in which they cleave to old ideals, especially amid a sexually saturated contemporary world. But more so, Wendy Shalit was aghast at how modestyniks are dismissed as sick, delusional, or repressed by the secular community. “Why,” asks the author, “is sexual modesty so threatening to some that they can only respond to it with charges of abuse or delusion?” In her thoughtful three-part essay, the author reveals an impressive reading list as she probes the cultural history of sexual modesty for women and considers whether this virtue may be beneficial in today’s world–if not an antidote to misogyny. In an age when women are embarrassed by sexual inexperience, when sex education is introduced as early as primary school, and when women suffer more than ever from eating disorders, stalking, sexual harassment, and date rape, Shalit believes a return to modesty may place women on equal footing with men. She yearns for a time when conservatives can believe the claims of feminists and feminists can differentiate between patriarchy and misogyny and share in the dialectic of female sexuality. (Jo)
May 2000: The Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conway. From the first sentence, you will be drawn inexorably into the story of her childhood in New South Wales, Australia, and her gradual discovery of–and by–the larger world: the clarity of Conway’s language satisfies like cold clear water after a day in the desert: the rhythm of her sentences has a timelessness and expansiveness akin to the Australian landscape itself. This is very likely a book you will remember the rest of your life. (Susn)
April 2000 The group will not meet in order to participate in the RELIC (Readings in Literature and Culture) series, The Newest South, Contemporary Writers in a Traditional Society. Dr. Delma McLeod-Porter of McNeese State University will intorduce and lead discussions on contemproary voices and themes of Southern literature.
March 2000: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, first published in England as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, continues to win major awards in England. So far it has won the National Book Award, the Smarties Prize, the Children’s Book Award, and is short-listed for the Carnegie Medal, the U.K. version of the Newbery Medal. This magical, gripping, brilliant book–a future classic to be sure–will leave kids clamoring for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. (Barbara)
February 2000: Possession: A Romance by A. S. Byatt Winner of the 1990 Booker Prize–the U.K.’s highest literary award–Possession is a gripping and compulsively readable novel. A.S. Byatt exquisitely renders a setting rich in detail and texture. Her lush imagery weaves together the dual worlds that appear throughout the novel–the worlds of the mind and the senses, of male and female, of darkness and light, of truth and imagination–into an enchanted and unforgettable tale of love and intrigue. (Anne)
January 2000: A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain : Stories by Robert Olen Butler. The Vietnam War continues to play itself out in fiction, autobiography, and history books, but no American author has captured the experiences of the Vietnamese themselves–and caught their voices–more tellingly than Robert Olen Butler, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain. The 15 stories collected here, all written in the first person, blend Vietnamese folklore, the terrible, lingering memories of war, American pop culture and family drama. Butler’s literary ventriloquism, as he mines the experiences of a people with a great literary tradition of their own, is uncanny; but his talents as a writer of universal truths is what makes this a collection for the ages. (Lisa)
November 1999: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. As any reader of The Mosquito Coast knows, men who drag their families to far-off climes in pursuit of an Idea seldom come to any good, while those familiar with At Play in the Fields of the Lord or Kalimantaan understand that the minute a missionary sets foot on the fictional stage, all hell is about to break loose. So when Barbara Kingsolver sends missionary Nathan Price along with his wife and four daughters off to Africa in The Poisonwood Bible, you can be sure that salvation is the one thing they’re not likely to find. The year is 1959 and the place is the Belgian Congo. Nathan, a Baptist preacher, has come to spread the Word in a remote village reachable only by airplane. To say that he and his family are woefully unprepared would be an understatement: “We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle,” says Leah, one of Nathan’s four daughters. But of course it isn’t long before they discover that the tremendous humidity has rendered the mixes unusable, their clothes are unsuitable, and they’ve arrived in the middle of political upheaval as the Congolese seek to wrest independence from Belgium. In addition to poisonous snakes, dangerous animals, and the hostility of the villagers to Nathan’s fiery take-no-prisoners brand of Christianity, there are also rebels in the jungle and the threat of war in the air. Could things get any worse? (Lilly)
October 1999: A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel. This wide-ranging and erudite exploration of the topic of reading is suffused with the spirit of Manguel’s fellow Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges. Manguel takes us through the history of reading as if leading us room by room through the infinite library Borges constructed in one of his famous stories. Manguel’s approach is not chronological, but thematic. His chapter topics jump from attempts to censor reading to the physical surroundings favored by readers, from the limitations of translations to the esotericism of books written for a restricted readership. Throughout he moves easily through time and geography to quote anecdotes and examples from diverse sources. Manguel’s enthusiasm, and the impressive breadth of his reading, will make his readers eager to rush to the nearest library. (Barbara)
September 1999: Cat’s Eye by Margaret Eleanor Atwood. Returning to the city of her youth for a retrospective of her art, controversial painter Elaine Risley is engulfed by vivid images of the past. Strongest of all is the figure of Cordelia, leader of the trio of girls who initiated her into the fierce politics of childhood and its secret world of friendship, longing, and betrayal. Elaine must come to terms with her own identity as a daughter, a lover, an artist, and a woman-but above all, she must seek release from Cordelia’s haunting memory. Disturbing, hilarious, and compassionate, Cat’s Eye is a breathtaking contemporary novel of a woman grappling with the tangled knot of her life. (Kelly)
August 1999: The Gift of Fear : Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence by Gavin De Becker. Each hour, 75 women are raped in the United States, and every few seconds, a woman is beaten. Each day, 400 Americans suffer shooting injuries, and another 1,100 face criminals armed with guns. Author Gavin de Becker says victims of violent behavior usually feel a sense of fear before any threat or violence takes place. They may distrust the fear, or it may impel them to some action that saves their lives. A leading expert on predicting violent behavior, de Becker believes we can all learn to recognize these signals of the “universal code of violence,” and use them as tools to help us survive. The book teaches how to identify the warning signals of a potential attacker and recommends strategies for dealing with the problem before it becomes life threatening. The case studies are gripping and suspenseful, and include tactics for dealing with similar situations. People don’t just “snap” and become violent, says de Becker, whose clients include federal government agencies, celebrities, police departments, and shelters for battered women. “There is a process as observable, and often as predictable, as water coming to a boil.” Learning to predict violence is the cornerstone to preventing it. De Becker is a master of the psychology of violence, and his advice may save your life. (Susan)
June 1999: Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts. The tribulations of 17-year-old Novalee Nation, daughter of the Tennessee trailer parks, make up a surprisingly long, none-too-subtle tale. The story opens with pregnant Novalee, abandoned by boyfriend Willie Jack Pickens, living in a small, dusty Oklahoma town’s Wal-Mart. After she is discovered writhing in labor and rushed to the hospital, Sam Walton (Wal-Mart’s late, billionaire owner) offers her a job. Conveniently, her housing dilemma is solved, too, when she moves in with the local eccentric with a heart-of-gold. The rest of the book (300-plus pages) follows the next five years in the lives of Novalee and her daughter. We meet more idiosyncratic yet lovable characters and learn the fate of Willie Jack. Although the book’s emotional manipulation may be distasteful to some, others may find its soap-opera plot and Forrest Gump-ish optimism appealing. (Mary)
May 1999: Accordion Crimes by Annie Proulx. The novel follows an accordion from the hands of its maker in Sicily in 1890 until it is flattened by a truck in Florida in 1996. In the intervening century it passes through the hands of a host of unlucky owners and their kin: Abelardo Relampago, who dies from the bite of a poisonous spider; Dolor Gagnon, decapitated by his own chain saw; Silvano, cut down in the jungles of Venezuela by an Indian’s arrow. (Jo)
April 1999:Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. According to Arthur Golden’s absorbing first novel, the word “geisha” does not mean “prostitute,” as Westerners ignorantly assume–it means “artisan” or “artist.” A novel with the broad social canvas (and love of coincidence) of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen’s intense attention to the nuances of erotic maneuvering. Readers experience the entire life of a geisha, from her origins as an orphaned fishing-village girl in 1929 to her triumphant auction of her mizuage (virginity) for a record price as a teenager to her reminiscent old age as the distinguished mistress of the powerful patron of her dreams. We discover that a geisha is more analogous to a Western “trophy wife” than to a prostitute–and, as in Austen, flat-out prostitution and early death is a woman’s alternative to the repressive, arcane system of courtship. (Peggy)
March 1999: The group will participate in the Literary Lagniappe Louisiana Writers Discussion Series. Corinne Pearce of Northwestern State University will introduce and lead discussions of the literature and literary scene of Louisiana beginning Thusday, February 4th and continuing each Thursday until March 11th.
January & February 1999: Personal History by Katherine Graham. Personal History reads like a good novel: A woman survives a wealthy childhood not without its problems, outlives a marriage that goes disastrously wrong, then takes over the family business and not only makes it a success, but influences American history as well. Best of all, it’s true. This large memoir (625 pages) by Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post and undoubtedly one of the most powerful women of her time, is an extraordinary American story. (Most of us were glad we read at least part of it. We found it much too long and tedious at times. A good editor could have helped it read better. The parts about Watergate, the Pentagon Papers and the Pressmens strike were interesting.)
November 1998: Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel–the magnificent story of four generations in the life of an American family. A wheelchair-bound retired historian embarks on a monumental quest: to come to know his grandparents, now long dead. The unfolding drama of the story of the American West sets the tone for Stegner’s masterpiece. (Made for a good discussion! Readers may find the beginning a bit slow, but stay with it.)
October 1998: Cider House Rules by John Irving. Wilbur Larch, a physician, philosopher, obstetrician, and abortionist at St. Cloud’s orphanage struggles through his relationship with his apprentice and surrogate son, Homer Wells. (Had a great discussion with this one.)
September 1998: Tuesdays With Morrie An Old Man, a Young Man, and the Last Great Lesson by Mitch Albom. This true story about the love between a spiritual mentor and his pupil. We meet Morrie Schwartz–a one of a kind professor, whom the author describes as looking like a cross between a biblical prophet and Christmas elf. We are privy to intimate moments of Morrie’s final days as he lies dying from a terminal illness. Even on his deathbed, this twinkling-eyed mensch manages to teach us all about living robustly and fully. (Everyone enjoyed this one.)
August 1998: Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. The hero of Charles Frazier’s beautifully written and deeply-imagined first novel is Inman, a disillusioned Confederate soldier who has failed to die as expected after being seriously wounded in battle during the last days of the Civil War. Rather than waiting to be redeployed to the front, the soul-sick Inman deserts, and embarks on a dangerous and lonely odyssey through the devastated South, heading home to North Carolina, and seeking only to be reunited with his beloved, Ada, who has herself been struggling to maintain the family farm she inherited. Cold Mountain is an unforgettable addition to the literature of one of the most important and transformational periods in American history. (Everyone loved this book..good character development, good prose, good discussion.)
June 1998: Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson. On San Piedro Island, Puget Sound, a Japanese-American fisherman stands trial for cold-blooded murder in the shadow of World War II, and the journalist who covers the trial comes close once again to the wife of the accused, his boyhood love. Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award. (An enjoyable read with good discussion.)
May 1998: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. This is the unforgettable American masterpiece about a young girl’s coming of age at the turn of the century. (Enjoyed by all and provided a good discussion. Some in the group could indentify with and others were moved by the poverty.)
April 1998: Mothers of Invention : Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust. From hundreds of diaries, letters, and memoirs of the period, historian Drew Gilpin Faust reveals how war changed the lives of Southern women forever–from a housewife having to do physical labor for the first time to a Virginia aristocrat turned military nurse to a ruthless teenaged girl spy. A New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Winner of the Francis Parkman Prize, and Winner of the Avery Craven Prize. 40 b&w photos throughout. (The group had a good discussion with this book. We were motivated to seek out individual women’s stories also.)
March 1998: My Antonia by Willa Cather. Novel by Willa Cather, published in 1918. Her best-known work, it honors the immigrant settlers of the American plains. Narrated by the protagonist’s lifelong friend, Jim Burden, the novel recounts the history of Antonia Shimerda, the daughter of Bohemian immigrants who settled on the Nebraska frontier. The book contains a number of poetic passages about the disappearing frontier and the spirit and courage of frontier people. Many critics consider My Antonia to be Cather’s finest achievement. (Everyone enjoyed this classic.)
February 1998: The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr. In this funny, razor-edged memoir, Mary Karr, a prize-winning poet and critic, looks back at her upbringing in a swampy East Texas refinery town with a volatile, defiantly loving family. She recalls her painter mother, seven times married, whose outlaw spirit could tip into psychosis; a fist swinging father who spun tales with his cronies – dubbed the Liars’ Club; and a neighborhood rape when she was eight. An inheritance was squandered, endless bottles emptied, and guns leveled at the deserving and undeserving. With a row authenticity stripped of self pity,and a poet’s eye for the lyrical detail, Karr shows us a “terrific family of liars and drunks…redeemed by a slow unearthing of truth.” (We liked reading about an area geographically near us, but the consensus was that most did not like the book. The discussion was good, but a bit depressing.)
January 1998: Reviving Ophelia : Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls by Mary Pipher. This powerful New York Times bestseller explores the confounding behavior of adolescent girls, who in rapidly increasing numbers are succumbing to depression, eating disorders, addictions and suicide. Furthermore, Dr. Pipher issues a call for parents to understand their daughters’ behavior, helping them reconnect with their lost sense of self. (This book provided a very lively discussion. Many could relate to their own lives.)
November 1997: The Color of Water by James McBride. McBride’s extraordinary memoir of a young black man’s search to uncover his white mother’s past along with his own identity results in a powerful portrait of growing up, a meditation on race and identity, and a poignant, beautifully crafted hymn from a son to his mother.(We had a very good discussion on this book. Most everyone liked it and had a lot to talk about.)
October 1997: Salt Dancers by Ursula Heli. Ursula Hegi follows her masterful and critically acclaimed novel Stones from the River with a dramatic contemporary tale of one woman’s journey back to her childhood through layers of memory, fear, longing, and love. Unmarried and pregnant at forty-one, Julia returns home to a father she hasn’t seen in twenty-three years, and to the memories of secrecy, betrayal, abuse and abandonment that haunt her still. Haunting and lyrical, beautiful and harrowing, Salt Dancers fulfills the promise of Hegi’s earlier work. (Was enjoyed by most. Good discussion, some were able to relate personally. Most agreed her writing style very good.)
September 1997: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt. A seductive and mesmerizing account that skillfully weaves the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case with introspective first person memoirs, creating a strange and sublime portrait of the stubborn and isolated remnants of the Old South. In this book, remarkable characters that could have once prospered in a William Faulkner novel or Eudora Welty short story lend their voices to this lyrical work of nonfiction. (Again, some liked, some did not. The majority enjoyed the character development of the quirky characters. Those who didn’t did not think it had enough depth.)
August 1997: In the Lake of the Woods, by Tim O’Brien. The author of The Things They Carried offers a riveting novel of love and mystery. When long-hidden secrets about the atrocities he committed in Vietnam come to light, a candidate for the U.S. Senate retreats with his wife to a lakeside cabin in northern Minnesota. Within days of their arrival, his wife mysteriously vanishes into the watery wilderness. (Some liked the book, some did not. It did create a lot of discussion regarding the possible outcome of the story and the Vietnam issue.)