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Book News, Part Two

March 14th, 2008 (03:01 pm)
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current mood: calm

I've put together the list of books that my book club will be reading for the next 10 months or so. Turnout has been lousy lately (if anyone lives near Alexandria, Virginia, and is looking for a book club to join, you are welcome)! But our members did suggest plenty of books to add to the list. We read fiction and nonfiction, classics, bestsellers, obscure books, and just about anything else we can think of, though we prefer books that are already out in paperback. Now if I can just get people to show up for the meetings....

Here is what we're reading for each month:

(Descriptions adapted from Amazon.com.)

Tuesday, April 8
Water for Elephants
By Sara Gruen
When he was twenty-one in Depression-era America, Jacob left veterinary school after the death of his parents left him impoverished, and joined a second-rate circus. Water for Elephants is the story of Jacob's life with this circus. Gruen spares no detail in chronicling the squalid, filthy, brutish conditions. Because of his veterinary skills, Jacob is put in charge of the "menagerie." The circus impresario is a self-serving, venal creep who slaps people around. August, the animal trainer, is a paranoid schizophrenic whose flights into madness and brutality often target Jacob. Jacob is the self-appointed Protector of the Downtrodden, who falls in love with Marlena, crazy August's wife. Not his best idea. The most interesting aspect of the book is the carefully researched circus lore. One glorious passage about Marlena and Rosie, the elephant, truly evokes the magic a circus can create. It is easy to see Marlena's and Rosie's pink sequins under the Big Top and to imagine their perfect choreography as they perform unbelievable stunts. The crowd loves it -- and so will the reader. The ending is absolutely ludicrous and really quite lovely.

Tuesday, May 13
Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity
By David Allen
Got clutter? Productivity trainer and consultant Allen offers a highly recommended crash course in basic time management and personal organization. Allen's enthusiasm for the topic and his passion for systems comes across loud and clear. The message is concise: Organize yourself to free your mind for greater pursuits. And this simple production makes that daunting task seem possible. It's a quick glimpse at setting goals, clearing clutter, and staying focused. This book is definitely worth the time for the effort it will save down the road.

Tuesday, June 10
The Last Summer Of You and Me
Ann Brashares
Sisters Riley and Alice and their neighbor Paul spent childhood summers on Fire Island. Now in their 20s, they converge there for a final summer. But Paul and Alice upset the equilibrium by falling in love, unwittingly neglecting Riley. When Riley becomes seriously ill, Alice's guilt emerges, and she gives up both Paul and her plans for law school. She moves back home and helps care for Riley for the next year, a strained, uneasy re-creation of their childhood. But Riley shares with Paul a secret from the past. By the end, all links to childhood have been discarded; the three can no longer inhabit the Fire Island they knew, except in memory. Despite its serious themes, The Last Summer (of You and Me) is full of optimism but steeped in familiar longings for the carefree pleasures of summer. This is the first book that author Brashares (Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) has written for an adult audience.

Tuesday, July 8
Jane Austen Book Club
By Karen Joy Fowler
Fowler's fifth novel features her trademark sly wit, quirky characters, and digressive storytelling, but with a difference: this one is book-club-ready, complete with mock-serious "questions for discussion" posed by the characters themselves. The plot is deceptively slim: five women and a man meet each month to discuss the novels of Jane Austen. As they debate the plots, we see that Austen’s books mean something different to each club member, depending on the issues in each one’s own life. Conversations are variously astute, petty, obvious, and funny, but no one stays with it: the characters nibble desserts, sip margaritas, and drift off into personal reveries. Like Austen, Fowler is a a wise observer of human interaction. She's also an enthusiastic consumer of popular culture, offsetting the heady literary chat with references to Sex and the City, Linux, and "a rug...from the Sundance catalog." The novelty should attract significant numbers of book club members, not to mention the legions of Janeites craving good company and happy endings.

Tuesday, August 12
The Tin Drum
By Gunter Grass
On his third birthday, dressed in a striped pullover and clutching his new tin drum, young Oskar makes an irrevocable decision: "It was then that I declared, resolved, and determined that I would never...be a politician, much less a grocer; that I would stop right there, remain as I was – and so I did; for many years I not only stayed the same size but clung to the same attire." Here is a Peter Pan story with a vengeance. First published in 1959, The Tin Drum's depiction of the Nazi era created a furor in Germany, for Grass's world is rife with corrupt politicians and brutal grocers in brown shirts. As Oskar grows older, he goes from one picaresque adventure to the next – he joins a troupe of traveling musicians; he becomes an anarchist leader; he falls in love; he becomes a recording artist – until after the war, when he is convicted of murder and confined to a mental hospital. Savage comedy and magical realism capture not only the madness of war, but also the cancer at the heart of humanity that allows such degradations to occur. Grass wields humor like a knife – he'll make you laugh, but he'll make you bleed, as well. This classic, award-winning novel has been called "one of the enduring literary works of the twentieth century."

Tuesday, September 9
By Diana Gabaldon
Absorbing and heartwarming, this first novel lavishly evokes the land and lore of Scotland, with realistic characters and a feisty, likable heroine. In 1945, English nurse Claire and husband Frank take a second honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands. When Claire walks through a cleft stone in an ancient henge, she's transported to 1743. She encounters Frank's evil ancestor, British captain Jonathan "Black Jack." And she nurses young soldier Jamie, a gallant, merry redhead, and the two begin a romance, filled with perilous, swashbuckling adventures involving Black Jack. Scenes of the Highlanders' daily life blend poignant emotions with Scottish wit and humor. Eventually Claire finds a chance to return to 1945, and must choose between distant memories of Frank and her happy, uncomplicated existence with Jamie. Don’t be put off by the thickness of this one: you’ll speed through it! And then you’ll want to read the sequels.

Tuesday, October 14
On the Road
By Jack Kerouac
Here’s one of those classics we’ve all heard of but might not have gotten around to reading. Few novels have had as profound an impact on our culture as On the Road. Pulsating with the rhythms of 1950s underground America, jazz, sex, illicit drugs, and the promise of the open road, Kerouac's classic novel of freedom and longing defined what it meant to be "beat" and has inspired generations of writers, artists, and seekers who say this book set them free. Based on Kerouac's own adventures, On the Road tells the story of two friends whose cross-country road trips are a quest for meaning and true experience. Written with a mixture of sad-eyed naVveté and wild abandon, and imbued with Kerouac's love of America, compassion for humanity, and sense of language as jazz, On the Road is the quintessential American vision of freedom and hope, a book that changed American literature and changed anyone who has ever picked it up.

Tuesday, November 11
The Blind Assassin
By Margaret Atwood
The Blind Assassin is a tale of two sisters, one of whom dies under ambiguous circumstances in the opening pages. The survivor, Iris, initially seems a little cold-blooded about the death of her sister Laura. But as Atwood's most ambitious work unfolds – a tricky process, with several nested narratives and even an entire novel-within-a-novel – we're reminded of just how complicated families can be. Atwood also launches into an excerpt from Laura's novel, The Blind Assassin, posthumously published in 1947. In this double-decker concoction, a wealthy woman dabbles in blue-collar passion, even as her lover regales her with a series of science-fictional parables. Complicated? You bet. But the author puts all this variegation to good use, taking expert measure of our capacity for self-delusion and complicity, not to mention desolation. Yet she never succumbs to cynicism or contempt for her characters. On the contrary, she's capable of great tenderness, and as we immerse ourselves in Iris's spliced-in memoir, it's clear that this buttoned-up socialite has been anything but blind to the chaos surrounding her.

Tuesday, December 9
A Thousand Splendid Suns
Khaled Hosseini
Afghan-American novelist Hosseini follows up his bestselling The Kite Runner with another searing epic of Afghanistan in turmoil. The story covers three decades of anti-Soviet jihad, civil war, and Taliban tyranny through the lives of two women. Mariam is forced at age 15 to marry 40-year-old Rasheed, who grows increasingly brutal as she fails to produce a child. Then Rasheed takes another wife, 14-year-old Laila, a smart and spirited girl whose only other option, after her parents are killed, is prostitution or starvation. Against a backdrop of unending war, Mariam and Laila become allies against Rasheed, whose violent misogyny is endorsed by custom and law. Hosseini gives a forceful but nuanced portrait of a social order where women are agonizingly dependent on fathers, husbands, and especially sons, the bearing of sons being their sole path to social status. His tale is a powerful, harrowing depiction of Afghanistan, but also a lyrical evocation of the lives and enduring hopes of its resilient characters.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Before I Die
By Jenny Downham
Teenage Tessa has just months to live. Fighting back against hospital visits, endless tests, and drugs with excruciating side-effects, Tessa compiles a list. It’s her To Do Before I Die list. And number one is Sex. Released from the constraints of ‘normal’ life, Tessa tastes new experiences to make her feel alive while her failing body struggles to keep up. Tessa’s feelings, her relationships with her father and brother, her estranged mother, her best friend, and her new boyfriend, all are painfully crystallized in the precious weeks before Tessa’s time finally runs out. Says the NY Times Book Review: "This may sound too depressing for words, but it is only one indication of the inspired originality of Before I Die... that the reader can finish its last pages feeling thrillingly alive.... This book will not leave you."



Posted by: Allison Stein (astein142)
Posted at: March 15th, 2008 06:36 pm (UTC)

They say the David Allen book spawns an addiction to getting things done... which is not a bad thing. ;)

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: March 24th, 2008 07:34 pm (UTC)

Water for Elephants is fabulous - I loved the way it was written and want to read more by that author.

I know I read Before I Die but I'm struggling to recall it, in fact I think I blogged about it. Isn't it YA literature?

Ah, Outlander - don't you know Gabaldon's books are like potato chips? You can't read just one! You'll have to keep reading and reading to follow the lives of the characters -esp. dreamy Jamie!

I thought The Last Summer of You and Me was a disappointment. I'll be interested to hear what your group thinks of it. I prefer her Traveling Pants books.

Loved A Thousand Splendid Suns (as did my book club) - hope he writes some more books!!

Happy reading!!


Posted by: petrini1 (petrini1)
Posted at: March 25th, 2008 08:16 pm (UTC)
Re: books

Yes, you did read Before I Die. It was after hearing how much you liked it that I decided to add it to the list! How quickly we forget.... And I know all about Gabaldon's books; I feel the same way about them. In fact, I met her once. We were speaking on the same program at a writer's conference. She's as terrific in person as she is in writing. I also know Ann Brashares, who used to be one of my Sweet Valley High editors and is still one of my writing idols, but I haven't read the "grown-up" book yet. I do love the Traveling Pants series. I'm just starting Water for Elephants now, and have not begun 1000 Splendid Suns, though The Kite Runner was awesome. Happy Reading!

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