Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Monday, January 12, 2009: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

2 p.m.
Discussion Leader:
Candace Plotsker-Herman

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Reviews from the NoveList Plus Database

Booklist Review: /*Starred Review*/ Following her thoughtful first novel, The Namesake (2003), which has been made into a meditative film, Lahiri returns to the short story, the form that earned her the Pulitzer Prize for her debut, Interpreter of Maladies (1999). The tight arc of a story is perfect for Lahiri's keen sense of life's abrupt and painful changes, and her avid eye for telling details. This collection's five powerful stories and haunting triptych of tales about the fates of two Bengali families in America map the perplexing hidden forces that pull families asunder and undermine marriages. "Unaccustomed Earth," the title story, dramatizes the divide between immigrant parents and their American-raised children, and is the first of several scathing inquiries into the lack of deep-down understanding and trust in a marriage between a Bengali and non-Bengali. An inspired miniaturist, Lahiri creates a lexicon of loaded images. A hole burned in a dressy skirt suggests vulnerability and the need to accept imperfection. Van Eyck's famous painting, The Arnolfini Marriage, is a template for a tale contrasting marital expectations with the reality of familial relationships. A collapsed balloon is emblematic of failure. A lost bangle is shorthand for disaster. Lahiri's emotionally and culturally astute short stories (ideal for people with limited time for pleasure reading and a hunger for serious literature) are surprising, aesthetically marvelous, and shaped by a sure and provocative sense of inevitability. -- Seaman, Donna (Reviewed 02-01-2008) (Booklist, vol 104, number 11, p5)

Publishers Weekly Review: /* Starred Review */ The gulf that separates expatriate Bengali parents from their American-raised children—and that separates the children from India—remains Lahiri's subject for this follow-up to Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake . In this set of eight stories, the results are again stunning. In the title story, Brooklyn-to-Seattle transplant Ruma frets about a presumed obligation to bring her widower father into her home, a stressful decision taken out of her hands by his unexpected independence. The alcoholism of Rahul is described by his elder sister, Sudha; her disappointment and bewilderment pack a particularly powerful punch. And in the loosely linked trio of stories closing the collection, the lives of Hema and Kaushik intersect over the years, first in 1974 when she is six and he is nine; then a few years later when, at 13, she swoons at the now-handsome 16-year-old teen's reappearance; and again in Italy, when she is a 37-year-old academic about to enter an arranged marriage, and he is a 40-year-old photojournalist. An inchoate grief for mothers lost at different stages of life enters many tales and, as the book progresses, takes on enormous resonance. Lahiri's stories of exile, identity, disappointment and maturation evince a spare and subtle mastery that has few contemporary equals. (Apr.) --Staff (Reviewed January 28, 2008) (Publishers Weekly, vol 255, issue 4, p39)

Library Journal Review: Four years after the release of her best-selling novel, The Namesake , the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lahiri returns with her highly anticipated second collection of short stories exploring the inevitable tension brought on by family life. The title story, for example, takes on a young mother nervously hosting her widowed father, who is visiting between trips he takes with a lover he has kept secret from his family. What could have easily been a melodramatic soap opera is instead a meticulously crafted piece that accurately depicts the intricacies of the father-daughter relationship. In a departure from her first book of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies , Lahiri divides this book into two parts, devoting the second half of the book to "Hema and Kaushik," three stories that together tell the story of a young man and woman who meet as children and, by chance, reunite years later halfway around the world. The author's ability to flesh out completely even minor characters in every story, and especially in this trio of stories, is what will keep readers invested in the work until its heartbreaking conclusion. Recommended for all public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 12/07.]—Sybil Kollappallil, Library Journal --Sybil Kollappallil (Reviewed February 1, 2008) (Library Journal, vol 133, issue 2, p65)

Kirkus Reviews /* Starred Review */ Lahiri (The Namesake, 2003, etc.) extends her mastery of the short-story format in a collection that has a novel's thematic cohesion, narrative momentum and depth of character. The London-born, American-raised author of Indian descent returns with some of her most compelling fiction to date. Each of these eight stories, most on the longish side, a few previously published in magazines, concerns the assimilation of Bengali characters into American society. The parents feel a tension between the culture they've left behind (though to which they frequently return) and the adopted homeland where they always feel at least a little foreign. Their offspring, who are generally the protagonists of these stories, are typically more Americanized, adopting a value system that would scandalize their parents, who are usually oblivious to the college lives their sons and daughters lead. Ambition and accomplishment are givens in these families, where it's understood that nothing less than attending a top-flight school and entering an honored profession (medicine, law, academics) will satisfy. The stunning title story presents something of a role reversal, as a Bengali daughter and her American husband must come to terms with the secrets harbored by her father. The story expresses as much about love, loss and the family ties that stretch across continents and generations through what it doesn't say, and through what is left unaddressed by the characters. Even "Only Goodness," the most heavy-handed piece in the collection, which concerns a character's guilt over her brother's alcoholism, sustains the reader's interest until the last page. The final three stories trace the lives of two characters, Hema and Kaushik, from their teen years through their 30s, when fate (or chance) reunites them. An eye for detail, ear for dialogue and command of family dynamics distinguish this uncommonly rich collection.
(Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 2008)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Monday, December 15: Empress of the Splendid Season by Oscar Hijuelos

Monday, December 15, 2 p.m.

Discussion leader: Edna Ritzenberg

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Booklist Review: Hijuelos' saga of a struggling Cuban American family living in New York City unfolds as randomly and enigmatically as everyday life itself. Lydia Espana, called the "Empress of Splendid Season" by her adoring husband, glows at the hub of the narrative wheel. Born into a wealthy Cuban family, Lydia grew up in luxury, surrounded by servants, but she outraged her strict father with her sexual escapades. Disowned and exiled, she ends up poor and alone on Manhattan's Upper West Side, yet, vivacious and resourceful, she accepts her fate with good grace, finds work as a seamstress, and falls in love with Raul, a romantic who works as a waiter and courts her with sweet decorum. They marry, have a son, Rico, and a daughter, Alicia, and strive to better themselves, but Raul becomes ill, and Lydia has to bear the brunt of supporting the family. She becomes a cleaning woman for a set of households whose materially plusher but no less emotionally demanding lives offer provocative contrasts to her own. Lydia works very hard, indulges her husband, drives her American children crazy with her rigid codes of behavior and ambitious expectations, and wins the respect and affection of her employers, and Hijuelos celebrates his sharp-eyed heroine's pride and conviction, dignity and strength, frustrations and triumphs with great insight and admiration. As the decades spin by, he writes intermittently from Raul's, Rico's, and Alicia's perspectives, but everything circles back to Lydia, who learns to stop questioning life and simply embrace it. This is a beautifully wrought tale of self-sacrifice and spiritual growth, suffused with the striking benevolence of Hijuelos' all but angelic narrator. ((Reviewed December 1, 1998)) -- Donna Seaman

Publishers Weekly Review: As in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Hijuelos imagines the life of a humble Cuban-American from the late '40s to the present. Latin sensuality turns to Yankee drudgery when Lydia Espana the spoiled daughter of a small-town Cuban alcalde, is banished from her home in 1947 for staying out till dawn after a dance. Romantic and uneducated, she moves to New York, where marries, and becomes a cleaning woman to keep her sick husband (a handsome waiter with refined manners) and two children from the brink of poverty. Lydia worries and dotes in the manner of a quintessential immigrant mother trying to maintain respectability and make ends meet. While the drab black-and-white of her daily life runs its course, a rich Technicolor fantasy of time-before plays through her head. In memory, Lydia is again the Empress of the Splendid Season, beautiful enough to catch the eye of a Hollywood star. Depicting Spanish Harlem with relentless realism, Hijuelos penetrates the lives behind the humble tenements and massive university buildings. With poignancy, he captures the lonely fear of Lydia's son as he makes his way up the ladder of American success, the apex of which is perhaps not as enviable as he and Lydia assume. Familiar Hijuelos elements--Latin music, introspective men, touches of magic realism in quietly powerful prose--render here a tender and undramatic portrait of a complex woman and her culture. Agent, Harriet Wasserman. Literary Guild selection. (Feb.)

Library Journal Review: Once called the "Professor of Cuba" by her father, Lydia is a long way from Havana in this novel, set in New York City from the 1950s to the mid-1980s. Disowned by her family, Lydia moves to New York and finds work as a seamstress. She marries and has two children, but her hopes of becoming a housewife come to an end when her husband suffers the first of many heart attacks. Lydia goes to work cleaning homes for wealthy New Yorkers, among them the Osprey family, who employ her for 20 years and who feature prominently not only in her life but in her family's as well. Lydia's story is one of assimilation and the future of different cultures as the next generation moves beyond its roots. The novel intermingles time periods, life histories, and social classes to create an intriguing look at family, wealth, and race in modern America. This multigenerational tale from the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love is well written and engrossing. Recommended for all public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/98.]--Robin Nesbitt, Hilltop Branch Lib., Columbus Metropolitan Lib., OH

Kirkus Reviews: Pulitzer-winner Hijuelos (Mr. Ives— Christmas, 1995, etc.) offers up a slow-moving but sometimes poignant slice-of-lifer about a Cuban-American family from the 1940s onward. The beautiful Lydia Espa§a was born in pre-Castro Cuba, a privileged child with a businessman father who was a model of small-town elegance—and also of a fierce rectitude that made him turn violently against his daughter when she came into her own sexuality and slept one night with a musician. Off she's sent, alone, to New York City, where at first she supports herself as a seamstress—until one night at a party in 1949 she meets her future husband, the stylish Raul, who's working there as a waiter. Though he's ten years her senior, the love is real, marriage follows, and so do two children, Alicia and Rico. Happiness enough blesses the family—until Raul collapses one day on a restaurant floor amid a clatter of dishes and trays, never again to be free of a debilitatingly weak heart that will keep him from returning to his job—with the result that Lydia must be the breadwinner, doing so as that lowliest of workers, the cleaning lady. Years and then decades pass, a touch of Horatio Alger visits the book as an East Side advertising man Lydia cleans for proves wildly benevolent, and there are touches, too, of authorial tendentiousness when Hijuelos lets his theme of poverty versus wealth break through his novel's real tone (—earning in a week . . . what a chichi Soho artist will piss away on a lunch with friends at the Four Seasons . . . —). Most of the time, though, as usual, the author shows himself one of our most affectionate chroniclers of the city's less favored neighborhoods as the '60s come and go, then the '70s, and as the Espa§a family passes—with dignity intact—through time, life, work, sorrow, and love. Sturdy truths and honest humanity in another look at life † la Hijuelos. (Literary Guild selection; author tour) (Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 1999)

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Saturday, October 4, 2008

Monday, November 17: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Monday, November 17, 2 p.m.
Discussion leader: Ellen Getreu

The world of Olive Kitteridge, a retired school teacher in a small coastal town in Maine, is revealed in stories that explore her diverse roles in many lives, including a lounge singer haunted by a past love, her stoic husband, and her own resentful son.


Publishers Weekly Review:

**Starred Review ** 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. Their son, Christopher, takes center stage in "A Little Burst," which describes his wedding in humorous, somewhat disturbing detail, and in Security, where Olive, in her 70s, visits Christopher and his family in New York. Strout's fiction showcases her ability to reveal through familiar details the mother-of-the-groom's wedding dress, a grandmother's disapproving observations of how her grandchildren are raised the seeds of tragedy. Themes of suicide, depression, bad communication, aging and love, run through these stories, none more vivid or touching than "Incoming Tide," where Olive chats with former student Kevin Coulson as they watch waitress Patty Howe by the seashore, all three struggling with their own misgivings about life. Like this story, the collection is easy to read and impossible to forget. Its literary craft and emotional power will surprise readers unfamiliar with Strout. (Apr.) --Staff (Reviewed December 10, 2007) (Publishers Weekly, vol 254, issue 49, p31)

Library Journal Review:

In her third novel, New York Times best-selling author Strout (Abide with Me ) tracks Olive Kitteridge's adult life through 13 linked stories. Olive -- a wife, mother, and retired teacher -- lives in the small coastal town of Crosby, ME. A large, hulking woman with a relentlessly unpleasant personality, Olive intimidates generations of community members with her quick, cruel condemnations of those around her, including her gentle, optimistic, and devoted husband, Henry, and her son, Christopher, who, as an adult, flees the suffocating vortex of his mother's displeasure. Strout offers a fair amount of relief from Olive's mean cloud in her treatment of the lives of the other townsfolk. With the deft, piercing shorthand that is her short story-telling trademark, she takes readers below the surface of deceptive small-town ordinariness to expose the human condition in all its suffering and sadness. Even when Olive is kept in the background of some of the tales, her influence is apparent. Readers will have to decide for themselves whether it's worth the ride to the last few pages to witness Olive's slide into something resembling insight. For larger libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 12/07.] -- Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI --Beth E. Andersen (Reviewed February 1, 2008) (Library Journal, vol 133, issue 2, p65)

Kirkus Reviews:

** Starred Review ** The abrasive, vulnerable title character sometimes stands center stage, sometimes plays a supporting role in these 13 sharply observed dramas of small-town life from Strout (Abide with Me, 2006, etc.). Olive Kitteridge certainly makes a formidable contrast with her gentle, quietly cheerful husband Henry from the moment we meet them both in "Pharmacy," which introduces us to several other denizens of Crosby, Maine. Though she was a math teacher before she and Henry retired, she's not exactly patient with shy young people—or anyone else. Yet she brusquely comforts suicidal Kevin Coulson in "Incoming Tide" with the news that her father, like Kevin's mother, killed himself. And she does her best to help anorexic Nina in "Starving," though Olive knows that the troubled girl is not the only person in Crosby hungry for love. Children disappoint, spouses are unfaithful and almost everyone is lonely at least some of the time in Strout's rueful tales. The Kitteridges' son Christopher marries, moves to California and divorces, but he doesn't come home to the house his parents built for him, causing deep resentments to fester around the borders of Olive's carefully tended garden. Tensions simmer in all the families here; even the genuinely loving couple in "Winter Concert" has a painful betrayal in its past. References to Iraq and 9/11 provide a somber context, but the real dangers here are personal: aging, the loss of love, the imminence of death. Nonetheless, Strout's sensitive insights and luminous prose affirm life's pleasures, as elderly, widowed Olive thinks, "It baffled her, the world. She did not want to leave it yet." A perfectly balanced portrait of the human condition, encompassing plenty of anger, cruelty and loss without ever losing sight of the equally powerful presences of tenderness, shared pursuits and lifelong loyalty. (Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 2008)

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Monday, September 8, 2008

Monday, October 6, 2008: When a Crocodile Eats the Sun

by Peter Godwin
Group Discussion leader: Edna Ritzenberg

Peter Godwin, an award-winning writer, is on assignment in Zululand when he is summoned by his mother to Zimbabwe, his birthplace. His father is seriously ill; she fears he is dying. Godwin finds his country, once a post-colonial success story, descending into a vortex of violence and racial hatred.

His father recovers, but over the next few years Godwin travels regularly between his family life in Manhattan and the increasing chaos of Zimbabwe, with its rampant inflation and land seizures making famine a very real prospect. It is against this backdrop that Godwin discovers a fifty-year-old family secret, one which changes everything he thought he knew about his father, and his own place in the world. (from the publisher's web site)

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Read an Interview with Peter Godwin in New York magazine

and another interview with Peter Godwin from Bookslut.com

Publishers Weekly Review:

/* Starred Review */ 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 book --- the father is Jewish and has hidden it from Godwin and his siblings. As his father's health deteriorates, so does Zimbabwe. Mugabe, self-proclaimed president for life, institutes a series of ill-conceived land reforms that throw the white farmers off the land they've cultivated for generations and consequently throws the country's economy into free fall. There's sadness throughout --- for the death of the father, for the suffering of everyone in Zimbabwe (black and white alike) and for the way that human beings invariably treat each other with casual disregard. Godwin's narrative flows seamlessly across the decades, creating a searing portrait of a family and a nation collectively coming to terms with death. This is a tour de force of personal journalism and not to be missed. (Apr.) --Staff (Reviewed February 26, 2007) (Publishers Weekly, vol 254, issue 9, p73)

Kirkus Reviews
Zimbabwe's disintegration in the hands of ruthless dictator Robert Mugabe, recounted in careful, beautifully crafted prose by a journalist born and raised there. Godwin's powerful story combines vivid travelogue, heart-wrenching family saga and harrowing political intrigue. Mugabe's pillaging of Zimbabwe is a crime still grossly underreported by the international press and largely ignored by the world community. It is all the more harrowing when seen through the lens of its impact on the lives of Godwin's intrepid parents, an engineer and physician who came to Rhodesia as newlyweds. Hardly the stereotypical colonial exploiters, George and Helen Godwin helped build and nurture the country; they even applauded many of the changes that overthrew white rule and saw Zimbabwe's transformation in 1980 into a black-governed land. But in February 2000, barbaric forces were set loose by Mugabe, a mass-murderer still viewed by many Africans as a liberator. Gangs of gun-toting looters, encouraged by Mugabe and his henchmen, plunged the country into anarchy. White-owned farms were "repossessed" by thugs who cared little about growing crops. Businesses wereransacked, often by the corrupt police force. The fragile economy was destroyedwhile millions starved. Hundreds of white families and black members of the political opposition were murdered in their homes. Like many of his compatriots, the author left Zimbabwe, becoming a journalist and documentary filmmaker first inEngland and later in America. But he returned home regularly to visit his aging, increasingly isolated and anxious parents, whose friends were steadily being killed or forced to flee. Despite Africa's numbing violence and despair, Godwin (Mukiwa, 1996, etc.) never loses sight of the natural beauty and native spirit that drew his parents there in the first place. A haunting story.

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Monday, September 8: Moral Disorder and Other Stories

by Margaret Atwood
Discussion leader: Candace Plotsker-Herman

A collection of isolated tales, some written in the first person, some in the third person, all contemplating life and death. Like our memories, there are things that refuse to be forgotten, some clear and in focus as the day it happened, where at times the seemingly significant things vanish or are found only in old newspapers and fashion magazines.

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Margaret Atwood at Random House Publishers
The Margaret Atwood Society


Booklist Review: /*Starred Review*/

Atwood's brilliant and bracing novels appear apace, yet it's been 15 years since her last short story collection, Wilderness Tips. Atwood now returns to the form in a book of interconnected tales that span the life of a skeptical, stoic, book-loving woman named Nell. Swooping back and forth in time and mordantly assessing everything from fashion to the counterculture to real estate, Atwood touches down to illuminate Nell at age 11, knitting furiously while awaiting the arrival of an unexpected sibling. Lizzie turns out to be an exceedingly anxious child, and their exhausted mother leans too heavily on Nell for help. At once fascinated and repelled by the domestic arts, Nell strives to remain unencumbered during her sojourns as an "itinerate brain" at various universities, fending off married academics until she finally falls for one. Tig's dreadfully imperial wife, mother of his two sons, plagues them even after they flee to a farm, where Tig and Nell live in a fever of hard work and earthy sensuousness. Atwood's meticulous stories exert a powerful centrifugal force, pulling the reader into a whirl of droll cultural analysis and provocative emotional truths. Gimlet-eyed, gingery, and impishly funny, Atwood dissects the inexorable demands of family, the persistence of sexism, the siege of old age, and the complex temperaments of other species (the story about the gift horse is to die for). Shaped by a Darwinian perspective, political astuteness, autobiographical elements, and a profound trust in literature, Atwood's stories evoke humankind's disastrous hubris and phenomenal spirit with empathy and bemusement.

-- Donna Seaman (Reviewed 08-01-2006) (Booklist, vol 102, number 22, p6)

Publishers Weekly Review: An intriguing patchwork of poignant episodes, Atwood's latest set of stories (after The Tent) chronicles 60 years of a Canadian family, from postwar Toronto to a farm in the present. The opening piece of this novel-in-stories is set in the present and introduces Tig and Nell, married, elderly and facing an uncertain future in a world that has become foreign and hostile. From there, the book casts back to an 11-year-old Nell excitedly knitting garments for her as yet unborn sister, Lizzie, and continues to trace her adolescence and young adulthood; Nell rebels against the stern conventions of her mother's Toronto household, only to rush back home at 28 to help her family deal with Lizzie's schizophrenia. After carving out a "medium-sized niche" as a freelance book editor, Nell meets Oona, a writer, who is bored with her marriage to Tig. Oona has been searching for someone to fill "the position of second wife," and she introduces Nell to Tig. Later in life, Nell takes care of her once vital but now ravaged-by-age parents. Though the episodic approach has its disjointed moments, Atwood provides a memorable mosaic of domestic pain and the surface tension of a troubled family. (Sept. 19) --Staff (Reviewed July 24, 2006) (Publishers Weekly, vol 253, issue 29, p32)

Library Journal Review: /* Starred Review */ This collection of 11 interconnected short stories opens as a Canadian woman named Nell and her longtime partner, Gilbert (known as Tig), face aging together into an uncertain future. Subsequent tales go back into Nell's childhood???spent partly in the Canadian wilderness with her entomologist father???and proceeds through her adolescence and academic career, culminating in a series of teaching and editing positions. The stories also move through North American cities and lovers and Nell's relationship with Tig, his two adolescent sons, and their life on a farm. ???White Horse??? is a strong and evocative account of Nell's relationship with younger sister Lizzie, who is schizophrenic, and with Gladys, a white horse rescued from neglect. The final three tales, ???The Entities,??? ???The Labrador Fiasco,??? and ???The Boys at the Lab,??? bring us full circle to the themes of aging and death, as witnessed by caretakers. In these reflective selections, Atwood, one of North America's most prominent and prolific authors (e.g., The Handmaid's Tale, the Booker Prize???winning The Blind Assassin) turns inward, as autobiographical as she has been to date. The result is alternatively humorous and heart-wrenching, occasionally sardonic and always brutally honest in the depiction of our often contorted relationships with one another, with nature, and with ourselves. Demand will be high. Recommended for all fiction and literature collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/06.]??? Jenn B. Stidham, Houston Community Coll.-Northeast -- Jenn B. Stidham (Reviewed August 15, 2006) (Library Journal, vol 131, issue 13, p78)

Kirkus Reviews /* Starred Review */ The stages of a woman's life and loves are presented in 11 elegantly linked episodes, in the Booker-winning Canadian author's latest collection.

Atwood (The Tent, Jan. 2006, etc.) mingles omniscient with first-person narrative, moving backward and forward in time through nearly seven decades, to portray her (initially unnamed) sentient protagonist, a freelance journalist and sometime teacher whose eventual commitment to writing seems born of the secrets and evasions into which a lifetime of relationships and responsibilities propels her. We first meet her (in "The Bad News") as an elderly woman who lives with her longtime companion, Gilbert (nicknamed "Tig"), in a menacing imagined future shaped by environmental and political catastrophes and further imperiled by approaching "barbarians." Next, scenes from her childhood disclose complex feelings toward her somewhat distant mother and the younger sister (Lizzie) she's obliged to help raise, and?while garbed for Halloween as "The Headless Horseman"?resentment of Lizzie's increasingly irrational fears and mood swings. The agonies of being a sensitive teen and a socially challenged "brain" are beautifully captured in "My Last Duchess." Then, Nell (finally named, when Atwood shifts into omniscient narration) finds something less than happiness when the aforementioned Tig leaves his flamboyant, demanding wife Oona for her, and Nell's energies are subsumed for years in caring for him, his two sons, the infuriating Oona and, once again, her unstable, possibly schizophrenic sibling. The final stories are concerned with her aging parents' last days and the legacy of photographs, stories and memories that comprise her family's inchoate history and point the way toward a fulfillment perhaps implicit in the jumble of false starts and unresolved commitments that her life has hitherto been.

Crisp prose, vivid detail and imagery and a rich awareness of the unity of human generations, people and animals, and Nell's own exterior and inmost selves, make this one of Atwood's most accessible and engaging works yet.
(Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2006)

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Tuesday, August 12: The Time Traveler's Wife

by Audrey Niffenegger
Discussion leader: Ellen Getreu

A gripping, beautiful love story with a science fiction twist. Henry De Tamble is a Chicago librarian with "Chrono Displacement" disorder; at random times, he suddenly disappears without warning and finds himself in the past or future, usually at a time or place of importance in his life. The frustrations of being left behind, all told from the viewpoint of both Henry and Clare, make this charming novel an unforgettable one.

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Links from Audrey Niffenegger's web site


Booklist Review: On the surface, Henry and Clare Detamble are a normal couple living in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. Henry works at the Newberry Library and Clare creates abstract paper art, but the cruel reality is that Henry is a prisoner of time. It sweeps him back and forth at its leisure, from the present to the past, with no regard for where he is or what he is doing. It drops him naked and vulnerable into another decade, wearing an age-appropriate face. In fact, it’s not unusual for Henry to run into the other Henry and help him out of a jam. Sound unusual? Imagine Clare Detamble’s astonishment at seeing Henry dropped stark naked into her parents’ meadow when she was only six. Though, of course, until she came of age, Henry was always the perfect gentleman and gave young Clare nothing but his friendship as he dropped in and out of her life. It’s no wonder that the film rights to this hip and urban love story have been acquired.
-- Elsa Gaztambide (BookList, September 1, 2003, p59)

Publishers Weekly Review: /* Starred Review */ This highly original first novel won the largest advance San Francisco–based MacAdam/Cage had ever paid, and it was money well spent. Niffenegger has written a soaring love story illuminated by dozens of finely observed details and scenes, and one that skates nimbly around a huge conundrum at the heart of the book: Henry De Tamble, a rather dashing librarian at the famous Newberry Library in Chicago, finds himself unavoidably whisked around in time. He disappears from a scene in, say, 1998 to find himself suddenly, usually without his clothes, which mysteriously disappear in transit, at an entirely different place 10 years earlier—or later. During one of these migrations, he drops in on beautiful teenage Clare Abshire, an heiress in a large house on the nearby Michigan peninsula, and a lifelong passion is born. The problem is that while Henry's age darts back and forth according to his location in time, Clare's moves forward in the normal manner, so the pair are often out of sync. But such is the author's tenderness with the characters, and the determinedly ungimmicky way in which she writes of their predicament (only once do they make use of Henry's foreknowledge of events to make money, and then it seems to Clare like cheating) that the book is much more love story than fantasy. It also has a splendidly drawn cast, from Henry's violinist father, ruined by the loss of his wife in an accident from which Henry time-traveled as a child, to Clare's odd family and a multitude of Chicago bohemian friends. The couple's daughter, Alba, inherits her father's strange abilities, but this is again handled with a light touch; there's no Disney cuteness here. Henry's foreordained end is agonizing, but Niffenegger has another card up her sleeve, and plays it with poignant grace. It is a fair tribute to her skill and sensibility to say that the book leaves a reader with an impression of life's riches and strangeness rather than of easy thrills. (Sept. 9)
Staff (Reviewed August 4, 2003) (Publishers Weekly, vol 250, issue 31, p55)

Library Journal Review: /* Starred Review */ This debut novel tells the compelling love story of artist Clare and her husband, Henry, a librarian at the Newberry Library who has an ailment called Chrono-Displaced Person (CDP), which without his control removes him to the past or the future under stressful circumstances. The clever story is told from the perspectives of Henry and Clare at various times in their lives. Henry's time travels enable him to visit Clare as a little girl and later as an aged widow and explain "how it feels to be living outside of the time constraints most humans are subject to." He seeks out a doctor named Kendrik, who is unable to help him but hopes to find a cure for his daughter, Alba, who has inherited CDP. The lengthy but exciting narrative concludes tragically with Henry's foretold death during one of his time travels but happily shows the timelessness of genuine love. The whole is skillfully written with a blend of distinct characters and heartfelt emotions that hopscotch through time, begging interpretation on many levels. Public libraries should plan on purchasing multiple copies of this highly recommended book.—David A. Beronä, Univ. of New Hampshire, Durham (Reviewed August 15, 2003) (Library Journal, vol 128, issue 13, p134)

Kirkus Reviews Mainstreamed time-travel romance, cleverly executed and tastefully furnished if occasionally overwrought: a first from fine newcomer Niffenegger. While the many iterations and loops here are intricately woven, the plot, proper, is fairly simple. Henry has a genetic condition that causes him to time-travel. The trips, triggered by stress, are unpredictable, and his destination is usually connected to an important event in his life, like his mother's death. Between the ages of 6 and 18, Clare, rich, talented, and beautiful, is repeatedly visited by time-traveling Henry, in his 30s and 40s; they're in love, and lovers, when the visits end. In Chicago, now 20, Clare spots Henry, who, at 28, has never seen her before; she explains, and they begin their contemporaneous life together, which continues until Henry dies at 43. (Clare receives one more visit in her 80s, in a moving final scene.) Henry is presented as dangerous and constantly in danger, but—until his grisly and upsetting final days—those episodes seem incidental, in part because everything is a foregone conclusion, paradox having been dismissed from the start. There's a great deal of such incident; the story could be cut by a third without losing substance. Teenaged Clare is roughly treated on a date; adult Henry beats up the lout. Clare and Henry want to be parents; after a series of heartbreaking miscarriages they have a perfect, time-traveling child. Will Henry's secret be discovered? Henry reveals it himself. Presented as a literary novel, this is more accurately an exceedingly literate one, distinguished by the nearly constant background thrum of connoisseurship. Henry works as a rare-books librarian and recites Rilke; Clare is an avant-sculptress and papermaker; they appreciate the best of punk rock, opera, and Chicago, live in a beautiful house, and have better sex than you. A Love Story for educated, upper-middle-class tastes; with a movie sale to Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, it could have some of that long-ago book's commercial potential, too.
(Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2003)

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Tuesday, July 15: A Thousand Splendid Suns

by Khaled Hosseini
Discussion leader: Edna Ritzenberg

From the author of The Kite Runner, the setting is yet again Afghanistan. This is a heart-stopping, harrowing story of two women whose lives are joined unexpectedly together in war-torn Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

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Khaled Hosseini's Web Site

Reviews (from Novelist Database)

Booklist Review: /*Starred Review*/ Hosseini's follow-up to his best-selling debut, The Kite Runner (2003) views the plight of Afghanistan during the last half-century through the eyes of two women. Mariam is the illegitimate daughter of a maid and a businessman, who is given away in marriage at 15 to Rasheed, a man three times her age; their union is not a loving one. Laila is born to educated, liberal parents in Kabul the night the Communists take over Afghanistan. Adored by her father but neglected in favor of her older brothers by her mother, Laila finds her true love early on in Tariq, a thoughtful, chivalrous boy who lost a leg in an explosion. But when tensions between the Communists and the mujahideen make the city unsafe, Tariq and his family flee to Pakistan. A devastating tragedy brings Laila to the house of Rasheed and Mariam, where she is forced to make a horrific choice to secure her future. At the heart of the novel is the bond between Mariam and Laila, two very different women brought together by dire circumstances. Unimaginably tragic, Hosseini's magnificent second novel is a sad and beautiful testament to both Afghani suffering and strength. Readers who lost themselves in The Kite Runner will not want to miss this unforgettable follow-up. -- Kristine Huntley (Reviewed 03-01-2007) (Booklist, vol 103, number 13, p39)

Publishers Weekly Review: /* Starred Review */ 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 the scorned illegitimate daughter of a wealthy businessman, forced at age 15 into marrying the 40-year-old Rasheed, who grows increasingly brutal as she fails to produce a child. Eighteen later, Rasheed takes another wife, 14-year-old Laila, a smart and spirited girl whose only other options, after her parents are killed by rocket fire, are prostitution or starvation. Against a backdrop of unending war, Mariam and Laila become allies in an asymmetrical battle with Rasheed, whose violent misogyny???"There was no cursing, no screaming, no pleading, no surprised yelps, only the systematic business of beating and being beaten"???is endorsed by custom and law. Hosseini gives a forceful but nuanced portrait of a patriarchal despotism where women are agonizingly dependent on fathers, husbands and especially sons, the bearing of male children 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. (May) --Staff (Reviewed February 26, 2007) (Publishers Weekly, vol 254, issue 9, p52)

Library Journal Review: /* Starred Review */ Raised in poverty by her unwed epileptic mother and married off early by the rich, elegant father who has always kept her at arm's length, Mariam would seem to have little in common with well-educated and comfortably raised young Laila. Yet their lives intertwine dramatically in this affecting new novel from the author of The Kite Runner, who proves that one can write a successful follow-up after debuting with a phenomenal best seller. As Mariam settles in Kabul with her abusive cobbler husband, smart student Laila falls in love with friend Tariq. But she loses her brothers in the resistance to Soviet dominion and her parents in a bombing just as the family prepares to flee the awful violence. Simply to survive, she becomes the second wife of Mariam's husband and is bitterly resented by the older woman until they are able to form the bond that serves as the heart of this novel. Then the Taliban arrive. Hosseini deftly sketches the history of his native land in the late 20th century while also delivering a sensitive and utterly persuasive dual portrait. His writing is simple and unadorned, but his story is heartbreaking. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 1/07.]???Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal --Barbara Hoffert (Reviewed March 15, 2007) (Library Journal, vol 132, issue 5, p58)

Kirkus Reviews /* Starred Review */ This Afghan-American author follows his debut (The Kite Runner, 2003) with a fine risk-taking novel about two victimized but courageous Afghan women. Mariam is a bastard. Her mother was a housekeeper for a rich businessman in Herat, Afghanistan, until he impregnated and banished her. Mariam's childhood ended abruptly when her mother hanged herself. Her father then married off the 15-year-old to Rasheed, a 40ish shoemaker in Kabul, hundreds of miles away. Rasheed is a deeply conventional man who insists that Mariam wear a burqa, though many women are going uncovered (it's 1974). Mariam lives in fear of him, especially after numerous miscarriages. In 1987, the story switches to a neighbor, nine-year-old Laila, her playmate Tariq and her parents. It's the eighth year of Soviet occupation—bad for the nation, but good for women, who are granted unprecedented freedoms. Kabul's true suffering begins in 1992. The Soviets have gone, and rival warlords are tearing the city apart. Before he leaves for Pakistan, Tariq and Laila make love; soon after, her parents are killed by a rocket. The two storylines merge when Rasheed and Mariam shelter the solitary Laila. Rasheed has his own agenda; the 14-year-old will become his second wife, over Mariam's objections, and give him an heir, but to his disgust Laila has a daughter, Aziza; in time, he'll realize Tariq is the father. The heart of the novel is the gradual bonding between the girl-mother and the much older woman. Rasheed grows increasingly hostile, even frenzied, after an escape by the women is foiled. Relief comes when Laila gives birth to a boy, but it's short-lived. The Taliban are in control; women must stay home; Rasheed loses his business; they have no food; Aziza is sent to an orphanage. The dramatic final section includes a murder and an execution. Despite all the pain and heartbreak, the novel is never depressing; Hosseini barrels through each grim development unflinchingly, seeking illumination. Another artistic triumph, and surefire bestseller, for this fearless writer.
(Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2007)

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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

June 16: The Light of Evening

by Edna O'Brien

Discussion leader: Candace Plotsker-Herman

Plot Summary: From her Dublin hospital bed, an ailing elderly woman recalls the important events and people of her life, from her emigration to America in the 1920s, to her Irish marriage, to motherhood, as she awaits a visit from her estranged daughter, Eleanora. (NoveList database)

Biography of Edna O'Brien

Reviews for this title:

Publishers Weekly Review: /* Starred Review */ In her 20th work of fiction, O'Brien meditates with haunting lyricism on the lure of home and the compulsion to leave. Dilly, 78 and widowed, lies in a Catholic hospital in rural Ireland waiting for her elder daughter, Eleanora, to arrive at her bedside. In gorgeous stream-of-consciousness from the masterful O'Brien (Lantern Slides), Dilly recalls her early years as well as decades of misunderstanding and conflict with Eleanora. Dilly's past unfolds in fits and starts: she leaves her mother behind in a small village in Ireland to seek a better life in 1920s Brooklyn, returning after a failed affair and the death of her brother, Michael. She promptly marries the rich Cornelius; they settle at Rusheen, his dilapidated family estate, and have two children. For Eleanora's story, O'Brien shifts to the third person: the daughter moves to England, marries an older novelist and begins a successful career as a writer before divorcing him and embarking on a series of affairs with married men, a life that Dilly both envies and scorns. The award-winning O'Brien evokes the cruelty of estrangement while allowing her characters to remain sympathetic and giving them real voice. (Oct.) --Staff (Reviewed June 26, 2006) (Publishers Weekly, vol 253, issue 26, p26)

Library Journal Review: A celebrated Irish author with 18 works of fiction (e.g., Night; Lantern Slides) to her credit, O'Brien here weaves strands of an Irish countrywoman's life, most compellingly when following Dilly's temporary immigration to New York. There, readers encounter a dazzling comic passage paying homage to James Joyce's famous Christmas dinner scene in the short story ???The Dead.??? The book's second half takes a semiautobiographical turn, following Dilly's daughter Eleanora from her rural Irish childhood, through her disastrous marriage to a foreigner of whom her family disapproves, and eventually to her development into a controversial writer who lives abroad but never leaves the subject of her Irish homeland far behind. Past and present interweave, as letters and journal entries detail an intricate Celtic knot of a mother/daughter relationship, relaying love, worry, disappointment, and agonizing miscomprehensions. But while the author writes lyrically with great narrative skill and the psychological acuity her fans expect, this tale of the convoluted bonds between mother and daughter is ultimately a bit too long and overwrought to match the best of her work. For larger collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/06.]???Laurie Sullivan, Sage Group International, Nashville --Laurie Sullivan (Reviewed August 15, 2006) (Library Journal, vol 131, issue 13, p72)

Kirkus Reviews A novel of powerful, complicated emotions and rapturous writing suffers from its plot's soap-opera sentimentality.O'Brien (Wild Decembers, 2000, etc.) shows how much of herself she has invested in this material in the book's dedication: "For My Mother and My Motherland." Languishing on her deathbed from a disease she has done her best to deny, Delia "Dilly" Macready comes to terms with her life in general and her relationship with her daughter in particular. That daughter, Eleanora, is a novelist who long ago departed her native Ireland for London, where she has become successful and notorious by writing books that scandalize those she left behind, blurring the lines between life and art, memory and invention. Thus the novel encourages the reader to identify Eleanora with the London-based author, whose work has generated controversy in her homeland (and who drops the third-person references to the "E" character for the first-person "I" in the novel's final stages). Yet the story belongs to Dilly, and only she comes fully alive within these pages. The richest section recounts Eleanora's young adulthood in America, after she had left her mother for the promise of a new world, only to find that her nationality and inexperience have consigned her to maid's work. It is there that she meets the man she will love for the rest of her life, though circumstances and miscommunication have her return home and marry a dutiful Irishman. Her two children are even less lucky in love, as Eleanora, whose true passion is literature, marries and divorces an older, domineering man with no redeeming qualities (leaving the reader to wonder what she ever saw in him), and her henpecked brother and shrewish wife scheme to inherit Dilly's once prosperous property.Through the twists of blood ties, O'Brien explores the profound ambivalence of the mother-daughter relationship, but the land and the climate seem more fully developed as characters than do many of the one-dimensional humans. (Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2006)

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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Monday, May 5: The Death of Vishnu

by Manil Suri

Discussion leader: Ellen Getreu

As Vishnu lies dying on the staircase he inhabits, his neighbors argue over who will pay for an ambulance. Each neighbor has his or her own drama: Mr. Jalal is searching for higher meaning; Vinod Taneja longs for the wife he lost; and Kavita Asrani is planning to elope. This story becomes a metaphor for the social and religious divisions of contemporary India, and Vishnu's ascent of the staircase parallels the soul's progress through the various stages of existence.

Glossary of Indian terms (copyright from the 2008 Harper First Perennial edition)

Page 1 Page 2 Page 3

Reviews for this Title:
Booklist Review:

Suri, a mathematics professor at the University of Maryland, has entered the realm of literature with assurance, agile humor, and an impressive breadth of social and religious concerns. His first novel, set in Bombay, the city of his birth, conjures a beehive-busy microcosm within the walls of an apartment building. Two Hindu families bicker about water and ghee; a Muslim household is pitched into confusion when its mild-mannered patriarch turns fanatic in his pursuit of enlightenment; a Hindu girl and Muslim boy imagine that they’re in love; and Vishnu, the drunk who sleeps on the first-floor landing, drifts peacefully toward death. As he lies dreaming about love, his childhood, and his divine namesake, his neighbors fret over their tired marriages, knotty questions of status and faith, and responsibility for Vishnu. The gospel of the movies is just as influential as the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita in Suri’s tenderly comic, wryly metaphysical, and hugely entertaining tale, in which profound longings for romance and deliverance shape even the most modest (perhaps the most precious) of lives. (Reviewed November 15, 2000) -- Donna Seaman

Publishers Weekly Review
: Visualizing a village, a hotel or an apartment building as a microcosm of society is not a new concept to writers, but few have invested their fiction with such luminous language, insight into character and grasp of cultural construct as Suri does in his debut. The inhabitants of a small apartment building in Bombay are motivated by concerns ranging from social status to spiritual transcendence while their alcoholic houseboy, Vishnu, lies dying on the staircase landing. During a span of 24 hours, Vishnu's body becomes the fulcrum for a series of crises, some tragic, some farcical, that reflect both the folly and nobility of human conduct. To the perpetually quarreling first-floor tenants, Mrs. Pathak and Mrs. Asrani, Vishnu is a recipient of grudging charity and casual calumny; each justifies her refusal to pay for his hospitalization. Though locked in perpetual bickering, the women are united in their prejudice against their upstairs neighbors, the Jahals, who are Muslims. While Mr. Jahal seeks to test his intellectual agnosticism by seeking spiritual enlightenment, his son, Samil, and the Asranis' spoiled, willful daughter, Kavita, prepare to defy their families by running away together. On the third floor, reclusive widower Vinod Taneja still mourns his young wife, Sheetal; their story of tentative love blossoming into deep devotion and truncated by early death is an exquisite cameo of a marital relationship. Interspersed are Vishnu's lyrically rendered thoughts as his soul leaves his body and begins a slow ascent of the apartment stairs, rising through the stages of existence as he relives memories of his gentle mother and his passion for the prostitute Padmina. Suril has a discerning eye for human foibles, an empathetic knowledge of domestic interaction and an instinctive understanding of the caste-nuanced traditions of Indian society. The excesses of life in that country--the oppressive heat, the mixture of superstitions and religious fanaticism, the social cruelty--permeate the atmospheric narrative. By turns charming and funny, searing and poignant, dramatic and farcical, this fluid novel is an irresistible blend of realism, mysticism and religious metaphor, a parable of the universal conditions of human life. Agent, Nicole Aragi. (Jan.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Library Journal Review: The lives and loves of residents of an apartment house in Bombay unfold as Vishnu, a drunk, lies dying on the steps that serve as his home. As his neighbors argue over the cost of an ambulance, the sick man drifts in and out of consciousness, reflecting on the meaning of his life. The well-developed and often humorous characters who make up the world of the building include the Pathaks and Asranis, whose difficult wives begrudgingly share a kitchen; the Asranis' lovesick teenaged daughter, Kavita, who plans to run away with her Muslim boyfriend; and Mr. Taneja, who still mourns the loss of his spouse years earlier. This nicely paced narrative is full of Hindu mythology, and, as Vishnu nears death, the belief that he might be a god causes a disturbing confrontation. The author of this radiant first novel is a mathematics professor at the University of Maryland. Recommended for all public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/00.]--Cathleen A. Towey, Port Washington P.L., NY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Kirkus Reviews Indian-born Suri's imaginative first novel, set in and near a volatile Bombay apartment building, employs the figure of a drunken handyman as the catalyst for a linked series of charmingly improbable seriocomic catastrophes.The eponymous Vishnu lies crumpled in a stuporous heap on a landing just outside his door. Scandalized neighbors throw covers over his offending carcass, checking occasionally for a pulse, or telltale snores. The life of the building at first proceeds pretty much as always: fastidious Mrs. Asrani and stolid Mrs. Pathak bicker over privileges abused in their communal kitchen, while their weary husbands attempt to keep the peace. Snooty Mrs. Jaiswal disapproves of everybody; reclusive widower Mr. Taneja warily emerges from his shell; devout Mrs. Jalal fears for her unbeliever husband Ahmed's soul—and really despairs when Ahmed envisions Vishnu in the figure of his namesake deity ("with fire and smoke, and more heads than I could count"). Furthermore, the Jalals' gorgeous daughter Kavati plans to elude an arranged marriage by eloping with the Asranis' prematurely jaded son Salim—unless she becomes a film star instead. Meanwhile, Vishnu's disorderly dreams revisit his chaotic past (notably his obsession with Padmini, a dictatorial prostitute with expensive tastes), and extend to a delirium presumably derived from half-overheard conversations: he decides he has become the god Vishnu. This transformation creates insoluble problems when his neighbors finally call an ambulance to remove him, and the slumberer "becomes" the last of Vishnu's traditional avatars: Kalki the destroyer. Suri plots it all beautifully, and his suggestible characters' varied eccentricities and delusions are often very funny indeed. But the crazy-quilt inner life of (the mortal) Vishnu seems essentially unrelated to their lives, as if it belongs to another novel that Suri hasn't yet written.An amalgam of early Naipaul and R.K. Narayan, with just a whiff of Kosinski's Being There. A highly likable, if oddly conceived and assembled, debut novel. (Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2000)

Monday, March 3, 2008

Monday, April 7: Aloft

by Chang-rae Lee

Discussion leader: Edna Ritzenberg

A visit from his daughter and her fiancé from Oregon prompts Jerry Battle to reassess his life, his relationships, and his disengagement from those around him, as he reflects on his success and his love of flying solo.

See the Readers' Guide for Aloft at Long Island Reads

Long Island Reads is an Island-wide reading initiative. Each Spring, people in Nassau and Suffolk come together to read the same book, participate in discussions of the selection, and enjoy related events in public libraries. The program takes place in April; many events take place during National Library Week

Long Island Reads is an Island-wide reading initiative sponsored by the Nassau Library System and Suffolk Cooperative Library System

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Reviews for this Title:

Booklist Review: At 59, Jerry Battle takes great comfort in the orderliness of the aerial view as he flies his small plane above Long Island, where his Italian American family has run a landscape business for generations, and the fact is, Jerry is always somewhat airborne. He suppresses his feelings, avoids confrontation, and, although he's physically present for his still-virile elderly father and his adult children, he is always out of reach. But gravity is a relentless force, and over the course of just a few months, Jerry is pulled inexorably into a snarl of family catastrophes, reaping the consequences of his indifference toward the family business, his inability to come to terms with his wife's death, and his failure to ask the woman he loves, Rita, to marry him, even though she essentially raised his son, Jack, whose questionable financial shenanigans will destroy the family business, and his daughter, Theresa, whose progressive views evaporate in the face of her cruel fate: she's diagnosed with cancer at the same time she gets pregnant. Lee follows the stunning A Gesture Life (1999) with a brilliant and candid parsing of the dynamics of a family of mixed heritage--Jerry's wife was Korean, as is Theresa's intended, and Rita is Puerto Rican--while simultaneously offering a ribald look at male sexuality, a charming celebration of the solace of good food, and a sagacious and bitingly funny critique of our times. There is no escape, Lee reminds us, no rising above. We have no choice but to cope with fleshy, chaotic, and bittersweet life right here on earth. -- Donna Seaman (BookList, 12-01-2003, p627)
Publishers Weekly Review: /* Starred Review */ Lee's third novel (after Native Speaker and A Gesture Life) approaches the problems of race and belonging in America from a new angle—the perspective of Jerry Battle, the semiretired patriarch of a well-off (and mostly white) Long Island family. Sensitive but emotionally detached, Jerry escapes by flying solo in his small plane even as he ponders his responsibilities to his loved ones: his irascible father, Hank, stewing in a retirement home; his son, Jack, rashly expanding the family landscaping business; Jerry's graduate student daughter, Theresa, engaged to Asian-American writer Paul and pregnant but ominously secretive; and Jerry's long-time Puerto Rican girlfriend, Rita, who has grown tired of two decades of aloofness and left him for a wealthy lawyer. Jack and Theresa's mother was Jerry's Korean-American wife, Daisy, who drowned in the swimming pool after a struggle with mental illness when Jack and Theresa were children, and Theresa's angry postcolonial take on ethnicity and exploitation is met by Jerry's slightly bewildered efforts to understand his place in a new America. Jerry's efforts to win back Rita, Theresa's failing health and Hank's rebellion against his confinement push the meandering narrative along, but the novel's real substance comes from the rich, circuitous paths of Jerry's thoughts—about family history and contemporary culture—as his family draws closer in a period of escalating crisis. Lee's poetic prose sits well in the mouth of this aging Italian-American whose sentences turn unexpected corners. Though it sometimes seems that Lee may be trying to embody too many aspects of 21st-century American life in these individuals, Jerry's humble and skeptical voice and Lee's genuine compassion for his compromised characters makes for a truly moving story about a modern family. Agent, Amanda Urban. Foreign rights sold in France, Germany, Holland and the U.K. (Mar.) — Staff (Reviewed March 1, 2004) (Publishers Weekly, vol 251, issue 9, p51)
Library Journal Review: In his third novel (after Native Speaker and A Gesture Life), Lee applies his remarkable storytelling skills to create a monstrous first-person narrator. Not that retired Long Island businessman and part-time travel agent Jerry Battle is a murderer, sexual predator, or any sort of criminal according to law. However, his defect is both serious and destructive: he is an emotional miser, distancing himself from others and keeping himself above the risks of emotional involvement. Not completely without insight, Jerry recognizes the irony and symbolism of his favorite pastime, soaring solo in his private plane—but only in clear weather. He could not be less prepared when virtually every element of his personal life goes haywire simultaneously: his longtime lover walks out, his dad disappears from an assisted-living home, his son dangerously overextends the family landscaping firm, and his pregnant daughter contracts a terminal illness. Jerry's graceless yet sometimes endearing attempts to cope with these disasters (and their attendant reminders of the bizarre death, decades before, of his beautiful Korean American wife) round out a masterly portrait of a disaffected personality. Unfortunately, the other characters, seen solely from Jerry's self-absorbed viewpoint, are often little more than two-dimensional foils for Jerry's worries and obsessions. Still, Lee's radiant writing style will please fans of his earlier fiction, and the plot will interest readers who liked Louis Begley's About Schmidt. Recommended for larger collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/03.]—Starr E. Smith, Fairfax Cty. P.L., VA (Reviewed February 1, 2004) (Library Journal, vol 129, issue 2, p124)
Kirkus Reviews /* Starred Review */ An introspective widower rises above his "habit/condition of disbelieving the Real"—in this generously ruminative third novel.Its predecessors (Native Speaker, 1995; A Gesture Life, 1999) explored the comedy and pathos of assimilation into American culture with a compassionate precision here lavished on almost-60 Jerry Battle (born "Battaglia"), whom we first meet "aloft," in the small private plane to which he retreats from quotidian pressures. Not unlike the transplanted Asians of Lee's earlier books, he's an ingredient in a rich multiethnic mix. Since the drowning death (in the family pool) of his Korean-American wife Daisy 20 years earlier, Jerry has had a gratifying affair with Puerto Rican beauty Rita Reyes, now his ex—and maintained close if wary relationships with his son Jack (who runs, and has significantly expanded the Battles' landscaping business) and daughter Theresa, a literature professor engaged to, and pregnant by, Asian-American writer Paul Pyun. What energizes Lee's very deliberately paced fiction is the accretion of detail with which his closely observed characters' shared and separate experiences and worlds are created. We feel we know everything about decent, caring Jerry (still hungry for life—and quite reminiscent of several John Updike narrators), gutsy Theresa (whose serious illness threatens her pregnancy and her life), Paul's quiet strength, Rita's spirited independence, Jack's frustrating combination of profligacy and resilience, and—in a triumphant characterization—Jerry's ornery octogenarian father Hank, too alive to be contained by the assisted living center where he reluctantly resides or by Jerry's disapproving concern. Aloft's muted conclusion contrasts tellingly with its opening image, as Jerry hunkers down in the hole dug for a new pool, at peace with his "finally examined and thus remorseful life . . . [and resolved that] I'll go solo no more, no more."Beautiful writing, richly drawn characters, and a powerful sense of life enduring in spite of all. A fine and very moving performance. (Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2003)
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Thursday, February 14, 2008

March 3: The Yiddish Policemen's Union

by Michael Chabon
Discussion leader: Candace Plotsker-Herman

For sixty years, Jewish refugees and their descendants have prospered in the Federal District of Sitka, a "temporary" safe haven created in the wake of revelations of the Holocaust and the shocking 1948 collapse of the fledgling state of Israel. For sixty years they have been left alone, neglected and half-forgotten in a backwater of history. Now the District is set to revert to Alaskan control, once again history threatens to sweep them up and carry them off into the unknown.
A gripping whodunit, a love story, an homage to 1940s noir, and an exploration of the mysteries of exile and redemption.

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Booklist Review: /*Starred Review*/ Like Haruki Murakami in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1991), Chabon plays with the conventions of the Chandlerian private-eye novel, but that's only one ingredient in an epic-scale alternate-history saga of Jewish life since World War II. The premise draws on an obscure historical fact: FDR once proposed that Alaska, not Israel, become the homeland for Jews after the war. In Chabon's telling, that's exactly what happened, except, inevitably, it hasn't gone as planned: the U.S. government now has enacted a policy that will evict all Jews without proper papers from Sitka, the center of Jewish Alaska. In the midst of this nightmare, browbeaten police detective Meyer Landsman investigates the murder of a heroin-addicted chess prodigy who happens to be the disgraced son of Sitka's most powerful rabbi. No one wants this case solved, from Landsman's boss (his ex-wife, Bina) to the FBI, but our Yiddish Marlowe keeps digging, uncovering apocalypse in the making. Chabon manipulates his bulging plot masterfully, but what makes the novel soar is its humor and humanity. Even without grasping all the Yiddish wordplay that seasons the delectable prose, readers will fall headlong into the alternate universe of Chabon's Sitka, where black humor is a kind of antifreeze necessary to support life. And when Meyer, in the end, must «weigh the fates of the Jews, of the Arabs, of the whole unblessed and homeless planet» against a promise made to a grieving mother, it's clear that this parallel world smells a lot like home. Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay ran the book-award table in 2000, and this one just may be its equal. -- Bill Ott (Reviewed 03-01-2007) (Booklist, vol 103, number 13, p38)

Publishers Weekly Review: Reviewed by Jess Walter They are the "frozen Chosen," two million people living, dying and kvetching in Sitka, Alaska, the temporary homeland established for displaced World War II Jews in Chabon's ambitious and entertaining new novel. It is -- deep breath now -- a murder-mystery speculative-history Jewish-identity noir chess thriller, so perhaps it's no surprise that, in the back half of the book, the moving parts become unwieldy; Chabon is juggling narrative chainsaws here.The novel begins the same way that Philip Roth launched The Plot Against America -- with a fascinating historical footnote: what if, as Franklin Roosevelt proposed on the eve of World War II, a temporary Jewish settlement had been established on the Alaska panhandle? Roosevelt's plan went nowhere, but Chabon runs the idea into the present, back-loading his tale with a haunting history. Israel failed to get a foothold in the Middle East, and since the Sitka solution was only temporary, Alaskan Jews are about to lose their cold homeland. The book's timeless refrain: "It's a strange time to be a Jew."Into this world arrives Chabon's Chandler-ready hero, Meyer Landsman, a drunken rogue cop who wakes in a flophouse to find that one of his neighbors has been murdered. With his half-Tlingit, half-Jewish partner and his sexy-tough boss, who happens also to be his ex-wife, Landsman investigates a fascinating underworld of Orthodox black-hat gangs and crime-lord rabbis. Chabon's "Alyeska" is an act of fearless imagination, more evidence of the soaring talent of his previous genre-blender, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.Eventually, however, Chabon's homage to noir feels heavy-handed, with too many scenes of snappy tough-guy banter and too much of the kind of elaborate thriller plotting that requires long explanations and offscreen conspiracies.Chabon can certainly write noir???or whatever else he wants; his recent Sherlock Holmes novel, The Final Solution, was lovely, even if the New York Times Book Review sniffed its surprise that the mystery novel would "appeal to the real writer." Should any other snobs mistake Chabon for anything less than a real writer, this book offers new evidence of his peerless storytelling and style. Characters have skin "as pale as a page of commentary" and rough voices "like an onion rolling in a bucket." It's a solid performance that would have been even better with a little more Yiddish and a little less police. (May)Jess Walter was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award for The Zero and the winner of the 2006 Edgar Award for best novel for Citizen Vince.Staff (Reviewed March 5, 2007) (Publishers Weekly, vol 254, issue 10, p34) --

Library Journal Review: /* Starred Review */ What's washed-up cop Meyer Landsman to do when a heroin-addicted, chess-crazed denizen of the dump where he lives gets plugged in the head? He's going to find the killer, and to that end he calls in his partner (and cousin) Berko Shemets, a bear of a man who's also half-Tlingit because, you see, this is Alaska? In this wildly inventive blackest of black comedies, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) imagines that after World War II Roosevelt decreed the yet-to-be-50th state the homeland of the Jews. Years have passed, and the Jews have settled in very nicely, thank you, re-creating the aura of the Mitteleuropa they've lost though the black-hatted, ultra-orthodox Bobovers turn out to be real thugs. The meddling of our two boys leads them straight to powerful and dangerous Bobover leader Rebbe Gold and eventually to a plot aimed at the reclamation of Israel. It also leads them into plenty of hot water with the top brass, including their new boss???Meyer's ex-wife, Bina. Raucous, acidulous, decidedly impolite, yet stylistically arresting, this book is bloody brilliant???and if it's way over the top, that's what makes Chabon such a great writer. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal --Barbara Hoffert (Reviewed March 1, 2007) (Library Journal, vol 132, issue 4, p68) 1/07.]

Kirkus Reviews /* Starred Review */ Imagine a mutant strain of Dashiell Hammett crossed with Isaac Bashevis Singer, as one of the most imaginative contemporary novelists extends his fascination with classic pulp. The Pulitzer Prize–winning author (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, 2000, etc.) returns with an alternate-history novel that succeeds as both a hardboiled detective story and a softhearted romance. In the aftermath of World War II, a Jewish homeland has been established in Alaska rather than Israel. Amid the mean streets of Sitka, the major city, Detective Meyer Landsman lives in a seedy flophouse, where alcohol has dulled his investigative instincts. His marriage to his beloved Bina couldn't survive an aborted pregnancy, after tests showed the possibility of birth defects. He also hasn't gotten over the death of his younger sister, a pilot whose plane crashed. He finds his sense of mission renewed when there's a murder in the hotel where he lives. The deceased was a heroin-addicted chess player, his slaying seemingly without motive. There's an urgency to Landsman's investigation, because the Promised Land established by the Alaskan Settlement Act is only a 50-year rental, with Jews expected to go elsewhere when the "Reversion" takes place two months hence. Thus, Landsman must solve the case before he loses his job and his home, a challenge complicated by the reappearance of his ex-wife, appointed chief of police during this transition before the Reversion. In her attempts to leave a clean slate, will she help her former husband or thwart him? Adding to the intrigue are a cult of extremists led by a gangster rabbi, a possibility that the death of Landsman's sister wasn't an accident and a conspiracy led by the U.S. government. "These are strange times to be a Jew," say various characters, like a Greek chorus, though the novel suggests that all times are strange times to be a Jew. A page-turning noir, with a twist of Yiddish, that satisfies on many levels.
(Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2007)

See The Yiddish Policemen's Union at Harper Collins' web site.