Monday, December 21, 2009

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Discussion leader: Edna Ritzenberg

Monday, February 1, 2010     1 p.m.

Balram Halwai is a complicated man. Servant. Philosopher. Entrepreneur. Murderer. Over the course of seven nights, by the scattered light of a preposterous chandelier, Balram tells the terrible and transfixing story of how he came to be a success in life-- having nothing but his own wits to help him along.

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Publishers Weekly Review: /* Starred Review */
A brutal view of India's class struggles is cunningly presented in Adiga's debut about a racist, homicidal chauffer. Balram Halwai is from the “Darkness,” born where India's downtrodden and unlucky are destined to rot. Balram manages to escape his village and move to Delhi after being hired as a driver for a rich landlord. Telling his story in retrospect, the novel is a piecemeal correspondence from Balram to the premier of China, who is expected to visit India and whom Balram believes could learn a lesson or two about India's entrepreneurial underbelly. Adiga's existential and crude prose animates the battle between India's wealthy and poor as Balram suffers degrading treatment at the hands of his employers (or, more appropriately, masters). His personal fortunes and luck improve dramatically after he kills his boss and decamps for Bangalore. Balram is a clever and resourceful narrator with a witty and sarcastic edge that endears him to readers, even as he rails about corruption, allows himself to be defiled by his bosses, spews coarse invective and eventually profits from moral ambiguity and outright criminality. It's the perfect antidote to lyrical India. (Apr.) --Staff (Reviewed January 14, 2008) (Publishers Weekly, vol 255, issue 2, p37)




Library Journal Review: /* Starred Review */
This first novel by Indian writer Adiga depicts the awakening of a low-caste Indian man to the degradation of servitude. While the early tone of the book calls to mind the heartbreaking inequities of Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance , a better comparison is to Frederick Douglass's narrative about how he broke out of slavery. The protagonist, Balram Halwai, is initially delighted at the opportunity to become the driver for a wealthy man. But Balram grows increasingly angry at the ways he is excluded from society and looked down upon by the rich, and he murders his employer. He reveals this murder from the start, so the mystery is not what he did but why he would kill such a kind man. The climactic murder scene is wonderfully tense, and Balram's evolution from likable village boy to cold-blooded killer is fascinating and believable. Even more surprising is how well the narrative works in the way it's written as a letter to the Chinese premier, who's set to visit Bangalore, India. Recommended for all libraries.--Evelyn Beck (Reviewed February 15, 2008) (Library Journal, vol 133, issue 3, p89)


Kirkus Reviews
What makes an entrepreneur in today's India? Bribes and murder, says this fiercely satirical first novel. Balram Halwai is a thriving young entrepreneur in Bangalore, India's high-tech capital. China's Premier is set to visit, and the novel's frame is a series of Balram's letters to the Premier, in which he tells his life story. Balram sees India as two countries: the Light and the Darkness. Like the huddled masses, he was born in the Darkness, in a village where his father, a rickshaw puller, died of tuberculosis. But Balram is smart, as a school inspector notices, and he is given the moniker White Tiger. Soon after, he's pulled out of school to work in a tea shop, then manages to get hired as a driver by the Stork, one of the village's powerful landlords. Balram is on his way, to Delhi in fact, where the Stork's son, Mr. Ashok, lives with his Westernized wife, Pinky Madam. Ashok is a gentleman, a decent employer, though Balram will eventually cut his throat (an early revelation). His business (coal trading) involves bribing government officials with huge sums of money, the sight of which proves irresistible to Balram and seals Ashok's fate. Adiga, who was born in India in 1974, writes forcefully about a corrupt culture; unfortunately, his commentary on all things Indian comes at the expense of narrative suspense and character development. Thus he writes persuasively about the so-called Rooster Coop, which traps family-oriented Indians into submissiveness, but fails to describe the stages by which Balram evolves from solicitous servant into cold-blooded killer. Adiga's pacing is off too, as Balram too quickly reinvents himself in Bangalore, where every cop can be bought. An undisciplined debut, but one with plenty of vitality. (Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 2008)


 Further study:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Sound and the Fury: The Corrected Version by William Faulkner

Monday, December 21, 2009 1 p.m.

Discussion leader: Candace Plotsker-Herman

Magill Book Review:
The Compson family consists of Jason III and Caroline; their children, Quentin, Caddy, Jason IV, and Benjy; the black servants, Dilsey and her relatives; and eventually Caddy's illegitimate daughter, Quentin. By 1928, when most of the novel takes place, Jason III has drunk himself to death; his son Quentin has drowned himself; Caddy has married, divorced, and left her child with the family; and Jason IV rules the family.Between the children's earliest remembrance and 1928, the family has gone from domination by Caddy's special gift for loving to domination by Jason IV. Jason IV, who believes that Caddy's failed marriage to a banker has deprived him of success, revenges himself on her through her daughter.The novel has four sections and an appendix which tells what happened to Caddy after 1928. The first three sections are internal speeches by Benjy, Quentin (male), and Jason IV. The retarded Benjy, in his inarticulate but moving way, feels the loss of the only person who ever loved him, Caddy. On the day he commits suicide, Quentin shows that he is unable to accept Caddy's growing up. Jason reveals his petty paranoia on the day he finally drives Caddy's daughter away. With her departure, he loses further opportunity for vengeance and also loses his ill-gotten savings, which she has taken with her.In section four Dilsey and Benjy attend an Easter Service. There Dilsey experiences the communion in love which the Compson family has lost. Because of this experience, she can continue loving this family despite its lovelessness.

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Book Discussion Guides

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

Monday, November 23, 1 p.m.
Discussion leader: Ellen Getreu

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Booklist Review:

In this novel set in post-9/11 New York City, Dutch banker Hans has been abandoned by his wife and son, who have decamped to London. Defeated by his seemingly failed marriage, Hans takes up residence at the Chelsea Hotel and entertains his childhood love of cricket by joining a league made up of West Indian New Yorkers. Here he meets Chuck, a charismatic Trinidadian entrepreneur who introduces him to the outer reaches of New York's boroughs and marginal cultures, while creating a friendship with Hans that is both perplexing and satisfying. O’Neill’s poignant and tragic vision of New York is paired beautifully with the protagonist's reflection on his past failures and moments of happiness. Through the author's outsider vision of the city, New York's particular blend of cultural oddities and multifarious inhabitants are brought to the surface, revealing something touching and distinct about contemporary life. Netherland is a powerful merger of seen and unseen struggles, the unraveling of an American dream, and one man's rebirth through it all. -- Paulson, Heather (Reviewed 04-15-2008) (Booklist, vol 104, number 16, p26)

Publishers Weekly Review: /* Starred Review */

Hans van den Broek, the Dutch-born narrator of O’Neill dense, intelligent novel, observes of his friend, Chuck Ramkissoon, a self-mythologizing entrepreneur-gangster, that "he never quite believed that people would sooner not have their understanding of the world blown up, even by Chuck Ramkissoon."— The image of one's understanding of the world being blown up is poignant--this is Hans's fate after 9/11. He and wife Rachel abandon their downtown loft, and, soon, Rachel leaves him behind at their temporary residence, the Chelsea Hotel, taking their son, Jake, back to London. Hans, an equities analyst, is at loose ends without Rachel, and in the two years he remains Rachel-less in New York City, he gets swept up by Chuck, a Trinidadian expatriate Hans meets at a cricket match. Chuck's dream is to build a cricket stadium in Brooklyn; in the meantime, he operates as a factotum for a Russian gangster. The unlikely (and doomed from the novel's outset) friendship rises and falls in tandem with Hans's marriage, which falls and then, gradually, rises again. O’Neill (This Is the Life) offers an outsider's view of New York bursting with wisdom, authenticity and a sobering jolt of realism. (May) --Staff (Reviewed March 3, 2008) (Publishers Weekly, vol 255, issue 9, p28)

Library Journal Review:

Hans van den Broek, the main character in this ruminative third novel (and fourth book) by Irish/Turkish/English author O’Neill (Blood-Dark Track), is a Dutch-transplanted Londoner working in New York City at the start of the 21st century. Though a successful equities analyst, Hans is given more to reverie than to action. When his wife announces she is taking their young son back to London, Hans, stunned, remains in New York. He gets drawn into a friendship of sorts with Trinidadian entrepreneur Chuck Ramkissoon, who dreams of making cricket a great American sport, and who--Hans hears later--is eventually found dead in a canal. Hans's meandering, somewhat old-fashioned narrative takes a patient reader in and out of past and present: from his cricket-playing, fatherless childhood through his distant relationship with his mother, rocky marriage, and his own fatherhood, gradually revealing the appeal of the slowly unfolding game of cricket and fast-talking Chuck Ramkissoon to a man in his early thirties finding his way in a post-9/11 world. Recommended for literary fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/08.]--Laurie A. Cavanaugh (Reviewed May 15, 2008) (Library Journal, vol 133, issue 9, p93)

Kirkus Reviews

/* Starred Review */ Novelist and memoirist O’Neill (Blood-Dark Track: A Family History, 2001, etc.), born in Ireland and raised in Holland, goes for broke in this challenging novel set largely in post-9/11 New York City.Dutch banker Hans, who narrates the story from the perspective of 2006, and his British wife Rachel, a lawyer, get more than they bargain for when they transfer their jobs from London to Manhattan for an American experience. After the World Trade Center bombing, they move out of their Tribeca loft into the Hotel Chelsea, and soon Rachel decamps with their baby son back to London. Hans visits regularly but the marriage flounders. Distraught and lonely, he joins a Cricket league made up mostly of Asian and Caribbean immigrants. Soon he (along with the reader) falls under the sway of Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian umpire. Chuck is a charming entrepreneur who has opened a kosher sushi restaurant; an inspiringly patriotic immigrant with plans to save America with Cricket; and a petty gangster running a numbers game. A classic charismatic rogue, Chuck leads Hans on a "Heart of Darkness" tour of New York's immigrant underbelly. As Hans begins to realize that Chuck might be a dangerous friend to have, Hans and Rachel's marriage disintegrates. At Chuck's recommendation, Hans moves back to England to win her back. Throughout, O’Neill plays with the nature of time and memory: Hans's Dutch childhood with his single mother, for example, still haunts him in New York. The shifting truths of who Chuck has been, who Hans's mother was, who Hans and Rachel are to each other, depend on what O’Neill calls "temporal undercurrents."This love story about a friendship, a place and a marriage is not easy to read, but it's even harder to stop thinking about. (Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 2008)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

October 19, 2009 1:00 p.m.

Discussion Leader: Edna Ritzenberg

In a crumbling house in the remote northeastern Himalayas, an embittered, elderly judge finds his peaceful retirement turned upside down by the arrival of his orphaned granddaughter, Sai.

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  • Interview with Kiran Desai
  • Assorted Book Reviews from
  • Biography of the Author from

  • Reviews from the NovelistPlus Online Database
    Booklist Review:
    /*Starred Review*/ Desai's Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard (1998) introduced an astute observer of human nature and a delectably sensuous satirist. In her second novel, Desai is even more perceptive and bewitching. Set in India in a small Himalayan community along the border with Nepal, its center is the once grand, now decaying home of a melancholy retired judge, his valiant cook, and beloved dog. Sai, the judge's teenage granddaughter, has just moved in, and she finds herself enmeshed in a shadowy fairy tale-like life in a majestic landscape where nature is so rambunctious it threatens to overwhelm every human quest for order. Add violent political unrest fomented by poor young men enraged by the persistence of colonial-rooted prejudice, and this is a paradise under siege. Just as things grow desperate, the cook's son, who has been suffering the cruelties accorded illegal aliens in the States, returns home. Desai is superbly insightful in her rendering of compelling characters and in her wisdom regarding the perverse dynamics of society. Like Salman Rushdie in Shalimar the Clown (2005), Desai imaginatively dramatizes the wonders and tragedies of Himalayan life and, by extension, the fragility of peace and elusiveness of justice, albeit with her own powerful blend of tenderness and wit. -- Donna Seaman (Reviewed 12-01-2005) (Booklist, vol 102, number 7, p26)

    Publishers Weekly Review: /* Starred Review */
    This stunning second novel from Desai (Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard ) is set in mid-1980s India, on the cusp of the Nepalese movement for an independent state. Jemubhai Popatlal, a retired Cambridge-educated judge, lives in Kalimpong, at the foot of the Himalayas, with his orphaned granddaughter, Sai, and his cook. The makeshift family's neighbors include a coterie of Anglophiles who might be savvy readers of V.S. Naipaul but who are, perhaps, less aware of how fragile their own social standing is—at least until a surge of unrest disturbs the region. Jemubhai, with his hunting rifles and English biscuits, becomes an obvious target. Besides threatening their very lives, the revolution also stymies the fledgling romance between 16-year-old Sai and her Nepalese tutor, Gyan. The cook's son, Biju, meanwhile, lives miserably as an illegal alien in New York. All of these characters struggle with their cultural identity and the forces of modernization while trying to maintain their emotional connection to one another. In this alternately comical and contemplative novel, Desai deftly shuttles between first and third worlds, illuminating the pain of exile, the ambiguities of post-colonialism and the blinding desire for a "better life," when one person's wealth means another's poverty. Agent, Michael Carlisle. (Jan.) --Staff (Reviewed October 24, 2005) (Publishers Weekly, vol 252, issue 42, p34)

    Library Journal Review:
    A shell of his once imposing self, retired magistrate Patel retreats from society to live on what was previously a magnificent estate in India's Himalayas. Cho Oyu is as far away from the real world as the embittered Patel can get. Owing to neglect and apathy, its once beautiful wooden floors are rotted, mice run about freely, and extreme cold permeates everything. The old man isn't blind to the decay that surrounds him and in fact embraces it. But the outside world intrudes with the arrival of his young granddaughter—a girl he never even knew existed. Predictably, the relationship between the two builds throughout the narrative. A parallel story about love and loss is told through the voice of Patel's cook. After the success of her debut, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard , Desai—the daughter of one of India's most gifted writers, Anita Desai—falls short in her second attempt at fiction. She fails to get readers to connect and identify with the characters, much less care for them. The story lines don't run together smoothly, and the switching between character narratives is very abrupt. Not recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/05.]—Marika Zemke, West Bloomfield Twp. P.L., MI --Marika Zemke (Reviewed November 1, 2005) (Library Journal, vol 130, issue 18, p63)

    Kirkus Reviews
    Desai's somber second novel (a marked contrast to her highly acclaimed comic fable Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, 1998) looks at cultural dislocation as experienced by an unhappy Indian ménage. In a once-sturdy house in Kalimpong, in the spectacular Himalayan foothills, live an old judge, his dog and his 17-year-old granddaughter Sai; in a nearby shack is the household's linchpin, the wretchedly underpaid cook. The judge and Sai are "estranged Indians" who converse in English, knowing little Hindi. The judge's estrangement began as a student in England. He envied the English and despised Indians, slathering powder over his too-brown skin, rejecting his peasant father; back in India, he could be hideously cruel to his wife, indirectly causing her death. He tolerates Sai (her Westernized parents were killed in an accident in the Soviet Union), but true love is reserved for his dog, Mutt. The year is 1985, and some young Nepali-Indian militants ("unleashed Bruce Lee fans") are fighting for their own state; they invade the judge's home and steal his rifles, after being tipped off by Sai's tutor Gyan, torn between his newfound ethnic loyalties and his delicate courtship of Sai. Meanwhile, in New York, the cook's son Biju, an illegal, is doing menial restaurant work; the cook, who clings to old superstitions while dreaming of electric toasters, had pushed him to emigrate. Desai employs a kaleidoscopic technique to illuminate fractured lives in Kalimpong, Manhattan and India, past and present. She finds a comic bounce in Biju's troubles even as Kalimpong turns grimmer; young rebels die, the police torture the innocent, Sai and Gyan's romance dissolves into recriminations and Mutt is stolen. We are left with two images of love: the hateful judge, now heartbroken, beseeching a chaotic world for help in retrieving Mutt, and the returning Biju, loyal son, loyal Indian, hurtling into his father's arms. Less a compelling narrative than a rich stew of ironies and contradictions. Desai's eye for the ridiculous is as keen as ever. (Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 2005)

    Tuesday, August 4, 2009

    Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler

    • Sept. 14 (Monday) at 1 PM
    • Discussion Leader: Candace Plotsker-Herman

    Rebecca Davitch realizes that she has become the “wrong person.” No longer the “serene and dignified young woman” she was at 20, at 53 Rebecca finds she has become family caretaker and cheerleader, a woman with a “style of dress edging dangerously close to Bag Lady.” So she tries to do something about it.

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    Booklist Review:

    The opening scene in Tyler’s mellifluous new novel presents a tumble of characters coerced into attending a family picnic to celebrate an unexpected engagement. Everyone has a nickname, and the connections seem complicated, but at the center stands a determinedly cheerful, plushly built, and obliviously unfashionable woman in her early fifties. This is Rebecca, or Beck, who cajoles her grumpy stepdaughters and daughter, as well as their attendant husbands, significant others, and offspring, into playing a game of softball even while she’s wondering if perhaps she’s “turned into the wrong person.” Rebecca has unwittingly embarked on a season of discontent as the last of the girls she raised gets set to marry. The clue to her sudden dismay is found in her nickname, which she dislikes. Rebecca, who throws parties for a living, has always been at everyone’s beck and call, and now she wonders if she’s accomplished anything of value. What would her life have been like if she’d married her studious college boyfriend, Will, instead of jilting him and abandoning her studies to marry Joe, a sexy, older divorce with a Baltimore row house, three young, skeptical daughters, and a business based on throwing parties for strangers. She and Joe had one daughter and six years together before he died in a car crash, leaving Rebecca at the helm of the fractious family, which includes Joe’s widower uncle, Poppy, who’s eagerly looking forward to his one-hundredth birthday party. Tyler, who’s never written silkier prose or more charming and gently humorous dialogue, spreads out Rebecca’s story like a banquet, each scene a delectable repast as her marvelous heroine divines the truth about her radiant life. (Reviewed March 1, 2001) -- Donna Seaman

    Publishers Weekly Review:

    On the first page of Tyler's stunning new novel, Rebecca Davitch, the heroine (and heroine is exactly the right word) realizes that she has become the "wrong person." No longer the "serene and dignified young woman" she was at 20, at 53 Rebecca finds she has become family caretaker and cheerleader, a woman with a "style of dress edging dangerously close to Bag Lady." So she tries to do something about it. In the midst of her busy life as mother, grandmother and proprietor of the family business, the Open Arms (she hosts parties in the family's old Baltimore row house), Rebecca attempts to pick up the life she was leading before she married, back when she felt grownup. She visits her hometown in Virginia, locates the boyfriend she jilted and renews her intellectual interests. But as Rebecca ponders the life-that-might-have-been, the reader learns about the life-that-was. At 20, she left college and abandoned her high school sweetheart to marry a man who already had a large family to support. A year later, she had a baby of her own; five years later, her husband died in an auto accident, and she was left to raise four daughters, tend to her aging uncle-in-law and support them all. And a difficult lot they are, seldom crediting Rebecca for holding her rangy family together. Yet like all of Tyler's characters, they are charming in their dysfunction. And much as one feels for Rebecca, much as one wants her to find love, it's difficult to imagine her leaving or upsetting the family order. Tyler (The Accidental Tourist; Breathing Lessons) has a gift for creating endearing characters, but readers should find Rebecca particularly appealing, for despite the blows she takes, she bravely keeps on trying. Tyler also has a gift genius is more like it for unfurling intricate stories effortlessly, as if by whimsy or accident. The ease of her storytelling here is breathtaking, but almost unnoticeable because, rather like Rebecca, Tyler never calls attention to what she does. Late in the novel, Rebecca observes that her younger self had wanted to believe "that there were grander motivations in history than mere family and friends, mere domestic happenstance." Tyler makes it plain: nothing could be more grand. (May 8) Forecast: A 250,000 first printing seems almost modest considering the charms of Tyler's latest and the devotion of her readers. A Random House audiobook and a large-print edition will appear simultaneously, and the book is a BOMC main selection and an alternate selection of QPB, the Literary Guild, the Doubleday Book Club and Doubleday Large Print. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

    Library Journal Review:

    After recovering from the shock of becoming a widow in her mid-twenties, Rebecca "Beck" Davitch has spent several busy decades occupied with managing both her quirky clan of in-laws and their party-hosting business. She has become the heart and soul of the extended family and of The Open Arms, the family's historic row house, which is still popular as a rental for special occasions though the surrounding neighborhood is deteriorating. At 53, Beck is feeling a little rundown herself. She wonders what became of the serious college student she once was and whether she took the right path when she followed her heart to the altar at 19. Beck thus embarks on a quixotic interior journey, with results both funny and touching, as she explores the differences between being herself and playing the roles assigned to her by the family. Elements common to Tyler's other fiction are present here: a well-rendered Baltimore setting, a large cast of eccentric characters, and a thoughtful presentation of themes related to marriage, aging, and making difficult choices. Together with Tyler's finely tuned prose, they create a satisfying whole for the enjoyment of the author's many fans. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/01.] Starr E. Smith, Fairfax Cty. P.L., VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

    Kirkus Reviews

    /* Starred Review */ The Family Davitch—dazzling and daunting, dismal and dysfunctional—arrives in Tyler's delicious l5th novel (A Patchwork Planet, 1998, etc.).But first meet Rebecca, who, on her way to somewhere less fateful, accidentally wanders into the midst of this Baltimore bedlam and stays for dinner. And beyond, way beyond, and in the process keeps the compulsively discordant Davitches from disintegrating as a family. Not that any of them would ever dream of thanking her for it. At the age of 19, Rebecca marries Joseph Aaron Davitch, 13 years her senior, a union that makes her the instant stepmother of three dark-haired, dark-complected, moody, broody Davitch daughters. In due time she adds to the collection another with the same coloring, disposition, and contentious attitude, as if the genes in her own pool had drowned themselves en masse, cowed by the Davitch invasion. When Joe dies in an automobile accident, Rebecca continues to inherit: an ancient relative by marriage who somehow comes to live with her, plus the Open Arms, a once-elegant, now shambling rowhouse, site of "party-giving for all occasions," the family business. With pluck, resourcefulness, and cleverness she seldom gets credit for, she keeps that, too, from disintegrating. Unhesitatingly, the self-centered Davitches bring their not-inconsiderable problems to her and apply the solutions she suggests, while resenting any attempt she makes, no matter how minor, to edge out from under. At 53, then, in typical Tyler fashion, Rebecca Holmes Davitch suddenly asks herself if she has "turned into the wrong person"—a serious question, and the burden of the novel. To which a clear-eyed, entirely sensible Tyler answer is supplied.Packed with life in all its humdrum complexity—and funny, so funny, the kind that compels reading aloud. A masterful effort from one of our very best. (Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 2001)

    Tuesday, July 7, 2009

    Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

    • August 4, 2009, 11 a.m.
    • Discussion Leader: Ellen Getreu
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    This beautifully written, heartfelt memoir touched a nerve among both readers and reviewers. Elizabeth Gilbert tells how she made the difficult choice to leave behind all the trappings of modern American success (marriage, house in the country, career) and find, instead, what she truly wanted from life. Setting out for a year to study three different aspects of her nature amid three different cultures, Gilbert explored the art of pleasure in Italy and the art of devotion in India, and then a balance between the two on the Indonesian island of Bali. By turns rapturous and rueful, this wise and funny author (whom Booklist calls "Anne Lamott's hip, yoga- practicing, footloose younger sister") is poised to garner yet more adoring fans.
    (From the publisher

    Publishers Weekly Review: /* Starred Review */

    Gilbert (The Last American Man ) grafts the structure of romantic fiction upon the inquiries of reporting in this sprawling yet methodical travelogue of soul-searching and self-discovery. Plagued with despair after a nasty divorce, the author, in her early 30s, divides a year equally among three dissimilar countries, exploring her competing urges for earthly delights and divine transcendence. First, pleasure: savoring Italy's buffet of delights—the world's best pizza, free-flowing wine and dashing conversation partners—Gilbert consumes la dolce vita as spiritual succor. "I came to Italy pinched and thin," she writes, but soon fills out in waist and soul. Then, prayer and ascetic rigor: seeking communion with the divine at a sacred ashram in India, Gilbert emulates the ways of yogis in grueling hours of meditation, struggling to still her churning mind. Finally, a balancing act in Bali, where Gilbert tries for equipoise "betwixt and between" realms, studies with a merry medicine man and plunges into a charged love affair. Sustaining a chatty, conspiratorial tone, Gilbert fully engages readers in the year's cultural and emotional tapestry—conveying rapture with infectious brio, recalling anguish with touching candor—as she details her exotic tableau with history, anecdote and impression. (On sale Feb. 20) --Staff (Reviewed November 21, 2005) (Publishers Weekly, vol 252, issue 46, p36)

    Library Journal Review: /* Starred Review */

    An interest in the human condition is the common thread that ties together Gilbert's diverse body of work, ranging from a collection of short stories (Pilgrim) to a novel discussing the outdoor lifestyle of Eustace Conway (The Last American Man). In her new work, she continues her exploration of the human psyche through a very personal journey of self-discovery in three countries: Italy, India, and Indonesia. In Italy, her first escape, she devours the food and the melodic language with equal gusto. In India, she decamps to an ashram to learn the intense discipline prayer and spiritual pilgrimage require, in the process revealing the depths to be found in reflection, meditation, and historical teachings. In Indonesia, she generates strong friendships and gains insight into homeopathic medicines, healing, and the complexities of different cultures. Throughout, she candidly shares her observations and emotions as she grows from a woman shattered, lost, and confused to one rejuvenated, confident, and in love. A probing, thoughtful title with a free and easy style, this work seamlessly blends history and travel for a very enjoyable read. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/05.]—Jo-Anne Mary Benson, Osgoode, Ont. --Jo-Anne Mary Benson (Reviewed January 15, 2006) (Library Journal, vol 131, issue 1, p140)

    Kirkus Reviews

    An unsuccessful attempt at a memoir from novelist and journalist Gilbert (The Last American Man, 2002, etc.).While weeping one night on the bathroom floor because her marriage was falling apart, the author had a profound spiritual experience, crying out to and hearing an answer of sorts from God. Eventually, Gilbert left her husband, threw herself headlong into an intense affair, then lapsed into as intense a depression when the affair ended. After all that drama, we get to the heart of this book, a year of travel during which the author was determined to discover peace and pleasure. In Rome, she practiced Italian and ate scrumptious food. Realizing that she needed to work on her "boundary issues," she determined to forego the pleasure of sex with Italian men. In India, she studied at the ashram of her spiritual guru (to whom she had been introduced by the ex-lover), practiced yoga and learned that in addition to those pesky difficulties with boundaries, she also had "control issues." Finally she headed to Bali, where she became the disciple of a medicine man, befriended a single mother and fell in love with another expat. Quirky supporting characters pop up here and there, speaking a combination of wisdom and cliché. At the ashram, for example, she meets a Texan who offers such improbable aphorisms as, "You gotta stop wearing your wishbone where your backbone oughtta be." Gilbert's divorce and subsequent depression, which she summarizes in about 35 pages, are in fact more interesting than her year of travel. The author's writing is prosaic, sometimes embarrassingly so: "I'm putting this happiness in a bank somewhere, not merely FDIC protected but guarded by my four spirit brothers."Lacks the sparkle of her fiction. (Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 2006)

    Tuesday, June 9, 2009

    Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell

    Tuesday, July 7 at 11 a.m.

    Discussion Leader: Edna Ritzenberg

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    A forty-year-old schoolteacher from Ohio still reeling from the tragedies of the Great War and the influenza epidemic comes into a modest inheritance that allows her to take the trip of a lifetime to Egypt and the Holy Land. Arriving at the Semiramis Hotel, site of the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference, she meets Winston Churchill, T. E. Lawrence, and Lady Gertrude Bell. With her plainspoken American opinions, she becomes a sounding board for these historic luminaries who will, in the space of a few days, invent the nations of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. While neither a pawn or a participant at the conference, she is drawn into the geopolitical intrigue surrounding the conference.

    Booklist Review: On the heels of a family tragedy precipitated by the influenza epidemic of 1919, middle-aged spinster schoolteacher Agnes Shanklin inherits enough money to embark on the journey of a lifetime. Traveling to Egypt, she settles in at the Semiramis Hotel, where she meets and becomes involved with a number of members of the Cairo Peace Conference, including T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), Winston Churchill, and Lady Gertrude Bell. As these luminaries begin to carve up the Middle East, the unassuming Agnes wins the confidence of the conference attendees and attracts the attention of a dashing German spy. Narrated by Agnes from beyond the grave—a twist that is not revealed until the end of the book—this atmospheric entrée into a bygone time and place provides a first-person peek into the international political machinations that forged the contemporary Arab world. A natural for book-club discussions. -- Flanagan, Margaret (Reviewed 02-01-2008) (Booklist, vol 104, number 11, p26)

    Publishers Weekly Review: Russell's enjoyable latest historical is told in the exuberant, posthumous voice (yes, it's narrated from the afterlife) of Agnes Shanklin, a 38-year-old schoolteacher from Cedar Glen, a town near Cleveland, Ohio. After the influenza epidemic of 1919 strikes down Agnes's family, a childless and unmarried Agnes settles the family estate, acquires financial independence and adopts an affable dachshund named Rosie. Accompanied by Rosie, Agnes travels to Cairo during the Cairo Peace Conference, where she befriends Winston Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia among other historical heavy hitters. She also falls in love with the charismatic Karl Weilbacher, a German spy whose interest in Agnes may have less to do with romance than Agnes will allow herself to believe. Agnes's travelogues, while marvelously detailed, distract from the increasingly tense romantic play between Agnes and Karl. When a more worldly-wise Agnes returns home, her life—first as an investor wrecked by the Depression and then a librarian until her death in 1957—remains low-keyed. Though the bizarre, whimsical ending doesn't quite gel, Russell (The Sparrow ; A Thread of Grace ) has created an instantly likable heroine whose unlikely adventures will keep readers hooked to the end. (Mar.) --Staff (Reviewed November 5, 2007) (Publishers Weekly, vol 254, issue 44, p40)

    Library Journal Review: Russell's (A Thread of Grace ) fourth novel, her second work of historical fiction, focuses on the years immediately following World War I. When narrator Agnes Shanklin, an Ohio schoolteacher, finds herself at 40 the sole surviving member of her family, she decides to take a trip to Egypt and the Middle East, where her beloved missionary sister once lived and worked. There, she is thrilled to be swept up into the company of several renowned statesmen, diplomats, and spies attending the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference. But she is disconcerted to learn that a man with whom she's become romantically involved may be using her to obtain inside political information. Listening for the first time to her own inner needs and wants, Agnes grows into an independent and far-thinking woman. Russell labors to provide insight into how the fate of the Middle East, including the entities of Iraq, Palestine, and Jordan, was drawn up at the time. While this aspect of the novel can sometimes be hard-going, she manages to make the characters, both real and imaginary, consistently captivating. Recommended for larger public and academic libraries' fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/07.]—Maureen Neville, Trenton P.L. --Maureen Neville (Reviewed January 15, 2008) (Library Journal, vol 133, issue 1, p87)

    Kirkus Reviews A remarkably vivid account of a woman's accidental witness to history as she encounters Churchill and T.E. Lawrence in Cairo, where in 1921 they redrew the map of the Middle East.

    Russell (Children of God, 1998, etc.) unites a dog-toting spinster touring the Holy Lands with a small but significant dot on history's timeline, creating an analysis of our current troubles in Iraq. Agnes Shanklin, long dead and narrating from a disappointingly dull afterlife, lived an unremarkable existence until her late 30s, when the great influenza epidemic killed her mother and siblings. Left alone with an inheritance, Agnes makes an uncharacteristically impulsive decision: She books a tour to Egypt and the Holy Lands. With newly bobbed hair and gauzy dropped-waist dresses, former ugly duckling Agnes leaves America a fashionable woman of means. On her first day in Cairo, she and her dachshund Rosie are banned from their hotel but are saved by a chance meeting with T.E. Lawrence and redirected to the more dog-friendly Continental. There she meets Karl Weilbacher, a German-Jewish spy who falls for Rosie and charms Agnes. Agnes spends her holiday in two camps: She's swept away on often dangerous excursions by Lawrence, Churchill and Gertrude Bell, and she engages in quiet, intelligent strolls with Karl the spy, eager to hear about Agnes's new friends. Agnes is no fool. She knows Karl has more than a passing interest in the goings on at the conference, but she's also a realist, and she sees no need to protect the interests of British imperialists. Anyway, this may be her last chance for love. At the end of the conference, arbitrary lines are drawn to create Iraq; Palestine is soon to be a Jewish homeland; and Karl rather presciently observes that "black seeds" are being sown. Russell triumphs on many levels: She crafts a solid interpretation of the event, creates in Agnes an engaging narrator and, in no small sense, offers a fine piece of travel writing as we follow Agnes down the Nile.

    An inspired fictional study of political folly.
    (Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 2008)

    Tuesday, April 28, 2009

    Monday, June 8: Indignation by Philip Roth

    Discussion Leader: Candace Plotsker-Herman

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    What impact can American history have on the life of the vulnerable individual? It is 1951 in America, the second year of the Korean War. A studious, law-abiding, intense youngster from Newark, New Jersey, Marcus Messner, is beginning his sophomore year on the pastoral, conservative campus of Ohio's Winesburg College. And why is he there and not at the local college in Newark where he originally enrolled? Because his father, the sturdy, hard-working neighborhood butcher, seems to have gone mad--mad with fear and apprehension of the dangers of adult life, the dangers of the world, the dangers he sees in every corner for his beloved boy. As the long-suffering, desperately harassed mother tells her son, the father's fear arises from love and pride. Perhaps, but it produces too much anger in Marcus for him to endure living with his parents any longer. He leaves them and, far from Newark, in the midwestern college, has to find his way amid the customs and constrictions of another American world.--From publisher's description.

    Interview with Philip Roth from the Barnes & Noble Review (9/12/2008)

    Review by Jason Cowley from The Observer (UK) (9/14/2008)
    Review by Charles Simic in the NY Review of Books
    Biography of Philip Roth
    Questions for Discussion from the National Yiddish Book Center

    Reviews from the Novelist database (requires login with H-WPL card)

    Booklist Review: /*Starred Review*/ In Roth's provocative new novel (his twenty-ninth book)—which, in a quieter, more personal fashion, is as provocative as his astonishing Plot against America (2004)—the setting and the main character are plucked from traditional Roth country: a nice Jewish boy living in Newark in the early 1950s, the son of a kosher butcher. The Korean War rages halfway around the word, but Marcus Messner, conscious though he is of the war and his possible forced participation in it, has a more fundamental concern: staying away from his father, to whom he is extremely close but who has recently become neurotically overprotective. Marcus had been attending a local Newark college, but his father's new craziness over safety compelled him to transfer to bucolic Winesburg College in Ohio, in a conservative Midwest that is foreign country to Marcus. He continues to earn good grades, but the rest of Winesburg life has him befuddled. Not so much because he's Jewish but because he's a free thinker, he wonders, Why do I have to attend chapel? Why should he have to put up with inordinately noisy roommates? And how to fathom the strange but perversely alluring psychological dimensions of the unbalanced girl he's interested in? During this time, male college students walk a tightrope: flunk out of school or be expelled for any reason, and the draft will snap you up. Read this fast-paced, compassionate, humorous, historically conscious novel to learn what that means for Marcus. -- Hooper, Brad (Reviewed 05-01-2008) (Booklist, vol 104, number 17, p6)

    Publishers Weekly Review: /* Starred Review */ Roth's brilliant and disconcerting new novel plumbs the depths of the early Cold War–era male libido, burdened as it is with sexual myths and a consciousness overloaded with vivid images of impending death, either by the bomb or in Korea. At least this is the way things appear to narrator Marcus Messner, the 19-year-old son of a Newark kosher butcher. Perhaps because Marcus's dad saw his two brothers' only sons die in WWII, he becomes an overprotective paranoid when Marcus turns 18, prompting Marcus to flee to Winesburg College in Ohio. Though the distance helps, Marcus, too, is haunted by the idea that flunking out of college means going to Korea. His first date in Winesburg is with doctor's daughter Olivia Hutton, who would appear to embody the beautiful normality Marcus seeks, but, instead, she destroys Marcus's sense of normal by surprising him after dinner with her carnal prowess. Slightly unhinged by this stroke of fortune, he at first shuns her, then pesters her with letters and finally has a brief but nonpenetrative affair with her. Olivia, he discovers, is psychologically fragile and bears scars from a suicide attempt—a mark Marcus's mother zeroes in on when she meets the girl for the first and last time. Between promising his mother to drop her and longing for her, Marcus goes through a common enough existential crisis, exacerbated by run-ins with the school administration over trivial matters that quickly become more serious. All the while, the reader is aware of something awful awaiting Marcus, due to a piece of information casually dropped about a third of the way in: “And even dead, as I am and have been for I don't know how long...” The terrible sadness of Marcus's life is rendered palpable by Roth's fierce grasp on the psychology of this butcher's boy, down to his bought-for-Winesburg wardrobe. It's a melancholy triumph and a cogent reflection on society in a time of war. (Sept.) --Staff (Reviewed May 12, 2008) (Publishers Weekly, vol 255, issue 19, p37)

    Library Journal Review: /* Starred Review */ In 1951, Marcus Messner flees his father's steadily debilitating dementia and the overwhelming constraints of family life in Newark, NJ, to the greener and more pastoral setting of Winesburg College in Ohio. After years of working in his father's butcher shop, where he learned to do everything well no matter how much he hated it, he steps into a Kafkaesque setting in which such a lesson is useless in the face of the demands of the college's authority figures. After encounters with arrogant and lazy roommates who won't allow him to study, confrontations with the college dean, and the heartbreak of a failed sexual affair, Marcus learns that he can best survive various challenges in his life—even the book's most surprising challenge—by acting indignantly in the face of them. A meditation on love, death, and madness, Roth's new novel combines the comic absurdity of his early novels like Portnoy's Complaint with the pathos of his later novels like Everyman and Exit Ghost. All libraries will want to add this to their collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/08.]—Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Evanston, IL --Henry L. Carrigan Jr. (Reviewed September 1, 2008) (Library Journal, vol 133, issue 14, p122)

    Kirkus Reviews /* Starred Review */ In a plot that evokes the author's earlier work, Roth (Exit Ghost, 2007, etc.) focuses on a young man's collegiate coming of age against the deadly backdrop of the Korean War. The book has a taut, elegant symmetry: A nice Jewish boy named Marcus Messner from Newark, N.J., reaches the turbulent stage where he inevitably clashes with his parents, his butcher-shop father in particular. After continuing to live at home for his first year of college, Marcus, the novel's narrator as well as protagonist, feels the need to emancipate himself by enrolling in a college as unlike urban New Jersey as possible, one that he finds in Winesburg, Ohio. Whatever of his Jewishness he is trying to escape, he discovers that his ethnicity provides the stamp of his identity on the pastoral campus, where he is first assigned to room with two of the school's few other Jewish students and soon finds himself courted by the school's lone Jewish fraternity. There's resonance of the culture clash of Goodbye, Columbus (1959) and the innocence of The Ghost Writer (1979) in the voice of this bright young man, who isn't quite experienced enough to know how much he doesn't know. The novel reaches its climax—in a couple of senses—when the virginal Marcus becomes involved with the more experienced Olivia, whose irresistible sexuality seems intertwined with her psychological fragility. Can Marcus be Olivia's boyfriend and still be his parents' son? Can he remain true to himself—whatever self that may be—while adhering to the tradition and dictates of a college that shields him from enlistment in a deadly war? Is Winesburg a refuge or an exile? A twist in narrative perspective reinforces this novel's timelessness.
    (Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 2008)

    Tuesday, March 17, 2009

    Monday, April 27: The Madonnas of Leningrad

    by Debra Dean
    Discussion leader: Edna Ritzenberg

    In a novel that moves back and forth between the Soviet Union during World War II and modern-day America, Marina, an elderly Russian woman, recalls vivid images of her youth during the height of the siege of Leningrad.

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    Book reviews from the Novelist database:

    Booklist Review: /*Starred Review*/ Her granddaughters wedding should be a time of happiness for Marina Buriakov. But the Russian emigres descent into Alzheimers has her and her family experiencing more anxiety than joy. As the details of her present-day life slip mysteriously away, Marinas recollections of her early years as a docent at the State Hermitage Museum become increasingly vivid. When Leningrad came under siege at the beginning of World War II, museum workers--whose families were provided shelter in the buildings basement--stowed away countless treasures, leaving the paintings frames in place as a hopeful symbol of their ultimate return. Amid the chaos, Marina found solace in the creation of a memory palace, in which she envisioned the brushstroke of every painting and each statues line and curve. Gracefully shifting between the Soviet Union and the contemporary Pacific Northwest, first-time novelist Dean renders a poignant tale about the power of memory. Dean eloquently describes the works of Rembrandt, Rubens, and Raphael, but she is at her best illuminating aging Marinas precarious state of mind: It is like disappearing for a few moments at a time, like a switch being turned off, she writes. A short while later, the switch mysteriously flips again. -- Allison Block (Reviewed 01-01-2006) (Booklist, vol 102, number 9, p52)

    Publishers Weekly Review: Russian emigré 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. Although none of the characters emerges particularly vividly (Marina included), memory, the hopes one pins on it and the letting go one must do around it all take on real poignancy, giving the story a satisfying fullness. (On sale Mar. 14) --Staff (Reviewed November 21, 2005) (Publishers Weekly, vol 252, issue 46, p24)

    Library Journal Review: /* Starred Review */ As a young woman, Marina became a docent, guiding Soviet citizens through the treasures of the Hermitage Museum. Through the 900-day siege of Leningrad beginning in 1941, her knack for describing in great detail the images of the works of Italian Renaissance painter Titian and Flemish Baroque painter Rubens helped her survive when thousands of others died. Later, she and her husband fled westward and settled in the United States. As this first novel by Dean, a Seattle college teacher, opens, Marina is living in the tattered shreds of her memory. Her elusive grasp of the present and her meticulous recollections of a long-suppressed past are in delicate opposition. Memory, once her greatest ally, is now her betrayer. Like her adoring museum audiences 60 years earlier, readers will absorb Marina's glorious, lush accounts of classical beauties as she traces them in her mind. Dean eloquently depicts the ravages of Alzheimer's disease and convincingly describes the inner world of the afflicted. Spare, elegant language, taut emotion, and the crystal-clear ring of truth secure for this debut work a spot on library shelves everywhere. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/05.]—Barbara Conaty, Moscow, Russia --Barbara Conaty (Reviewed February 15, 2006) (Library Journal, vol 131, issue 3, p106)

    Kirkus Reviews: As Alzheimer's slowly erases Marina's world, her past in wartime Leningrad begins to again take form around her.In 1941, as Hitler besieged and bombed Leningrad, Marina was one of hundreds of workers in the Hermitage dedicated to preserving its vast art collection from destruction. Day and night, she and her colleagues dismantle frames, move furniture, pack and ship objects. Most are women and many are old, and as the bombing becomes more intense, they all move with their families to the basement of the museum. A winter of legendary ferocity descends; the food stores of the city are destroyed; there is no sign of the blockade lifting. People eat pine needles, bark, and finally their own pets. To cling to her sense of the value of life, young Marina begins to assemble a mental version of the Hermitage, committing the paintings, and their placement, to memory. Sixty years later, this "memory palace" will be all that is left in Marina's memory, a filter through which she sees a world she no longer understands as a series of beautiful objects. In her debut, Dean has created a respectful and fascinating image of Alzheimer's. The story of the older Marina—mustering her failing powers in a war for dignity, struggling to make reality without recollection—makes the war sequences seem almost hackneyed in comparison. And when Dean falters, it is by pushing the emotive war material into the territory of hysteria. A thoughtful tragedy that morphs into a tear-jerker in the third act. (Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2005)

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    Tuesday, February 10, 2009

    Monday, March 16: Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

    2 p.m.

    Discussion leader: Ellen Getreu

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    Book Reviews from the NovelistPlus database:

    Booklist Review: In the early 1900s, married architect Frank Lloyd Wright eloped to Europe with the wife of one of his clients. The scandal rocked the suburb of Oak Park, Illinois. Years later, Mamah Cheney, the other half of the scandalous couple, was brutally murdered at Wright's Talliesen retreat. Horan blends fact and fiction to try to make the century-old scandal relevant to modern readers. Today Cheney and Wright would have little trouble obtaining divorces and would probably not be pursued by the press. However, their feelings of confusion and doubt about leaving their spouses and children would most likely remain the same. The novel has something for everyone—a romance, a history of architecture, and a philosophical and political debate on the role of women. What is missing is any sort of note explaining which parts of the novel are based on fact and which are imagined. This is essential in a novel dealing with real people who lived so recently. -- Block, Marta Segal (Reviewed 06-01-2007) (Booklist, vol 103, number 19, p38)

    Publishers Weekly Review: 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. (Aug.) --Staff (Reviewed March 26, 2007) (Publishers Weekly, vol 254, issue 13, p60)

    Library Journal Review: /* Starred Review */ In 1904, architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed a house for Edwin and Mamah Borthwick Cheney, respectable members of Oak Park, IL, society. Five years later, after a clandestine affair, Frank and Mamah scandalized that society by leaving their families to live together in Europe. Stunned by the furor, Mamah wanted to stay there, particularly after she met women's rights advocate Ellen Key, who rejected conventional ideas of marriage and divorce. Eventually, Frank convinced her to return to Wisconsin, where he was building Taliesin as a home and retreat. Horan's extensive research provides substantial underpinnings for this engrossing novel, and the focus on Mamah lets readers see her attraction to the creative, flamboyant architect but also her recognition of his arrogance. Mamah's own drive to achieve something important is tinged with guilt over abandoning her children. Tentative steps toward reconciliation end in a shocking, violent conclusion that would seem melodramatic if it weren't based on true events. The plot, characters, and ideas meld into a novel that will be a treat for fans of historical fiction but should not be pigeonholed in a genre section. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 4/1/07.]—Kathy Piehl, Minnesota State Univ. Lib., Mankato --Kathy Piehl (Reviewed July 15, 2007) (Library Journal, vol 132, issue 12, p78)

    Kirkus Reviews Journalist Horan's debut novel reflects her fascination with the brilliant, erratic architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his scandalous love affair with a married woman and mother of two. The book capitalizes on Horan's research into both the architect's private and professional lives. The story opens when Mamah (pronounced May-Muh) Cheney, an Oak Park, Ill., woman, and her husband Edwin, a successful local businessman, contract with Frank to build their new home. Although both Frank and Mamah are married and seem content, the architect and his female client soon find they not only like being together—they must be together. Mamah, an early feminist longing for a more meaningful life, succumbs to Frank's charms as the two enter an affair that is both physical and spiritual. Soon, their relationship is the hook for all of Oak Park's gossip. After leaving their spouses, the pair flees to Europe, finding delight in a less- disapproving continental society, as well as an outlet for their cultural pursuits. Frank, father of the "prairie style" of architecture, proves a thoughtless and irresponsible businessman, but Mamah remains by his side until the couple finally quits Europe and returns home. There, Frank builds a home they call Taliesin. Eventually, Mamah makes peace with her former husband and her two children—son John and daughter Martha—who visit her at the rural estate. However, Frank's wife, Catherine, adamantly continues her refusal to grant her husband a divorce. But just when it appears that their relationship problems have lessened, a terrible and unanticipated tragedy strikes and changes forever the lives of the two lovers who were forbidden to marry. Lovers Frank and Mamah fail to generate sympathy, and the story closes with the unsubtle reminder that real life is never quite as tidy as fiction.
    (Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 2007)

    Tuesday, January 13, 2009

    Monday, February 9: The Thirteenth Tale: a novel by Diane Setterfield

    2 p.m.

    Discussion Leader: Edna Ritzenberg

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    Reviews from the Novelist Plus database:

    Booklist Review: Margaret Lea, a bookish loner, is summoned to the home of Vida Winter, Englands most popular novelist, and commanded to write her biography. Miss Winter has been falsifying her life story and her identity for more than 60 years. Facing imminent death and feeling an unexplainable connection to Margaret, Miss Winter begins to spin a haunting, suspenseful tale of an old English estate, a devastating fire, twin girls, a governess, and a ghost. As Margaret carefully records Vidas tale, she ponders her own family secrets. Her research takes her to the English moors to view a mansions ruins and discover an unexpected ending to Vidas story. Readers will be mesmerized by this story-within-a-story tinged with the eeriness of Rebecca and the willfulness of Jane Eyre. The author skillfully keeps the plot moving by unfurling a new twist in each chapter and leaves no strand untucked at the surprising and satisfying conclusion. A wholly original work told in the vein of all the best gothic classics. Lovers of books about book lovers will be enthralled. -- Kaite Mediatore (Reviewed 09-01-2006) (Booklist, vol 103, number 1, p58)

    Publishers Weekly Review: Former academic Setterfield pays tribute in her debut to Brontë and du Maurier heroines: a plain girl gets wrapped up in a dark, haunted ruin of a house, which guards family secrets that are not hers and that she must discover at her peril. Margaret Lea, a London bookseller's daughter, has written an obscure biography that suggests deep understanding of siblings. She is contacted by renowned aging author Vida Winter, who finally wishes to tell her own, long-hidden, life story. Margaret travels to Yorkshire, where she interviews the dying writer, walks the remains of her estate at Angelfield and tries to verify the old woman's tale of a governess, a ghost and more than one abandoned baby. With the aid of colorful Aurelius Love, Margaret puzzles out generations of Angelfield: destructive Uncle Charlie; his elusive sister, Isabelle; their unhappy parents; Isabelle's twin daughters, Adeline and Emmeline; and the children's caretakers. Contending with ghosts and with a (mostly) scary bunch of living people, Setterfield's sensible heroine is, like Jane Eyre, full of repressed feeling—and is unprepared for both heartache and romance. And like Jane, she's a real reader and makes a terrific narrator. That's where the comparisons end, but Setterfield, who lives in Yorkshire, offers graceful storytelling that has its own pleasures. (Sept.) --Staff (Reviewed June 26, 2006) (Publishers Weekly, vol 253, issue 26, p27)

    Library Journal Review: A ruined mansion in the English countryside, secret illegitimate children, a madwoman hidden in the attic, ghostly twin sisters—yep, it's a gothic novel, and it doesn't pretend to be anything fancier. But this one grabs the reader with its damp, icy fingers and doesn't let go until the last shocking secret has been revealed. Margaret Lea, an antiquarian bookseller and sometime biographer of obscure writers, receives a letter from Vida Winter, “the world's most famous living author.” Vida has always invented pasts for herself in interviews, but now, on her deathbed, she at last has decided to tell the truth and has chosen Margaret to write her story. Now living at Vida's (spooky) country estate, Margaret finds herself spellbound by the tale of Vida's childhood some 70 years earlier...but is it really the truth? And will Vida live to finish the story? Setterfield's first novel is equally suited to a rainy afternoon on the couch or a summer day on the beach. For all public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/06.]—Jenne Bergstrom, San Diego Cty. Lib. --Jenne Bergstrom (Reviewed August 15, 2006) (Library Journal, vol 131, issue 13, p73)

    Kirkus Reviews /* Starred Review */ A dying writer bids a young bookshop assistant to write her biography.Margaret Lea grew up in a household of mourning, but she never knew why until the day she opened a box of papers underneath her parent's bed and found the birth and death certificates of a twin sister of whom she never knew. It is the coincidence of twins in the life of Vida Winter, Britain's most famous writer, that convinces Margaret to leave her post at her father's rare-books store and travel to the dying writer's Yorkshire estate. There, she hears a story no one else knows: who Vida Winter really is. For decades, the author has wildly fabricated answers to personal questions in interviews. Now Vida wants to tell the true story. And what a story it is, replete with madness; incest; a pair of twins who speak a private language; a devastating fire; a ghost that opens doors and closes books; a baby abandoned on a doorstep in the rain; a page torn from a turn-of-the-century edition of Jane Eyre; a cake-baking gentle giant; skeletons; topiaries; blind housekeepers; and suicide. As the master storyteller nears death, Margaret has yet to understand why she is the one Vida chose to record her tale. And is it a tall tale? One last great fiction to leave for her reading public? Only Margaret, who begins to catch glimpses of her own dead twin in the eternal gloom of the Winter estate, can sort truth from longing and lies from guilt. Setterfield has crafted an homage to the romantic heroines of du Maurier, Collins and the Brontes. But this is no postmodern revision of the genre. It is a contemporary gothic tale whose excesses and occasional implausibility (Vida's "brother" is the least convincing character) can be forgiven for the thrill of the storytelling.Setterfield's debut is enchanting Goth for the 21st century. (Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2006)

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