Previous Book Circle Titles

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley

In this cycle of 14 bittersweet stories, Walter Mosley breaks out of the genre–if not the setting–of his bestselling Easy Rawlins detective novels. Only eight years after serving out a prison sentence for murder, Socrates Fortlow lives in a tiny, two-room Watts apartment, where he cooks on a hot plate, scavenges for bottles, drinks, and wrestles with his demons. Struggling to control a seemingly boundless rage–as well as the power of his massive “rock-breaking” hands–Socrates must find a way to live an honorable life as a black man on the margins of a white world, a task which takes every ounce of self-control he has.  Easy Rawlins fans might initially find themselves disappointed by the absence of a mystery to unravel. But it’s a gripping inner drama that unfolds over the pages of these stories, as Socrates comes to grips with the chaos, poverty, and violence around him. He tries to get and keep a job delivering groceries; takes in a young street kid named Darryl, who has his own murder to hide; and helps drive out the neighborhood crack dealer. Throughout, Mosley captures the rhythms of Watts life in prose both musical and hard-edged, resulting in a haunting look at a life bounded by lust, violence, fear, and a ruthlessly unsentimental moral vision.


El Atardecer de los Niños by Uriel Quesada

Uriel Quesada Román es un escritor de gran trayectoria en las letras nacionales. Nació en San José, Costa Rica en 1962. Es licenciado en Estadística por la Universidad de Costa Rica (1990) y doctor en Literatura Latinoamericana por la Universidad de Tulane (2003). Su desarrollo como cuentista culmina con el libro “Lejos, tan lejos”. No obstante, tiene en su haber “Ese día de los temblores” (1985), “El atardecer de los niños” (colección
de cuentos que fue Premio Editorial Costa Rica en 1988 y Premio Nacional Aquileo Echeverría en 1990). En la década de los noventa publicó “Larga vida al deseo” (1996) y “Si trina la canaria” (1999). Después de casi un quinquenio de no publicar -como se ha hecho costumbre con Uriel- vuelve con un libro de cuentos que se las trae. Escritos de manera magistral, los cuentos de “Lejos, tan lejos” desarrollan temáticas polémicas como el homosexualismo, la violencia, la prostitución masculina y otras tendencias transgresoras.


The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

Feisty Marietta Greer changes her name to “Taylor” when her car runs out of gas in Taylorville, Ill. By the time she reaches Oklahoma, this strong-willed young Kentucky native with a quick tongue and an open mind is catapulted into a surprising new life. Taylor leaves home in a beat-up ’55 Volkswagen bug, on her way to nowhere in particular, savoring her freedom. But when a forlorn Cherokee woman drops a baby in Taylor’s passenger seat and asks her to take it, she does. A first novel, The Bean Trees is an overwhelming delight, as random and unexpected as real life. The unmistakable voice of its irresistible heroine is whimsical, yet deeply insightful. Taylor playfully names her little foundling “Turtle,” because she clings with an unrelenting, reptilian grip; at the same time, Taylor aches at the thought of the silent, staring child’s past suffering. With Turtle in tow, Taylor lands in Tucson, Ariz., with two flat tires and decides to stay. The desert climate, landscape and vegetation are completely foreign to Taylor, and in learning to love Arizona, she also comes face to face with its rattlesnakes and tarantulas. Similarly, Taylor finds that motherhood, responsibility and independence are thorny, if welcome, gifts. This funny, inspiring book is a marvelous affirmation of risk-taking, commitment and everyday miracles. — Review
Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc


Bel Canto by Ann PatchettIn an unnamed South American country, a world-renowned soprano sings at a birthday party in honor of a visiting Japanese industrial titan. His hosts hope that Mr. Hosokawa can be persuaded to build a factory in their Third World backwater. Alas, in the opening sequence, just as the accompanist kisses the soprano, a ragtag band of 18 terrorists enters the vice-presidential mansion through the air conditioning ducts. Their quarry is the president, who has unfortunately stayed home to watch a favorite soap opera. And thus, from the beginning, things go awry.  Among the hostages are not only Hosokawa and Roxane Coss, the American soprano, but an assortment of Russian, Italian, and French diplomatic types. Reuben Iglesias, the diminutive and gracious vice president, quickly gets sideways of the kidnappers, who have no interest in him whatsoever. Meanwhile, a Swiss Red Cross negotiator named Joachim Messner is roped into service while vacationing. He comes and goes, wrangling over terms and demands, and the days stretch into weeks, the weeks into months.  Joined by no common language except music, the 58 international hostages and their captors forge unexpected bonds. Time stands still, priorities rearrange themselves. Ultimately, of course, something has to give, even in a novel so imbued with the rich imaginative potential of magic realism. But in a fractious world, Bel Canto remains a gentle reminder of the transcendence of beauty and love.   Amazon.com’s Best of 2001


The Big Picture by Ben Carson

In his grade school days, Ben Carson would hardly have been voted “most likely to become a famous surgeon.” His classmates had already given him another label: class dummy. Then a light clicked on for Ben—and a consuming passion for learning that catapulted him from “zero” test grades to a Yale scholarship, a pioneering role in modern medicine, and an influence that has extended from inner-city schools to corporate boardrooms and Washington corridors of power. What made the difference? Belief in his own potential, a commitment to education and making the most of his opportunities to learn, determination to make the world a better place, and faith in a God who knows no limits.


Boy’s Life by Robert R. McCammon

In 1964, 12-year-old Cory Mackenson lives with his parents in Zephyr, Alabama. It is a sleepy, comfortable town. Cory is helping with his father’s milk route one morning when a car plunges into the lake before their eyes. His father dives in after the car and finds a dead man handcuffed to the steering wheel. Their world no longer seems so innocent: a vicious killer hides among apparently friendly neighbors. Other, equally unsettling transmogrifications occur: a friend’s father becomes a shambling bully under the influence of moonshine, decent men metamorphose into Klan bigots, “responsible” adults flee when faced with danger for the first time. With the aid of unexpected allies, Cory faces hair-raising dangers as he seeks to find the secret of the dead man in the lake. McCammon writes an exciting adventure story. He also gives us an affecting tale of a young man growing out of childhood in a troubled place and time.


The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The Nobel prize winner’s virtuosic first novel asks powerful questions about race, class, and gender with the subtlety and grace that have always characterized her writing. Surrounded by images of white icons – Shirley Temple, Mary Jane, and the classic family from Dick & Jane readers – Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl, prays every day for beauty. Mocked by other children for the dark skin, curly hair, and brown eyes that set her apart, she yearns for normalcy, for the blond hair and blue eyes that she believes will allow her to finally fit in. Yet as her dream grows more fervent, her life slowly starts to disintegrate in the face of adversity and strife. A powerful examination of our obsession with beauty and conformity.


Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

A classic science fiction work that continues to be a significant warning to our society today.  “Community, Identity, Stability” is the motto of Aldous Huxley’s utopian World State.  The World Controllers have created the ideal society. Genetic science has brought the human race to perfection. From the Alpha-Plus mandarin class to the Epsilon Semi-Morons, man is bred and educated to be content with his pre-destined role. Through clever use of genetic engineering, brainwashing and recreational sex and drugs all its members are happy consumers. Here everyone consumes daily grams of soma, to fight depression, babies are born in laboratories, and the most popular form of entertainment is a “Feelie,” a movie that stimulates the senses of sight, hearing, and touch.  Bernard Marx seems alone in feeling discontent. Harbouring an unnatural desire for solitude, and a perverse distaste for the pleasures of compulsory promiscuity, Bernard has an ill-defined longing to break free. A visit to one of the few remaining Savage Reservations where the old, imperfect life still continues, may be the cure for his distress-Huxley’s ingenious fantasy of the future sheds a blazing light on the present and is considered to be his most enduring
masterpiece.


* Captain Alatriste by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Capt. Diego Alatriste y Tenorio works as a hired sword in 1600s Spain-and a very good swordsman he is, having survived scorching battle in Flanders when most of his fellow soldiers were slaughtered. One casualty was a friend whose young son now serves as the captain’s squire and narrates this splendid tale. Two masked men have hired Captain Alatriste to rough up some Englishmen arriving in Madrid; shortly thereafter, the powerful Fray Emilio Bocanegra lends the authority of the Church to his order that these visiting heretics be killed. On the verge of murder in an alley, Captain Alatriste spares his victims when one begs for the life of the other. Thus he gets caught up in some messy affairs of state, as the two Englishmen are very important indeed. In the early works that made him famous, like The Club Dumas, Perez-Reverte presented beautiful if exceedingly complex intellectual puzzles; here he has streamlined his prose to rapier point and strikes home with a dark and moving work. This is as gripping as any swashbuckler, with Spain’s Golden Age tellingly resurrected, but it is a much more sobering tale of honor, responsibility, and political machination. Captain Alatriste’s powerful personality fairly radiates from the page. — Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

* Also available in the original Spanish language under the title El capitán Alatriste


A Child Called “It”: an abused child’s journey from victim to victor by Dave Pelzer

David J. Pelzer’s mother, Catherine Roerva, was, he writes in this ghastly, fascinating memoir, a devoted den mother to the Cub Scouts in her care, and somewhat nurturant to her children–but not to David, whom she referred to as “an It.” This book is a brief, horrifying account of the bizarre tortures she inflicted on him, told from the point of view of the author as a young boy being starved, stabbed, smashed face-first into mirrors, forced to eat the contents of his sibling’s diapers and a spoonful of ammonia, and burned over a gas stove by a maniacal, alcoholic mom. Sometimes she claimed he had violated some rule–no walking on the grass at school!–but mostly it was pure sadism.  Inexplicably, his father didn’t protect him; only an alert schoolteacher saved David. One wants to learn more about his ordeal and its aftermath, and now he’s written a sequel, The Lost Boy, detailing his life in the foster-care system.  Though it’s a grim story,  A Child Called “It” is very much in the tradition of Chicken Soup for the Soul and the many books in that upbeat series, whose author Pelzer thanks for helping get his book going. It’s all about weathering adversity to find love, and Pelzer is an expert witness.


Chocolat by Joanne Harris

Vianne Rocher blows in to the small French town of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes on the Caranval wind, the final celebration before Lent begins. On the first day of Lent, the season where Catholics traditionally take vows of abstinence and fast, she opens a delightful, beguiling chocolate shop that, much to the chagrin of Reynaud, the town priest, becomes a favorite to many townsfolk. Vianne and her shop seem to exude an influence on the town and its people as Josephine finally finds the strength to confront an abusive husband, Armande’s friendship with Vianne blooms over into other parts of her life, and changes in spirit and personality–even slight–seem to magically stir change. Even Reynaud has a bout with temptation. Chocolat is an enchanting story filled with folklore and magical realism as well as real life situations and people. The religious current, especially as told through the voice of and seen through the eyes of Reynaud, moves through a spooky labyrinth of guilt, denial, self-righteousness, pity, fear, hatred, and loathing, with surprises around each corner. — Sarah Atkinson Linville “literaryreveler.com”


Clover by Dori Sanders

Clover is just ten years old when her beloved father dies, leaving her alone in their rural South Carolina town. Alone, that is, with her new white stepmother, who had married Clover’s father on the last day of his life. Despite her peculiar ideas on food and other matters, Sara Kate stays on and does her best to be a mother to Clover as both struggle with grief and readjustment. This is a simple tale, simply told, and it clearly portrays Clover’s emotional ups and downs. The dialog is often self-conscious and unnatural, and neither of the main characters is as fully developed as one might wish. Nevertheless, this is a very appealing novel that will fit comfortably into the hands of fiction readers, particularly those with a regional interest.


Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

In 1997, Charles Frazier’s debut novel Cold Mountain made publishing history when it sailed to the top of The New York Times best-seller list for sixty-one weeks, won numerous literary awards, including the National Book Award, and went on to sell over three million copies. Now, the beloved American epic returns, reissued by Grove Press to coincide with the publication of Frazier’s eagerly-anticipated second novel, Thirteen Moons. Sorely wounded and fatally disillusioned in the fighting at Petersburg, a Confederate soldier named Inman decides to walk back to his home in the Blue Ridge mountains to Ada, the woman he loves. His trek across the disintegrating South brings him into intimate and sometimes lethal converse with slaves and marauders, bounty hunters and witches, both helpful and malign. At the same time, the intrepid Ada is trying to revive her father’s derelict farm and learning to survive in a world where the old certainties have been swept away. As it interweaves their stories, Cold Mountain asserts itself as an authentic odyssey, hugely powerful, majestically lovely, and keenly moving.


The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother by James McBride

The Color of Water tells the remarkable story of Ruth McBride Jordan, the two good men she married, and the 12 good children she raised. Jordan, born Rachel Shilsky, a Polish Jew, immigrated to America soon after birth; as an adult she moved to New York City, leaving her family and faith behind in Virginia. Jordan met and married a black man, making her isolation even more profound. The book is a success story, a testament to one woman’s true heart, solid values, and indomitable will. Ruth Jordan battled not only racism but also poverty to raise her children and, despite being sorely tested, never wavered. In telling her story–along with her son’s– The Color of Water addresses racial identity with compassion, insight, and realism. It is, in a word, inspiring, and you will finish it with unalloyed admiration for a flawed but remarkable individual. And, perhaps, a little more faith in us all.


El coronel no tiene quien le escriba by Gabriel García Márquez

El coronel no tiene quien le escriba es una novela publicada por el escritor colombiano Gabriel García Márquez en 1961. Se ha dicho de esta breve novela que es una de las más emotivas que haya escrito García Márquez, y su protagonista, aquel viejo coronel que espera la pensión que nunca llega, es considerado como uno de los personajes más entrañables que haya creado el novelista cataquero.  El propio autor de la novela reconoció tras escribirla que era la más simple de las novelas que había escrito hasta la fecha. En ella no se detectan muchas de las facetas características de este autor, como son los frecuentes saltos en la trama, la mezcolanza entre fenómenos fantásticos y situaciones reales, y algunos otros detalles que suelen resaltar en la lectura. La novela pretende reflejar el sentimiento de desasosiego ante la espera, tal y como el autor lo expresó. Muchos años después de publicarse la novela, en 1999, el director mexicano Arturo Ripstein llevó al cine la obra, con el mismo título que el original.


Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins has few illusions about the world–at least not about the world of a young black veteran in the late 1940s in Southern California. His stint in the Army didn’t do anything to dissuade him from his belief that justice doesn’t come cheap, especially for men like him. “I thought there might be some justice for a black man if he had money to grease it,” Easy says. Fired from his job on the line at an aircraft plant, he’s in danger of losing his home, symbol of his tenuous hold on middle class status. That’s a good enough reason to accept a white man’s offer to pay him for finding a beautiful, mysterious Frenchwoman named Daphne Monet, last seen in the company of a well-known gangster. Easy’s search takes the reader to an L.A. few writers have shown us before–the mean streets of South Central, the after-hours joints in dirty basement clubs, the cheap hotels and furnished rooms, the places people go when they don’t want to be found. Evocative of a past time, and told in a style that’s reminiscent of Hammet and Chandler, yet uniquely his own, Mosley’s depiction of an inherently decent man in a violent world of intrigue and corruption rang up big sales when it was published in 1990.  The minor characters are deftly and brilliantly developed, especially Mouse, who saves Easy’s life even as he draws him deeper into the mystery of Daphne Monet. – Review from Amazon.com

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing

In the summer of 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton set off aboard the Endurance bound for the South Atlantic. The goal of his expedition was to cross the Antarctic overland, but more than a year later, and still half a continent away from the intended base, the Endurance was trapped in ice and eventually was crushed. For five months Shackleton and his crew survived on drifting ice packs in one of the most savage regions of the world before they were finally able to set sail again in one of the ship’s lifeboats. Alfred Lansing’s Endurance is a white-knuckle account of this astounding odyssey. Through the diaries of team members and interviews with survivors, Lansing reconstructs the months of terror and hardship the Endurance crew suffered. In October of 1915, there “were no helicopters, no Weasels, no Sno-Cats, no suitable planes. Thus their plight was naked and terrifying in its simplicity. If they were to get out–they had to get themselves out.” How Shackleton did indeed get them out without the loss of a single life is at the heart of Lansing’s magnificent true-life adventure tale.

 


Fast Food Nation: the Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser

Schlosser’s incisive history of the development of American fast food indicts the industry for some shocking crimes against humanity, including systematically destroying the American diet and landscape, and undermining our values and our economy. The first part of the book details the postwar ascendance of fast food from Southern California, assessing the impact on people in the West in general. The second half looks at the product itself: where it is manufactured (in a handful of enormous factories), what goes into it (chemicals, feces) and who is responsible (monopolistic corporate executives). In harrowing detail, the book explains the process of beef slaughter and confirms almost every urban myth about what in fact “lurks between those sesame seed buns.” Given the estimate that the typical American eats three hamburgers and four orders of french fries each week, and one in eight will work for McDonald’s in the course of their lives, few are exempt from the insidious impact of fast food. Throughout, Schlosser fires these and a dozen other hair-raising statistical bullets into the heart of the matter. While cataloguing assorted evils with the tenacity and sharp eye of the best investigative journalist, he uncovers a cynical, dismissive attitude to food safety in the fast food industry and widespread circumvention of the government’s efforts at regulation enacted after Upton Sinclair’s similarly scathing novel exposed the meat-packing industry 100 years ago. — Review copyright Publishers Weekly, 2000

 


Ferris Beach by Jill McCorkle

Here is a marvelous follow-up to McCorkle’s acclaimed Tending to Virginia ( LJ 9/1/87). From age five, Katie Burns has thought of Ferris Beach, South Carolina, home of her “foundling” cousin Angela, as both forbidden and alluring. During the decade covered by this entrancing coming-of-age novel (mid-Sixties to mid-Seventies), many people besides Angela compete for Katie’s allegiance. Symbolizing freedom are orange-haired Misty Rhodes, whose mother Mo puts rock gardens on the lawn; Katie’s first love Merle Hucks; and–to a certain extent–her father Alfred Tennyson (“Fred”) Burns. In contrast, there are prim Cleva Burns and her tea-giving friend Mrs. Poole, steeped in Southern propriety. Despite tantalizing hints of buried secrets and a few occasions of real tragedy, what predominates is McCorkle’s deft comic sense, her keen ear for dialog and eye for detail, and a grab bag of cultural allusions (Barry Sadler; Peter, Paul & Mary) bespeaking a specific time and place. Finally–most movingly–there is the revelation that love often goes deeper in the staid conventional forms than one might sometimes suspect.– Review by Elise Chase, Forbes Library, Northampton, Mass.


For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

In 1937 Ernest Hemingway traveled to Spain to cover the civil war there for the North American Newspaper Alliance. Three years later he  completed the greatest novel to emerge from “the good fight,” For Whom the Bell Tolls. The story of Robert Jordan, a young American in the  International Brigades attached to an antifascist guerilla unit in the mountains of Spain, it tells of loyalty and courage, love and defeat, and the tragic death of an ideal. In his portrayal of Jordan’s love for the beautiful Maria and his superb account of El Sordo’s last stand, in his brilliant travesty of La Pasionaria and his unwillingness to believe in blind faith, Hemingway surpasses his achievement in The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms to create a work at once rare and beautiful, strong and brutal, compassionate, moving, and wise. “If the function of a writer is to reveal reality,” Maxwell Perkins wrote Hemingway after reading the manuscript, “no one ever so completely performed it.” Greater in power, broader in scope, and more intensely emotional than any of the author’s previous works, it stands as one of the best war novels of all time.


Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Much like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a story we all think we know, but really don’t. Very few films have consciously attempted to follow the novel too closely; thus, everything popular culture “knows” about Frankenstein does not originate from literature, but from films. This is a shame, in a way, because the novel itself is, if not the progenitor, an early vessel of so many archetypes found science fiction and horror. Swiss medical student Victor Frankenstein discovers the secret of life (which he never reveals, lest someone repeat the mistake). He then puts together a body, essentially a man, from various corpses. He then becomes horrified by the creature he has built, and abandons. The creature, suffering a great deal of neglect and abuse, still manages to get a thorough education, and learns of his lineage. After murdering Victor’s younger brother, and framing the family maid, the creature tells his (admittedly) sad tale to his “father”, and then demands a mate. Victor, in a panic, agrees, then thinks better of it at the last moment, destroying the new bride. In retaliation, the creature murders all of Victor’s loved ones (including his wife), and leads Victor on a merry chase across the world.

‘  Numerous archetypes are present here. The basic fear of what evil technology may bring along with the good is a central theme, as is the warning against playing God. So is the implicit admonition to be  responsible in all things, be it during innovation or being a parent. The creature is, for all intents and purposes, an android-everyone from Gort to C-3PO owe their existence to the Frankenstein monster. And the monster that slays all but one protagonist is a staple of horror, be it traditional monster movies, like “Alien”, or more realistic slasher movies like “Halloween”. But certain of these elements have been lost in most
interpretations. The creature is actually intelligent, and well-spoken, a child that’s horribly neglected, but with the strength and intelligence to strike back: id without superego, and without restraints.


The Gate to Women’s Country by Sherri Tepper

Tepper’s finest novel to date is set in a post-holocaust feminist dystopia that offers only two political alternatives: a repressive polygamist sect that is slowly self-destructing through inbreeding and the matriarchal dictatorship called Women’s Country. Here, in a desperate effort to prevent another world war, the women have segregated most men into closed military garrisons and have taken on themselves every other function of government, industry, agriculture, science and learning. The resulting manifold responsibilities are seen through the life of Stavia, from a dreaming 10-year-old to maturity as doctor, mother and member of the Marthatown Women’s Council. As in Tepper’s Awakeners series books, the rigid social systems are tempered by the voices of individual experience and, here, by an imaginative reworking of The Trojan Woman that runs through the text.


Gifted Hands by Ben Carson

In 1987, Dr. Benjamin Carson gained worldwide recognition for his part in the first successful separation of Siamese twins joined at the back of the head. The extremely complex and delicate operation, five months in the planning and twenty-two hours in the execution, involved a surgical plan that Carson helped initiate. Carson pioneered again in a rare procedure known as hemispherectomy, giving children without hope a second chance at life through a daring operation in which he literally removed one half of their brain. But such breakthroughs aren’t unusual for Ben Carson. He’s been beating the odds since he was a child. Raised in inner-city Detroit by a mother with a third grade education, Ben lacked motivation. He had terrible grades. And a pathological temper threatened to put him in jail. But Sonya Carson convinced her son that he could make something of his life, even though everything around him said otherwise.  Trust in God, a relentless belief in his own capabilities, and sheer determination catapulted Ben from failing grades to the top of his class–and beyond to a Yale scholarship . . . the University of Michigan Medical School . . . and finally, at age 33, the directorship of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. Today, Dr. Ben Carson holds twenty honorary doctorates and is the possessor of a long string of honors and awards, including the Horatio Alger Award, induction into the “Great Blacks in Wax” Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, and an invitation as Keynote Speaker at the 1997 President’s National Prayer Breakfast. Gifted Hands is the riveting story of one man’s secret for success, tested against daunting odds and driven by an incredible mindset that dares to take risks. This inspiring autobiography takes you into the operating room to witness surgeries that made headlines around the world–and into the private mind of a compassionate, God-fearing physician who lives to help others. Through it all shines a humility, quick wit, and down-to-earth style that make this book one you won’t easily forget.


Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

The scant confirmed facts about the life of Vermeer, and the relative paucity of his masterworks, continues to be provoke to the literary imagination.  The tale this time is told alluringly indeed by the housemaid who sat as model for the painting in question. Griet is only 16, in 1664, when she’s hired as a maid in the grand Delft household of Johannes Vermeer, who practices the Catholic faith and has a family consisting of wife, mother-in-law, cook, and 5 children (by story’s end there will be 11). Griet’s own faith is Protestant, and her humble family has been made even poorer since her father, a tile-painter, had an accident that left him blind. Hard-working and sweet-tempered Griet is taken on, then, partly as an act of charity, but the austere and famous painter is struck by her sensitive eye for color and balance, and after a time he asks her to grind paints for him in his attic studio and perhaps begins falling in love with her, as she certainly does with him. Let there be no question, however, of anything remotely akin to declared romance, the maids station being far, far below the eminent painters, not to mention that his bitterly jealous wife  Catharine remains sharply resentful of any least privilege extended to Griet a complication that Vermeer resolves simply through intensified secrecy. There’s a limit, though, to how much hiding can be done in a single house however large, and when Griet begins sitting for Vermeer (his patron, the lecherous Ruijven, who has eyes (and hands) for Griet, brings it about), suspicions rise. That’s as nothing, though, to the storm that sweeps the house and all but brings about Griet’s very ruin when Catharine discovers that the base-born maid has committed the thieving travesty of wearing her pearl earrings. Courageous Griet, though, proves herself a survivor in this tenderhearted and sharp-eyed ramble through daily life and high art in 17th-century Delft.


The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls

Walls, who spent years trying to hide her childhood experiences, allows the story to spill out in this remarkable recollection of growing up. From her current perspective as a contributor to MSNBC online, she remembers the poverty, hunger, jokes, and bullying she and her siblings endured, and she looks back at her parents: her flighty, self-indulgent mother, a Pollyanna unwilling to assume the responsibilities of parenting, and her father, troubled, brilliant Rex, whose ability to turn his family’s downward-spiraling circumstances into adventures allowed his children to excuse his imperfections until they grew old enough to understand what he had done to them–and to himself. His grand plans to build a home for the family never evolved: the hole for the foundation of the The Glass Castle, as the dream house was called, became the family garbage dump, and, of course, a metaphor for Rex Walls’ life. Shocking, sad, and occasionally bitter, this gracefully written account speaks candidly, yet with surprising affection, about parents and about the strength of family ties–for both good and ill. – Stephanie Zvirin Copyright 2005 Booklist


The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

In the first book of the His Dark Materials trilogy, Pullman has created a wholly developed universe, which is, as he states, much like our own but different in many ways–here Earth is one of only five planets in the solar system, every human has a daemon (the soul embodied as an animal familiar) and, in a time similar to our late 19th century, Oxford scholars and agents of the supreme Calvinist Church are in a race to unleash the power that will enable them to cross the bridge to a parallel universe. The story line has all the hallmarks of a myth: brought up ignorant of her true identity, 11-year-old Lyra goes on a quest from East Anglia to the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate Roger and her imprisoned uncle, Lord Asriel. Deceptions and treacheries threaten at every turn, and she is not yet certain how to read the mysterious truth-telling instrument that is her only guide. After escaping from the charming and sinister Mrs. Coulter, she joins a group of “gyptians” in search of their children, who,
like Roger, have been spirited away by Mrs. Coulter’s henchmen, the Gobblers. Along the way Lyra is guided by friendly witches and attacked by malevolent ones, aided by an armored polar bear and a Texan balloonist, and nearly made a victim of the Gobblers’ cruel experiments. — Review Copyright 1996 Publishers Weekly


The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has unnerved readers since its original publication in 1959. A tale of  subtle, psychological terror, it has earned its place as one of the significant haunted house stories of the ages.  Eleanor Vance has always been a loner–shy, vulnerable, and bitterly resentful of the 11 years she lost while nursing her dying mother. “She had spent so long alone, with no one to love, that it was difficult for her to talk, even casually, to another person without self-consciousness and an awkward inability to find words.” Eleanor has always sensed that one day something big would happen, and one day it does. She receives an unusual invitation from Dr. John Montague, a man fascinated by “supernatural manifestations.” He organizes a ghost watch, inviting people who have been touched by otherworldly events. A paranormal incident from Eleanor’s childhood qualifies her to be a part of Montague’s bizarre study–along with headstrong Theodora, his assistant, and Luke, a well-to-do aristocrat. They meet at Hill House–a notorious estate in New England.  Hill House is a foreboding structure of towers, buttresses, Gothic spires, gargoyles, strange angles, and rooms within rooms–a place “without kindness, never meant to be lived in….”   Although Eleanor’s initial reaction is to flee, the house has a mesmerizing effect, and she begins to feel a strange kind of bliss that entices her to stay. Eleanor is a magnet for the supernatural–she hears deathly wails, feels terrible chills, and sees ghostly apparitions. Once again she feels isolated and alone–neither Theo nor Luke attract so much eerie company. But the physical horror of Hill House is always subtle; more disturbing is the emotional torment Eleanor endures. Intense, literary, and harrowing, The Haunting of Hill House belongs in the same dark league as Henry James’s classic ghost story, The Turn of the Screw.


The Helpby Kathryn StockettJackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s is a city of tradition. Silver is used at bridge-club luncheons, pieces polished to perfection by black maids who yes, ma’am, and no, ma’am, to the young white ladies who order the days. This is the world Eugenia Skeeter Phelan enters when she graduates from Ole Miss and returns to the family plantation, but it is a world that, to her, seems ripe for change. As she observes her friend Elizabeth rudely interact with Aibileen, the gentle black woman who is practically raising Elizabeth’s two-year-old daughter, Mae Mobley, Skeeter latches ontothe idea of writing the story of such fraught domestic relations from the help’s point of view. With the reluctant assistance of Aibileen’s feisty friend, Minny, Skeeter manages to interview a dozen of the city’s maids, and the book, when it is finally published, rocks Jackson’s world in unimaginable ways. With pitch-perfect tone and an unerring facility for character and setting, Stockett’s richly accomplished debut novel inventively explores the unspoken ways in which the nascent civil rights and feminist movements threatened the southern status quo. — Haggas, Carol Copyright 2010 Booklist


The Hot Zone by Richard Preston

The dramatic and chilling story of an Ebola virus outbreak in a surburban Washington, D.C. laboratory, with descriptions of frightening historical epidemics of rare and lethal viruses. More hair-raising than anything Hollywood could think of, because it’s all true.  Far more infectious than AIDS, filoviruses (thread viruses) are relentless killer machines that consume a human body in days, causing a gruesome death. Symptoms include liquefying flesh, spurts of blood, black vomit and brain sludge. Outbreaks of the Ebola filovirus devasted Sudan and Zaire in 1976. And in 1989 Philippine monkeys in a Reston, Va., research lab, found to be infected with Ebola, were the target of a U.S. Army-led biohazard task force that decontaminated the lab, exterminating hundreds of monkeys to prevent the possible airborne spread of the disease to humans. In a horrifying and riveting report, portions of which appeared in the New Yorker, Preston (American Steel ) exposes a real-life nightmare potentially as lethal as the fictive runaway germs in Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain. Preston plausibly argues that the emergence of AIDS, Ebola and other highly adaptable rain-forest viruses is a consequence of ecological ruin of the tropics.  — Review Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.


The House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus

In an enthralling tragedy built on a foundation of small misfortunes, Dubus (Bluesman, 1993, etc.) offers in detail the unraveling life of a woman who, in her undoing, brings devastation to the families of those in her path. It was bad enough when Kathy Lazaro stepped out of the shower one morning to find herself evicted from her house, a small bungalow to be auctioned the very next day in a county tax sale; bad enough that her recovering-addict husband had left her some time before, and that she had no friends at all in California to help her move or put her up. Then she also had to fall for the guy who evicted her, Deputy Les Burdon’married, with two kids. Sympathetic to her plight, Les lines up legal counsel and makes sure she has a place to stay, but his optimism (and the lawyer’s) hits an immovable object in proud ex-Colonel Behrani, formerly of the Iranian Air Force, who fled his homeland with his family when the Shah was deposed and who has struggled secretly in San Francisco for years to maintain appearances until his daughter can make a good marriage. He’s sunken his remaining life savings into buying Kathy’s house, at a tremendous bargain, planning to reinvent himself as a real-estate speculator, and he has no wish to sell it back when informed that the county made a bureaucratic error. Hounded by both Kathy and Les, who has moved out, guiltily, on his family and brought his lover, herself a recovering addict, back to the bar scene, Behrani is increasingly unable to shield his wife and teenaged son from the ugly truth, but he still won’t yield. Then Kathy tries to kill herself, and Les takes the law into his own hands . . . . No villains here, but only precisely rendered proof that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.


* The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Esperanza and her family didn’t always live on Mango Street. Right off she says she can’t remember all the houses they’ve lived in but “the house on Mango Street is ours and we don’t have to pay rent to anybody, or share the yard with the people downstairs, or be careful not to make too much noise, and there isn’t a landlord banging on the ceiling with a broom. But even so, it’s not the house we thought we’d get.” Esperanza’s childhood life in a Spanish-speaking area of Chicago is described in a series of spare, poignant, and powerful vignettes. Each story centers on a detail of her childhood: a greasy cold rice sandwich, a pregnant friend, a mean boy, how the clouds looked one time, something she heard a drunk say, her fear of nuns: “I always cry when nuns yell at me, even if they’re not yelling.” Esperanza’s friends, family, and neighbors wander in and out of her stories; through them all Esperanza sees, learns, loves, and dreams of the house she will someday have, her own house, not on Mango Street.

* Also available in the original Spanish language under the title
La casa en Mango Street


The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlaying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one girl and one boy between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she is forced to represent her district in the Games. But Katniss has also resolved to outwit the creators of the games. To do that she will have to be the last person standing at the end of the deadly ordeal, and that will take every ounce of strength and cunning she has.


If I’d Killed Him When I Met Him by Sharyn McCrumb

Three grievously wronged women take murderous revenge in this sharp-edged, witty tale, the eighth appearance of forensic anthropologist Elizabeth MacPherson. Her skills at research and detection come into play when she is hired as an investigator by her brother Bill’s Virginia law firm. Bill has been asked to defend a woman accused of poisoning her  philandering husband, a piously hypocritical preacher. Another law partner, the resolute Amy Powell Hill, ponders how best to defend a Richmond socialite who gleefully admits to shooting both her ex-husband and his new wife. Intertwined with these contemporary cases is a 19th-century mystery: How did a genteel Southern lady manage to poison her wealthy Yankee husband?  Buoyed by intriguing characters, a wry (sometimes macabre) wit, and lush Virginia atmosphere, McCrumb’s mystery spins merrily along on its own momentum, concluding that justice will triumph… but in surprising ways. — Review Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.


Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee

One of the most moving and meaningful plays in American theatre–based on the famed Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, in which a Tennessee teacher was tried for teaching evolution.  The accused was a slight, frightened man who had deliberately broken the law. His trial was a Roman circus, the chief gladiators being the two great legal giants of the century. Locked in mortal combat, they bellowed and roared imprecations and abuse. The spectators sat uneasily in the sweltering heat with murder in their hearts, barely able to restrain themselves. At stake was the freedom of every American.

“Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee were classic Broadway scribes who knew how to crank out serious plays for thinking Americans. . .
. Inherit the Wind is a perpetually prescient courtroom battle over the legality of teaching evolution. . . . We’re still arguing this case–all the way to the White House.” –Chicago Tribune


Into Thin Air by John Krakauer

;Into Thin Air is a riveting first-hand account of a catastrophic expedition up Mount Everest. In March 1996, Outside magazine sent veteran journalist and seasoned climber Jon Krakauer on an expedition led by celebrated Everest guide Rob Hall. Despite the expertise of Hall and the other leaders, by the end of summit day eight people were dead. Krakauer’s book is at once the story of the ill-fated adventure and an analysis of the factors leading up to its tragic end. Written within months of the events it chronicles, Into Thin Air clearly evokes the majestic Everest landscape. As the journey up the mountain progresses, Krakauer puts it in context by recalling the triumphs and perils of other Everest trips throughout history. The author’s own anguish over what happened on the mountain is palpable as he leads readers to ponder timeless questions.


Journey on the James: Three weeks through the heart of Virginia by Earl Swift.

Winner of the 9th annual Southern Environmental Law Center Phillip D. Reed Memorial Award (in Literary non-fiction) for outstanding writing on the southern environment.From its beginnings as a trickle of icy water in Virginia’s northwest corner to its miles-wide mouth at Hampton Roads, the James River has witnessed more recorded history than any other feature of the American  landscape–as home to the continent’s first successful English settlement, highway for Native Americans and early colonists, battleground in the Revolution and the Civil War, and birthplace of America’s twentieth- century navy.

In 1998, restless in his job as a reporter for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, Earl Swift landed an assignment traveling the entire length of the James. He hadn’t been in a canoe since his days as a Boy Scout, and he knew that the river boasts whitewater, not to mention man- made obstacles, to challenge even experienced paddlers.  But reinforced by Pilot photographer Ian Martin and a lot of freeze-dried food and beer, Swift set out to immerse himself–he hoped not literally–in the river and its history.  What Swift survived to bring us is this engrossing chronicle of three weeks in a fourteen- foot plastic canoe and four hundred years in the life of Virginia. Fueled by humor and a dauntless curiosity about the land, buildings, and people on the banks, and anchored by his sidekick Martin–whose photographs accompany the text–Swift points his bow through the ghosts of a frontier past, past Confederate forts and POW camps, antebellum mills, ruined canals, vanished towns, and effluent-spewing industry. Along the banks, lonely meadowlands alternate with suburbs and power plants, marinas and the gleaming skyscrapers of Richmond’s New South downtown. Enduring dunkings, wolf spiders, near-arrest, channel fever, and twenty-knot winds, Swift makes it to the Chesapeake Bay.


The John McPhee Reader

John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. The same year he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, and soon followed with The Headmaster (1966), Oranges (1967), The Pine Barrens (1968), A Roomful of Hovings and Other Profiles (collection, 1969), The Crofter and the Laird (1969), Levels of the Game (1970), Encounters with the Archdruid (1972), The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed (1973), The Curve of Binding Energy (1974), Pieces of the Frame (collection, 1975), and The Survival of the Bark Canoe (1975). Both Encounters with the Archdruid and The Curve of Binding Energy were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science.

First published in 1976, The John McPhee Reader is comprised of selections from the author’s first twelve books. His fertility, his precision and grace as a stylist, his wit and uncanny brilliance in choosing subject matter, his crack storytelling skills have made him into one of our best writers: a journalist whom L.E. Sissman ranked with Liebling and Mencken, who Geoffrey Wolff said “is bringing his work to levels that have no measurable limit,” who has been called “a master craftsman” so many times that it is pointless to number them.

“What makes a piece of John McPhee’s reportage so reliably superior? . . . Most obviously, he finds interesting things to write about . . . Then there us his facility for dreaming up odd and out-of-the-way approaches to his subjects . . . Add to this his knack for illustrating with amusing anecdotes . . . And there you have an approximate John McPhee recipe, lacking only the dramatic confrontations, the interesting characters, and the unusual vantage points, which I neglected to mention.”—Christopher Lehmann, The
New York Times


Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

Kindred utilizes the devices of science fiction in order to answer the question “how could anybody be a slave?” A woman from the twentieth century, Dana is repeatedly brought back in time by her slave-owning ancestor Rufus when his life is endangered. She chooses to save him, knowing that because of her actions a free-born black woman will eventually become his slave and her own grandmother. When forced to live the life of a slave, Dana realizes she is not as strong as her ancestors. Unable  to will herself back to her own time and unable to tolerate the institution of slavery, she attempts to run away and is caught within a few hours. Her illiterate ancestor Alice succeeds in eluding capture for four days even though “She knew only the area she’d been born and raised in, and she couldn’t read a map.” Alice is captured, beaten, and sold as a slave to Rufus. As Dana is sent back and forth through time, she continues to save Rufus’s life, attempting during each visit to care for Alice, even as she is encouraging Alice to allow Rufus to rape her and thus ensure Dana’s own birth. As a twentieth-century African-American woman trying to endure the brutalities of nineteenth-century slavery, Dana answers the question, “See how easily slaves are made?” For Dana, to choose to preserve an institution, to save a life, and nurture victimization is to choose to survive.


The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Twelve year old Amir is desperate to win the approval of his father Baba, one of the richest and most respected merchants in Kabul. He has failed to do so through academia or brawn, but the one area where they connect is the annual kite fighting tournament. Amir is determined not just to win the competition but to run the last kite and bring it home triumphantly, to prove to his father that he has the makings of a man. His loyal friend Hassan is the best kite runner that Amir has ever seen, and he promises to help him – for Hassan always helps Amir out of trouble. But Hassan is a Shi’a Muslim and this is 1970s Afghanistan. Hassan is taunted and jeered at by Amir’s school friends; he is merely a servant living in a shack at the back of Amir’s house. So why does Amir feel such envy towards his friend? Then, what happens to Hassan on the afternoon of the tournament is to shatter all their lives, and define their futures. When Russia invades Afghanistan, Amir and Baba escape to San Francisco, where Baba fades but Amir feels that at last he can succeed. But he is still haunted by guilt and he knows that his past will not let him go. The destructive rule of the Northern Alliance, followed by the even more terrifying and oppressive Taliban have destroyed the country that Amir knows, but the hearts of men cannot be suppressed. Amir must return to Afghanistan to search for salvation, and perhaps his life-altering mistakes can be redeemed. This is a moving, courageous story of love, loyalty, secrets and vengeance, and of a country and a boy whose footsteps cannot be retraced, as the events and decisions resonate and alter them for ever.


The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

“We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”
–Randy Pausch.

A lot of professors give talks titled “The Last Lecture.” Professors are asked to consider their demise and to ruminate on what matters most to them. And while they speak, audiences can’t help but mull the same question: What wisdom would we impart to the world if we knew it was our last chance? If we had to vanish tomorrow, what would we want as our legacy?

When Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, was asked to give such a lecture, he didn’t have to imagine it as his last, since he had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. But the lecture he gave–”Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”–wasn’t about dying. It was about the importance of overcoming obstacles, of enabling the dreams of others, of seizing every moment (because “time is all you have…and you may find one day that you have less than you think”). It was a summation of everything Randy had come to believe. It was about living.

In this book, Randy Pausch has combined the humor, inspiration and intelligence that made his lecture such a phenomenon and given it an indelible form. It is a book that will be shared for generations to come.


Last Man Standing by David Baldacci

The hero of Baldacci’s latest thriller is Web London, a member of the elite FBI Hostage Rescue Team. One night, on what seems like a routine drug raid, Web freezes up, hesitant to rush into the fray. It turns out to be a trap; the team members trigger unmanned machine guns and are slaughtered. Web is the last one in and manages to drop to the ground without getting hit. He destroys the machine guns and saves a little boy, Kevin, but he is tormented by the feeling that he let his team down. Web is regarded as a hero by most people in the FBI because of his actions during a hostage situation at a school, where he saved a member of his team and took two bullets and a fireball, which left him scarred. After his team’s death, some members of the FBI are suspicious of Web, and when the news media gets wind of the fact that he froze up, they begin to hound him. He seeks counseling from Claire Daniels, a psychiatrist, who tries to draw out Web’s buried feelings. Meanwhile, Web tries to find out exactly who set up his team, searching for drug dealers who had the ability to execute the plan, but as he investigates, he finds he may have enemies closer to home. Baldacci’s fans, of which there are many, will be happy to see him back in thriller-writing mode. — Review Copyright 2005 Kristine Huntley, Booklist.


Life of Pi by Yann Martel

A fabulous romp through an imagination by turns ecstatic, cunning, despairing and resilient, this novel is an impressive achievement “a story that will make you believe in God,” as one character says. The peripatetic Pi (n the much-taunted Piscine) Patel spends a beguiling boyhood in Pondicherry, India, as the son of a zookeeper. Growing up beside the wild beasts, Pi gathers an encyclopedic knowledge of the animal world. His curious mind also makes the leap from his native Hinduism to Christianity and Islam, all three of which he practices with joyous abandon. In his 16th year, Pi sets sail with his family and some of their menagerie to start a new life in Canada. Halfway to Midway Island, the ship sinks into the Pacific, leaving Pi stranded on a life raft with a hyena, an orangutan, an injured zebra and a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. After the beast dispatches the others, Pi is left to survive for 227 days with his large feline companion on the 26-foot-long raft, using all his knowledge, wits and faith to keep himself alive. The scenes flow together effortlessly, and the sharp observations of the young narrator keep the tale brisk and engaging. Martel’s potentially unbelievable plot line soon demolishes the reader’s defenses, cleverly set up by events of young Pi’s life that almost naturally lead to his biggest ordeal. This richly patterned work, Martel’s second novel, won Canada’s 2001 Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction. In it, Martel displays the clever voice and tremendous storytelling skills of an emerging master. Readers would be wise to browse through Martel’s introductory note. His captivating honesty about the genesis of his story is almost worth the price of the book itself.  — Review Copyright 2002 t Publishers Weekly


* Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Each chapter of screenwriter Esquivel’s utterly charming interpretation of life in turn-of-the-century Mexico begins with a recipe–not surprisingly, since so much of the action of this exquisite first novel (a bestseller in Mexico) centers around the kitchen, the heart and soul of a traditional Mexican family. The youngest daughter of a well-born rancher, Tita has always known her destiny: to remain single and care for her aging mother. When she falls in love, her mother quickly scotches the liaison and tyrannically dictates that Tita’s sister Rosaura must marry the luckless suitor, Pedro, in her place. But Tita has one weapon left–her cooking. Esquivel mischievously appropriates the techniques of magical realism to make Tita’s contact with food sensual, instinctual and often explosive. Forced to make the cake for her sister’s wedding, Tita pours her emotions into the task; each guest who samples a piece bursts into tears. Esquivel does a splendid job of describing the frustration, love and hope expressed through the most domestic and feminine of arts, family cooking, suggesting by implication the limited options available to Mexican women of this period. Tita’s unrequited love for Pedro survives the Mexican Revolution the births of Rosaura and Pedro’s children, even a proposal of marriage from an eligible doctor. In a poignant conclusion, Tita manages to break the bonds of tradition, if not for herself, then for future generations.

– Review Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.

* Also available in the original Spanish language under the title Como Agua para Chocolate


A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldierby Ishmael Beah

This absorbing account by a young man who, as a boy of 12, gets swept up in Sierra Leone’s civil war goes beyond even the best journalistic efforts in revealing the life and mind of a child abducted into the horrors of warfare. Beah’s harrowing journey transforms him overnight from a child enthralled by American hip-hop music and dance to an internal refugee bereft of family, wandering from village to village in a country grown deeply divided by the indiscriminate atrocities of unruly, sociopathic rebel and army forces. Beah then finds himself in the army—in a drug-filled life of casual mass slaughter that lasts until he is 15, when he’s brought to a rehabilitation center sponsored by UNICEF and partnering NGOs. The process marks out Beah as a gifted spokesman for the center’s work after his “repatriation” to civilian life in the capital, where he lives with his family and a distant uncle. When the war finally engulfs the capital, it sends 17-year-old Beah fleeing again, this time to the U.S., where he now lives. (Beah graduated from Oberlin College in 2004.) Told in clear, accessible language by a young writer with a gifted literary voice, this memoir seems destined to become a classic firsthand account of war and the ongoing plight of child soldiers in conflicts worldwide.  – Review Copyright © Reed Business Information


My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi PicoultNew York Timesbestselling author Jodi Picoult is widely acclaimed for her keen insights into the hearts and minds of real people. Now she tells the emotionally riveting story of a family torn apart by conflicting needs and a passionate love that triumphs over human weakness.Anna is not sick, but she might as well be. By age thirteen, she has undergone countless surgeries, transfusions, and shots so that her older sister, Kate, can somehow fight the leukemia that has plagued her since childhood. The product of preimplantation genetic diagnosis, Anna was conceived as a bone marrow match for Kate—a life and a role that she has never challenged…until now. Like most teenagers, Anna is beginning to question who she truly is. But unlike most teenagers, she has always been defined in terms of her sister—and so Anna makes a decision that for most would be unthinkable, a decision that will tear her family apart and have perhaps fatal consequences for the sister she loves.

My Sister’s Keeper examines what it means to be a good parent, a good sister, a good person. Is it morally correct to do whatever it takes to save a child’s life, even if that means infringing upon the rights of another? Is it worth trying to discover who you really are, if that quest makes you like yourself less? Should you follow your own heart, or let others lead you? Once again, in My Sister’s Keeper, Jodi Picoult tackles a controversial real-life subject with grace, wisdom, and sensitivity. — Review from Goodreads (www.goodreads.com)


The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks

In 1932, two North Carolina teenagers from opposite sides of the tracks fall in love. Spending one idyllic summer together in the small town of New Bern, Noah Calhoun and Allie Nelson do not meet again for 14 years. Noah has returned from WWII to restore the house of his dreams, having inherited a large sum of money. Allie, programmed by family and the “caste system of the South” to marry an ambitious, prosperous man, has become engaged to powerful attorney Lon Hammond. When she reads a newspaper story about Noah’s restoration project, she shows up on his porch step, re-entering his life for two days. Will Allie leave Lon for Noah? The book’s slim dimensions and cliche-ridden prose will make comparisons to The Bridges of Madison County inevitable. What renders Sparks’s sentimental story somewhat distinctive are two chapters, which take place in a nursing home in the ’90s, that frame the central story. The first sets the stage for the reading of the eponymous notebook, while the later one takes the characters into the land beyond happily ever after, a future rarely examined in books of this nature. Early on, Noah claims that theirs may be either a tragedy or a love story, depending on the perspective.
Ultimately, the judgment is up to readers.


October Sky: A Memoir by Homer H. Hickam, Jr.

Inspired by Werner von Braun and his Cape Canaveral team, 14-year-old Homer Hickam decided in 1957 to build his own rockets. They were his ticket out of Coalwood, West Virginia, a mining town that everyone knew was dying–everyone except Sonny’s father, the mine superintendent and a company man so dedicated that his family rarely saw him. Hickam’s smart, iconoclastic mother wanted her son to become something more than a miner and, along with a female science teacher, encouraged the efforts of his grandiosely named Big Creek Missile Agency. He grew up to be a NASA engineer and his memoir of the bumpy ride toward a gold medal at the National Science Fair in 1960–an unprecedented honor for a miner’s kid–is rich in humor as well as warm sentiment. Hickam vividly evokes a world of close communal ties in which a storekeeper who sold him saltpeter warned, “Listen, rocket boy. This stuff can blow you to kingdom come.” Hickam is candid about the deep disagreements and tensions in his parents’ marriage, even as he movingly depicts their quiet loyalty to each other. The portrait of his ultimately successful campaign to win his aloof father’s respect is equally affecting.


On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon by Kaye Gibbons.

Gibbons, author most recently of Sights Unseen (1995), has evolved a distinctive narrative style based on the poignant eloquence and acuity of young female narrators struggling to transcend the moral and spiritual failings of their troubled families. Emma Garnet Tate Lowell, her newest creation, fits the mold but with a subtle twist; she’s telling her tale at the end of her long and tumultuous life, a life derailed, as so many were, by the Civil War. Like Jane Smiley in her latest novel, Gibbons has gone back to that still-smoldering conflict and imagined it from a wholly personal and feminine perspective, concerned not with politics but with blood and suffering. Two opposing characters embody her dismay over ignorance, brutality, racism, selfishness, and hate versus her belief in virtue, compassion, generosity, knowledge, and love: Emma Garnet’s father, an evil, slave-owning tyrant; and Clarice, his black housekeeper, who, in spite of being at the lowest echelon of southern society, is the true leader of their Virginia estate. It is Clarice who teaches Emma Garnet how to be a decent human being, lessons that lead to her controversial but loving marriage to a distinguished and altruistic Northerner, Dr. Quincy Lowell. The Lowells would have lived an easy life had there been no war, but they are drawn inexorably into the horror. Quincy and Clarice literally work themselves to death caring for the wounded, while Emma Garnet, who becomes as adept at surgery as Quincy, survives to mourn the dead. Gibbons is unsparing in her depiction of the gruesome reality of the carnage, and unflinching in her effort to convey the madness of that time and the havoc it wreaked on people’s souls.


One Second After by William R. Forstchen.

In a Norman Rockwell town in North Carolina, where residents rarely lock homes, retired army colonel John Matherson teaches college, raises two daughters, and grieves the loss of his wife to cancer. When phones die and cars inexplicably stall, Grandma’s pre-computerized Edsel takes readers to a stunning scene on the car-littered interstate, on which 500 stranded strangers, some with guns, awaken John’s New Jersey street-smart instincts to get the family home and load the shotgun. Next morning, some townspeople realize that an electromagnetic pulse weapon has destroyed America’s power grid, and they proceed to set survival priorities. John’s list includes insulin for his type-one diabetic 12-year-old, candy bars, and sacks of ice. Deaths start with heart attacks and eventually escalate alarmingly. Food becomes scarce, and societal breakdown proceeds with inevitable violence; towns burn, and ex-servicemen recall Korea in ’51 as military action by unlikely people becomes the norm in Forstchen’s sad, riveting cautionary tale, the premise of which Newt Gingrich’s foreword says is completely possible. — Review by Scott, Whitney Copyright 2009 Booklist


A Painted House by John Grisham

Ever since he published  The Firm in 1991, John Grisham has remained the undisputed champ of the legal thriller. With A Painted House, however, he strikes out in a new direction. As the author is quick to note, this novel includes “not a single lawyer, dead or alive,” and readers will search in vain for the kind of lowlife machinations that have been his stock-in-trade. Instead, Grisham has delivered a quieter, more contemplative story, set in rural Arkansas in 1952. It’s harvest time on the Chandler farm, and the family has hired a crew of migrant Mexicans and “hill people” to pick 80 acres of cotton. A certain camaraderie pervades this bucolic dream team. But it’s backbreaking work, particularly for the 7-year-old narrator, Luke: “I would pick cotton, tearing the fluffy bolls from the stalks at a steady pace, stuffing them into the heavy sack, afraid to look down the row and be reminded of how endless it was, afraid to slow down because someone would notice.”  What’s more, tensions begin to simmer between the Mexicans and the hill people, one of whom has a penchant for bare-knuckles brawling. This leads to a brutal murder, which young Luke has the bad luck to witness. At this point–with secrets, lies, and at least one knife fight in the offing–the plot begins to take on that familiar, Grisham-style momentum. Still, such matters ultimately take a back seat in A Painted House to the author’s evocation of time and place. This is, after all, the scene of his boyhood, and Grisham waxes nostalgic without ever succumbing to deep-fried sentimentality.


Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

To the list of great American child narrators that includes Huck Finn and Scout Finch, let us now add Reuben “Rube” Land, the asthmatic 11-year-old boy at the center of Leif Enger’s remarkable first novel, Peace Like a River. Rube recalls the events of his childhood, in small-town Minnesota circa 1962, in a voice that perfectly captures the poetic, verbal stoicism of the northern Great Plains. “Here’s what I saw,” Rube warns his readers. “Here’s how it went. Make of it what you will.” And Rube sees plenty.   In the winter of his 11th year, two schoolyard bullies break into the Lands’ house, and Rube’s big brother Davy guns them down with a Winchester. Shortly after his arrest, Davy breaks out of jail and goes on the lam. Swede is Rube’s younger sister, a precocious writer who crafts rhymed epics of romantic Western outlawry. Shortly after Davy’s escape, Rube, Swede, and their father, a widowed school custodian, hit the road too, swerving this way and that across Minnesota and North Dakota, determined to find their lost outlaw Davy. In the end it’s not Rube who haunts the reader’s imagination, it’s his father, torn between love for his outlaw son and the duty to do the right, honest thing. Enger finds something quietly heroic in the bred-in-the-bone Minnesota decency of America’s heartland. Peace Like a River opens up a new chapter in Midwestern literature.
Amazon.com’s Best of 2001


Red Hot Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Being Young and Latino in the United States edited by Lori Marie Carlson with an introduction by Oscar Hijuelosi

“i think in spanish, i write in english, i want to go back to puerto rico, but i wonder if my kink could live in ponce, maygüez and carolina. tengo las venas aculturdas, escribo en spanglish, abraham in español, abraham in english, tato in spanish “taro” in english, tonto in both languages” — from “My Graduation Speech,” by Tato Laviera A new collection of bilingual poems from the bestselling editor of Cool Salsa. Ten years after the publication of the acclaimed Cool Salsa, editor Lori Marie Carlson has brought together a stunning variety of Latino poets for a long-awaited follow-up. Established and familiar names are joined by many new young voices, and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Oscar Hijuelos has written the Introduction. The poets collected here illuminate the difficulty of straddling cultures, languages, and identities.  They celebrate food, family, love, and triumph. In English, Spanish, and poetic jumbles of both, they tell us who they are, where they are, and what their hopes are for the future. –  Synopsis from Books in Print

 


The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Skillfully interweaving biblical tales with events and characters of her own invention, Diamant’s (Living a Jewish Life, 1991) sweeping first novel re-creates the life of Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob, from her birth and happy childhood in Mesopotamia through her years in Canaan and death in Egypt. When Dinah reaches puberty and enters the Red Tent (the place women visit to give birth or have their monthly periods), her mother and Jacob’s three other wives initiate her into the religious and sexual practices of the tribe. Diamant sympathetically describes Dinah’s doomed  relationship with Shalem, son of a ruler of Shechem, and his brutal death at the hands of her brothers. Following the events in Canaan, a pregnant Dinah travels to Egypt, where she becomes a noted midwife. Diamant has written a thoroughly enjoyable and illuminating portrait of a fascinating woman and the life she might have lived.


Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls by Mary Pipher

‘  From her work as a psychotherapist for adolescent females, Pipher here posits and persuasively argues her thesis that today’s teenaged girls are coming of age in “a girl-poisoning culture.” Backed by anecdotal evidence and research findings, she suggests that, despite the advances of feminism, young women continue to be victims of abuse, self-mutilation (e.g., anorexia), consumerism and media pressure to conform to others’ ideals. With sympathy and focus she cites case histories to illustrate the struggles required of adolescent girls to maintain a sense of themselves among the mixed messages they receive from society, their schools and, often, their families. Pipher offers concrete suggestions for ways by which girls can build and maintain a strong sense of self, e.g., keeping a diary, observing their social context as an anthropologist might, distinguishing between thoughts and feelings. Pipher is an eloquent advocate. — Review Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.


The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy sets his new novel, The Road, in a post-apocalyptic blight of gray skies that drizzle ash, a world in which all matter of wildlife is extinct, starvation is not only prevalent but nearly all-encompassing, and marauding bands of cannibals roam the environment with pieces of human flesh stuck between their teeth. If this sounds oppressive and dispiriting, it is. McCarthy may have just set to paper the definitive vision of the world after nuclear war, and in this recent age of relentless saber-rattling by the global powers, it’s not much of a leap to feel his vision could be not far off the mark nor, sadly, right around the corner. Stealing across this horrific (and that’s the only word for it) landscape are an unnamed man and his emaciated son, a boy probably around the age of ten. It is the love the father feels for his son, a love as deep and acute as his grief, that could surprise readers of McCarthy’s previous work. McCarthy’s Gnostic impressions of mankind have left very little place for love. But here the love of a desperate father for his sickly son transcends all else. McCarthy has always written about the battle between light and darkness; the darkness usually comprises 99.9% of the world, while any illumination is the weak shaft thrown by a penlight running low on batteries. In The Road, those batteries are almost out–the entire world is, quite literally, dying–so the final affirmation of hope in the novel’s closing pages is all the more shocking and maybe all the more enduring as the boy takes all of his father’s (and McCarthy’s) rage at the hopeless folly of man and lays it down, lifting up, in its place,  the oddest of all things: faith.


The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama

Praised for her lovely first novel, Women of the Silk (1991), Tsukiyama has extended herself even further and written an extraordinarily graceful and moving novel about goodness and beauty. The daughter of a Chinese mother and a Japanese father, Tsukiyama uses the Japanese invasion of China during the late 1930s as a somber backdrop for her unusual story about a 20-year-old Chinese painter named Stephen who is sent to his family’s summer home in a Japanese coastal village to recover from a bout with tuberculosis. Here he is cared for by Matsu, a reticent housekeeper and a master gardener. Over the course of a remarkable year, Stephen learns Matsu’s secret and gains not only physical strength, but also profound spiritual insight. Matsu is a samurai of the soul, a man devoted to doing good and finding beauty in a cruel and arbitrary world, and Stephen is a noble student, learning to appreciate Matsu’s generous and nurturing way of life and to love Matsu’s soul mate, gentle Sachi, a woman afflicted with leprosy. Tsukiyama is a wise and spellbinding storyteller.

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de RosnayParis, July 1942: Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family’s apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours.  Paris, May 2002: On Vel’ d’Hiv’s 60th anniversary, journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article about this black day in France’s past. Through her contemporary investigation, she stumbles onto a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah. Julia finds herself compelled to retrace the girl’s ordeal, from that terrible term in the Vel d’Hiv’, to the camps, and beyond. As she probes into Sarah’s past, she begins to question her own place in France, and to reevaluate her marriage and her life.Tatiana de Rosnay offers us a brilliantly subtle, compelling portrait of France under occupation and reveals the taboos and silence that surround this painful episode.
“This is a remarkable historical novel, a book which brings to light a disturbing and deliberately hidden aspect of French behavior towards Jews during World War II. Like Sophie’s Choice, it’s a book that impresses itself upon one’s heart and soul forever.” –Naomi Ragen, author of The Saturday Wife and The Covenant
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

‘  In Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, 14-year-old Lily Owen, neglected by her father and isolated on their Georgia peach farm, spends hours imagining a blissful infancy when she was loved and nurtured by her mother, Deborah, whom she barely remembers. These consoling fantasies are her heart’s answer to the family story that as a child, in unclear circumstances, Lily accidentally shot and killed her mother. All Lily has left of Deborah is a strange image of a Black Madonna, with the words “Tiburon, South Carolina” scrawled on the back. The search for a mother, and the need to mother oneself, are crucial elements in this well-written coming-of-age story set in the early 1960s against a background of racial violence and unrest. When Lily’s beloved nanny, Rosaleen, manages to insult a group of angry white men on her way to register to vote and has to skip town, Lily takes the opportunity to go with her, fleeing to the only place she can think of–Tiburon, South Carolina–determined to find out more about her dead mother. Although the plot threads are too neatly trimmed, The Secret Life of Bees is a carefully crafted novel with an inspired depiction of character. The legend of the Black Madonna and the brave, kind, peculiar women who perpetuate Lily’s story dominate the second half of the book, placing Kidd’s debut novel squarely in the honored tradition of the Southern Gothic.

The Shack by William Paul Young

Mckenzie Allen Philips’ youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted during a family vacation and evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. Four years later in the midst of his Great Sadness, Mack receives a suspicious note, apparently from God, inviting him back to that shack for a weekend. Against his better judgment he arrives at the shack on a wintry afternoon and walks back into his darkest nightmare. What he finds there will change Mack’s world forever. In a world where religion seems to grow increasingly irrelevant ‘The Shack’ wrestles with the timeless question, ‘Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain?’


Shaneby Jack Schaefer  Shanewas written by local Virginian-Pilot writer Jack Schaefer.

Fascinated by the West and what it represents in American culture, he only traveled to that region after this novel was written. He first published his book as a magazine serial, but it appeared in book form in 1949 and was adapted to film in 1953. The plot is so regconizable to a modern audience that it’s hard to remember that from Shane came so many other American classics – it is the standard by which later westerns were judged.  Set in 1889 Wyoming and narrated by young Bob Starrett, it tells of the enigmatic cowboy Shane, who aids the community in resisting the intentions of a land-greedy
cattle rancher. ~ Lisa Ray


Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

Old passions, prejudices, and grudges surface in a Washington State island town when a Japanese man stands trial for the murder of a fisherman in the 1950s. Guterson (The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind, 1989, etc.) has written a thoughtful, poetic first novel, a cleverly constructed courtroom drama with detailed, compelling characters. Many years earlier, Kabuo Miyamoto’s family had made all but the last payment on seven acres of land they were in the process of buying from the Heine family. Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and Kabuo’s family was interned. Etta Heine, Carl’s mother, called off the deal. Kabuo served in the war, returned, and wanted his land back. After changing hands a few times, the land ended up with Carl Heine. When Carl, a fisherman, is found drowned in his own net, all the circumstantial evidence, with the land dispute as a possible motive, points to Kabuo as the murderer. Meanwhile, Hatsue Miyamoto, Kabuo’s wife, is the undying passion of Ishmael Chambers, the publisher and editor of the town newspaper. Ishmael, who returned from the war minus an arm, can’t shake his obsession for Hatsue any more than he can ignore the ghost pains in his nonexistent arm. As a thick snowstorm whirls outside the courtroom, the story is unburied. The same incidents are recounted a number of times, with each telling revealing new facts. In the end, justice and morality are proven to be intimately woven with beauty–the kind of awe and wonder that children feel for the world. But Guterson communicates these truths through detail, not philosophical argument: Readers will come away with a surprising store of knowledge regarding gill-netting boats and other specifics of life in the Pacific Northwest. Packed with lovely moments and as compact as haiku–at the same time, a page-turner full of twists. — Review Copyright ©1994, Kirkus Associates, LP.


Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

“[One morning] in the early spring, I woke up with the remembrance of a girl I’d once known, Sophie. It was a very vivid half-dream, half-revelation, and all of a sudden I realized that hers was a story I had to tell.” That very day, William Styron began writing the first chapter of Sophie’s Choice.  First published in 1979, this complex and ambitious novel opens with Stingo, a young southerner, journeying north in 1947 to become a writer. It leads us into his intellectual and emotional entanglement with his neighbors in a Brooklyn rooming house: Nathan, a tortured, brilliant Jew, and his lover, Sophie, a beautiful Polish woman whose wrist bears the grim tattoo of a concentration camp…and whose past is strewn with death that she  alone survived.  “Sophie’s Choice is a passionate, courageous book…a philosophical novel on the most important subject of the twentieth century,” said novelist and critic John Gardner in The New York Times Book Review. “One of the reasons Styron succeeds so well in Sophie’s Choice is that, like Shakespeare (I think the comparison is not too grand), Styron knows how to cut away from the darkness of his material, so that when he turns to it again it strikes with increasing force….Sophie’s Choice is a thriller of the highest order, all the more thrilling for the fact that the dark, gloomy secrets we are unearthing one by one–sorting through lies and terrible misunderstandings like a hand groping for a golden nugget in a rattlesnake’s nest–may be authentic secrets of history and our own human nature.”


Stiff : the curious lives of human cadavers by Mary Roach

“Uproariously funny” doesn’t seem a likely description for a book on cadavers. However, Roach, a Salon and Reader’s Digest columnist, has done the nearly impossible and written a book as informative and respectful as it is irreverent and witty. From her opening lines “The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back”, it is clear that she’s taking a unique approach to issues surrounding death. Roach delves into the many productive uses to which cadavers have been put, from medical experimentation to applications in transportation safety research (in a chapter archly called “Dead Man Driving”) to work by forensic scientists quantifying rates of decay under a wide array of bizarre circumstances. There are also chapters on cannibalism, including an aside on dumplings allegedly filled with human remains from a Chinese crematorium, methods of disposal (burial, cremation, composting) and “beating-heart” cadavers used in organ transplants. Roach has a fabulous eye and a wonderful voice as she describes such macabre situations as a plastic surgery seminar with doctors
practicing face-lifts on decapitated human heads and her trip to China in search of the cannibalistic dumpling makers. Even Roach’s digressions and footnotes are captivating, helping to make the book impossible to put down  — Review copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.


Sula by Toni Morrison

At its center–a friendship between two women, a friendship whose intensity first sustains, then injures. Sula and Nel–both black, both smart, both poor, raised in a small Ohio town–meet when they are twelve, wishbone thin and dreaming of princes.  Through their girlhood years they share everything–perceptions, judgments, yearnings, secrets, even crime–until Sula gets out, out of the Bottom, the hilltop neighborhood where beneath the sporting life of the men hanging around the place in headrags and soft felt hats there hides a fierce resentment at failed crops, lost jobs, thieving insurance men, bug-ridden flour…at the invisible line that cannot be  overstepped.  Sula leaps it and roams the cities of America for ten years. Then she returns to the town, to her friend. But Nel is a wife now, settled with her man and her three children. She belongs. She accommodates to the Bottom, where you avoid the hand of God by getting in it, by staying upright, helping out at church suppers, asking after folks–where you deal with evil by surviving it. Not Sula. As willing to feel pain as to give pain, she can never accommodate. Nel can’t understand her any more, and the others never did. Sula scares them. Mention her now, and they recall that she put her grandma in an old folks’ home (the old lady who let a train take her leg for the insurance)…that a child drowned in the river years ago…that there was a plague of robins when she first returned…  In clear, dark, resonant language, Toni Morrison brilliantly evokes not only a bond between two lives, but the harsh, loveless, ultimately mad world in which that bond is destroyed, the world of the Bottom and its people, through forty years, up to the time of their bewildered realization that even more than they feared Sula, their pariah, they needed her.


Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Of Hurston’s fiction, Their Eyes Were Watching God is arguably the best-known and perhaps the most controversial. The novel follows the fortunes of Janie Crawford, a woman living in the black town of Eaton, Florida. Hurston sets up her characters and her locale in the first chapter, which, along with the last, acts as a framing device for the story of Janie’s life. Unlike Wright and Ralph Ellison, Hurston does not write explicitly about black people in the context of a white world–a fact that earned her scathing criticism from the social realists–but she doesn’t ignore the impact of black-white relations either:

It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment.

One person the citizens of Eaton are inclined to judge is Janie Crawford, who has married three men and been tried for the murder of one of them. Janie feels no compulsion to justify herself to the town, but she does explain herself to her friend, Phoeby, with the implicit understanding that Phoeby can “tell ‘em what Ah say if you wants to. Dat’s just de same as me ’cause mah tongue is in mah friend’s mouf.”   Hurston’s use of dialect enraged other African American writers such as Wright, who accused her of pandering to white readers by giving them the black stereotypes they expected. Decades later, however, outrage has been replaced by admiration for her depictions of black life, and especially the lives of black women. In Their Eyes Were Watching God Zora Neale Hurston breathes humanity into both her men and women, and allows them to speak in their own voices.


To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow…. When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.”
Set in the small Southern town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the Depression, To Kill a Mockingbird follows three years in the life of 8-year-old Scout Finch, her brother, Jem, and their father, Atticus–three years punctuated by the arrest and eventual trial of a young black man accused of raping a white woman. Though her story explores big themes, Harper Lee chooses to tell it through the eyes of a child. The result is a tough and tender novel of race, class, justice, and the pain of growing up.  Like the slow-moving occupants of her fictional town, Lee takes her time getting to the heart of her tale; we first meet the Finches the summer before Scout’s first year at school. She, her brother, and Dill Harris, a boy who spends the summers with his aunt in Maycomb, while away the hours reenacting scenes from Dracula and plotting ways to get a peek at the town bogeyman, Boo Radley. At first the circumstances surrounding the alleged rape of Mayella Ewell, the daughter of a drunk and violent white farmer, barely penetrate the children’s consciousness. Then Atticus is called on to defend the accused, Tom Robinson, and soon Scout and Jem find themselves caught up in events beyond their understanding. During the trial, the town exhibits its ugly side, but Lee offers plenty of counterbalance as well–in the struggle of an elderly woman to overcome her morphine habit before she dies; in the heroism of Atticus Finch, standing up for what he knows is right; and finally in Scout’s hard-won understanding that most people are essentially kind “when you really see them.” By turns funny, wise, and heartbreaking, To Kill a Mockingbird is one classic that continues to speak to new generations, and deserves to be reread often. — Synopsis from Alix Wilber, Amazon.com


Three Cups of Tea : One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson and David Relin

On a 1993 expedition to climb K2 in honor of his sister Christa, who had died of epilepsy at 23, Mortenson stumbled upon a remote mountain village in Pakistan. Out of gratitude for the villagers’ assistance when he was lost and near death, he vowed to build a school for the children who were scratching lessons in the dirt. Raised by his missionary parents in Tanzania, Mortenson was used to dealing with exotic cultures and developing nations. Still, he faced daunting challenges of raising funds, death threats from enraged mullahs, separation from his family, and a kidnapping to eventually build 55 schools in Taliban territory. Award-winning journalist Relin recounts the slow and arduous task Mortenson set for himself, a one-man mission aimed particularly at bringing education to young girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Readers interested in a fresh perspective on the cultures and development efforts of Central Asia will love this incredible story of a humanitarian endeavor. Review Copyright © Vanessa Bush, American Library Association.


Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

Isabella Swan, 17, narrates this riveting first novel, propelled by suspense and romance in equal parts. The story opens with a cryptic scene of the heroine “facing death,” then flashes back to Bella’s departure from Phoenix, where her mother lives with her new husband, as the teen heads off to live with her father, the police chief in Forks, Wash. From the first day at her new high school, she finds herself magnetically drawn to Edward Cullen, whose behavior towards her is erratic (“I’d just explained my dreary life to this bizarre, beautiful boy who may or may not despise me”). Then she finds out why his interest in her runs hot and cold: he is a vampire-but of an unusual variety. Edward, his siblings and their adoptive parents have disciplined themselves to feed on animals rather than humans; and Edward is obsessed with Bella. Other elements factor into the plot, including a rival group of vampires who are not as disciplined as the Cullens. This plot twist (which includes a subplot about one of the Cullens’ past life) contributes to a rushed denouement (much of it takes place offstage) that is perhaps the novel’s only weakness. The main draw here is Bella’s infatuation with outsider Edward, the sense of danger inherent in their love, and Edward’s inner struggle-a perfect metaphor for the sexual tension that accompanies adolescence. These will be familiar to nearly every teen, and will keep readers madly flipping the pages of Meyer’s tantalizing debut. — Review Copyright 2005 Publisher’s Weekly


Une si longue letter by Mariama Bâ

Une si longue lettre de la Sénégalaise Mariama Bâ est un classique. Un ouvrage paru en 1979 et qui ose aborder des sujets tabous comme les castes, l’éducation sexuelle, le corps des femmes. Vingt ans après la mort de son auteur, c’est toujours un livre majeur.


Waiting by Ha Jin

Jin’s quiet but absorbing second novel (after In the Pond) captures the poignant dilemma of an ordinary man who misses the best opportunities in his life simply by trying to do his duty—as defined first by his traditional Chinese parents and later by the Communist Party. Reflecting the changes in Chinese communism from the ’60s to the ’80s, the novel focuses on Lin Kong, a military doctor who agrees, as his mother is dying, to an arranged marriage. His bride, Shuyu, turns out to be a country woman who looks far older than her 26 years and who has, to Lin’s great embarrassment, lotus (bound) feet. While Shuyu remains at Lin’s family home in Goose Village, nursing first his mother and then his ailing father, and bearing Lin a daughter, Lin lives far away in an army hospital compound, visiting only once a year. Caught in a loveless marriage, Lin is attracted to a nurse, Manna Wu, an attachment forbidden by communist strictures. According to local Party rules, Lin cannot divorce his wife without her permission until they have been separated for 18 years. Although Jin infuses movement and some suspense into Lin’s and Manna’s sometimes resigned, sometimes impatient waiting—they will not consummate their relationship until Lin is free—it is only in the novel’s third section, when Lin finally secures a divorce, that the story gathers real force. Though inaction is a risky subject and the thoughts of a cautious man make for a rather deliberate prose style (the first two sections describe the moments the characters choose not to act), the final chapters are moving and deeply ironic, proving again that this poet and award-winning short story writer can deliver powerful long fiction about a world alien to most Western readers. (Oct.) FYI: Jin served six years in the People’s Liberation Army, and came to the U.S. in 1985. –  Review Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc


A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson

Returning to the U.S. after 20 years in England, Iowa native Bryson decided to reconnect with his mother country by hiking the length of the 2100-mile Appalachian Trail. Awed by merely the camping section of his local sporting goods store, he nevertheless plunges into the wilderness and emerges with a consistently comical account of a neophyte woodsman learning hard lessons about self-reliance. Bryson (The Lost Continent) carries himself in an irresistibly bewildered manner, accepting each new calamity with wonder and hilarity. He reviews the characters of the AT (as the trail is called), from a pack of incompetent Boy Scouts to a perpetually lost geezer named Chicken John. Most amusing is his cranky, crude and inestimable companion, Katz, a reformed substance abuser who once had single-handedly “become, in effect, Iowa’s drug culture.” The uneasy but always entertaining relationship between Bryson and Katz keeps their walk interesting, even during the flat stretches. Bryson completes the trail as planned, and he records the misadventure with insight and elegance. He is a popular author in Britain and his impeccably graceful and witty style deserves a large American audience as well.


Walking Across Egypt by Clyde Edgerton

A quietly humorous story set in a small town in North Carolina. Seventy-eight year old Mattie Riggsbee, spunky and determined, has one regret: she has no grandchildren, as her son and daughter inconveniently remain unmarried. The story gathers momentum after a slightly sluggish start, when Wesley Benfield, wayward teenager and orphan, comes into Mattie’s life. Their need for each other is apparent, and their attempts to get together, despite the disapproval of Mattie’s family and neighbors, are the focus of the story. Wesley is captivated by Mattie’s good cooking and grandmotherly attention, and when he escapes from a house of detention, he heads straight to Mattie. There is a hilarious scene in church, where the fleeing Wesley and the pursuing deputy sheriff, both disguised as choir members, sit beside each other in full view of the congregation. Edgerton infuses all of his characters with reality, and provides a balanced perspective on age and youth. His understanding of teenagers is nowhere more evident than in the contrast between the reality of Wesley’s situation and the humor of his exaggerated fantasies.


Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

When his parents are killed in a traffic accident, Jacob Jankowski hops a train after walking out on his final exams at Cornell, where he had hoped to earn a veterinary degree. The train turns out to be a circus train, and since it’s the Depression, when someone with a vet’s skills can attach himself to a circus if he’s lucky, Jacob soon finds himself involved with the animal acts-specifically with the beautiful young Marlena, the horse rider, and her husband, August. Jacob falls for Marlena immediately, and the ensuing triangle is at the center of this novel, which follows the circus across the states. Jacob learns the ins and outs of circus life, in this case under the rule of the treacherous Uncle Al, who cheats the workers and deals roughly with patrons who complain about blatant false advertising and rip-off exhibits. Jacob and Marlena are attracted to each other, but their relationship is fairly innocent until it becomes clear that August is not merely jealous but dangerously mentally deranged. Old-fashioned and endearing, this is an enjoyable, fast-paced story told by the older Jacob, now in his nineties in a nursing home. — Jim Coan, SUNY Coll. at Oneonta Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.


Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts

A funny thing happens to Novalee Nation on her way to Bakersfield, California. Her ne’er-do-well boyfriend, Willie Jack Pickens, abandons her in an Oklahoma Wal-Mart and takes off on his own, leaving her with just 10 dollars and the clothes on her back. Not that hard luck is anything new to Novalee, who is “seventeen, seven months pregnant, thirty-seven pounds overweight–and superstitious about sevens…. For most people, sevens were lucky. But not for her,” Billie Letts writes. “She’d had a bad history with them, starting with her seventh birthday, the day Momma Nell ran away with a baseball umpire named Fred…”  Still, finding herself alone and penniless in Sequoyah, Oklahoma is enough to make even someone as inured to ill fortune as Novalee want to give up and die. Fortunately, the Wal-Mart parking lot is the Sequoyah equivalent of a town square, and within hours Novalee has met three people who will change her life: Sister Thelma Husband, a kindly eccentric; Benny Goodluck, a young Native American boy; and Moses White Cotton, an elderly African American photographer. For the next two months, Novalee surreptitiously makes her home in the Wal-Mart, sleeping there at night, exploring the town by day. When she goes into labor and delivers her baby there, however, Novalee learns that sometimes it’s not so bad to depend on the kindness of strangers–especially if one of them happens to be Sam Walton, the superchain’s founder. Where the Heart Is oddly mixes heart-warming vignettes and surprising, brutal violence. Novalee’s story is juxtaposed with occasional chapters chronicling Willy Jack’s downward spiral into prison, disappointment, and degradation. And even in Sequoyah, sudden storms, domestic violence, kidnapping, and deadly fires punctuate Novalee’s progress from homeless, unwed teen mom to successful, happy member of the community. This is not a subtle book; there’s never any doubt that our heroine will make a home for herself and her baby or that Willy Jack will get what he deserves for abandoning them. Still, Billie Letts has created several memorable characters, and there’s always room for another novel that celebrates the life-affirming qualities of reading, the importance of education, and the power of love to change lives.


World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Wars by Max Brooks.

The Zombie War came unthinkably close to eradicating humanity. Max Brooks, driven by the urgency of preserving the acid-etched first-hand experiences of the survivors from those apocalyptic years, traveled across the United States of America and throughout the world, from decimated cities that once teemed with upwards of thirty million souls to the most remote and inhospitable areas of the planet. He recorded the testimony of men, women, and sometimes children who came face-to-face with the living, or at least the undead, hell of that dreadful time. World War Z is the result. Never before have we had access to a document that so powerfully conveys the depth of fear and horror, and also the ineradicable spirit of resistance, that gripped human society through the plague years. Ranging from the now infamous village of New Dachang in the United Federation of China, where the epidemiological trail began with the twelve-year-old Patient Zero, to the unnamed northern forests where untold numbers sought a terrible and temporary refuge in the cold, to the United States of Southern Africa, where the Redeker Plan provided hope for humanity at an unspeakable price, to the west-of-the-Rockies redoubt where the North American tide finally started to turn, this invaluable chronicle reflects the full scope and duration of the Zombie War. Note: Some of the numerical and factual material contained in this edition was previously published under the auspices of the United Nations Postwar Commission. Eyewitness reports from the first truly global war — “I found ‘Patient Zero’ behind the locked door of an abandoned apartment across town. His wrists and feet were bound with plastic packing twine. Although he’d rubbed off the skin around his bonds, there was no blood. There was also no blood on his other wounds. He was writhing like an animal; a gag muffled his growls. At first the villagers tried to hold me back. They warned me not to touch him, that he was ‘cursed.’ I shrugged them off and reached for my mask and gloves. The boy’s skin was cold and gray–I could find neither his heartbeat nor his pulse.” –Dr. Kwang Jingshu, Greater Chongqing, United Federation of China. “Two hundred million zombies. Who can even visualize that type of number, let alone combat it? For the first time in history, we faced an enemy that was actively waging total war. They had no limits of endurance. They would never negotiate, never surrender. They would fight until the very end because, unlike us, every single one of them, every second of every day, was devoted to consuming all life on Earth.” –General Travis D’Ambrosia, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe.


Zoya’s Story: An Afghan Woman’s Struggle for Freedom

Now 23, Zoya was a child during the Russian invasion and a teen when the Taliban took power. The daughter of activists in Kabul, Zoya was raised by her grandmother after her parents disappeared. She now belongs to RAWA, a group her mother belonged to.  Her reflections show the complex scars made by the tug of war between factional government  and tribal warlords, especially the effects of the Taliban. Many of Zoya’s stories (e.g., women only permitted to leave their homes wearing a burqa and accompanied by a male; women often suffering and dying for want of a female physician) are also covered in Latifa’s My Forbidden Face.  Zoya tells of a society where kite flying, bright colors and even women’s laughter is forbidden, and enforcers are often armed with Russian military leftovers or crude stones. Yet the Afghans Zoya speaks of remain rebellious and hopeful. She writes, “When I… saw Kabul in the daylight, even the mountains beyond the city which had seemed so peaceful to me when I was a child looked sad. But… that I had seen them again… made me feel stronger.” Assigned by RAWA to live and work in a refugee camp near the Afghan-Pakistani border, Zoya now also travels abroad to raise funds for her organization. Her narrative voice is quiet and clear, making her recollections of the breathtaking violence she has witnessed nail-bitingly vivid and her descriptions of her struggle candid and poignant. — Review Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

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