Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Shelley's Suggestions

The Winter Sea
Susanna Kearsley
historical fiction
544 pages

It is 2008 and Carrie McClelland can't hit the right note for her next novel, but an unplanned detour in Scotland, and a stop at the castle that inspired Count Dracula, sets her on a different path; a path that took her back in time exactly 300 years, to that same castle, and to a rebellion doomed to failure. Alternating between the contemporary setting and the past, The Winter Sea takes us at every turn into little known worlds; historical footnotes writ large, a history of Scotland and the Jacobite rebellion of 1708 and the possibility of genetic memory. Historical fiction at its best and Susanna Kearsley at hers, The Winter Sea evokes the writing of Thomas Raddall, Daphne Du Maurier, and Mary Stewart.

Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times
Jennifer Worth
352 pages

Worth gained her midwife training in the 1950s among an Anglican order of nuns dedicated to ensuring safer childbirth for the poor living amid the Docklands slums on the East End of London. Her engaging memoir retraces those early years caring for the indigent and unfortunate during the pinched postwar era in London, when health care was nearly nonexistent, antibiotics brand-new, sanitary facilities rare, contraception unreliable and families with 13 or more children the norm. Working alongside the trained nurses and midwives of St. Raymund Nonnatus (a pseudonym she's given the place), Worth made frequent visits to the tenements that housed the dock workers and their families, often in the dead of night on her bicycle. Her well-polished anecdotes are teeming with character detail of some of the more memorable nurses she worked with, such as the six-foot-two Camilla Fortescue-Cholmeley-Browne, called Chummy, who renounced her genteel upbringing to become a nurse, or the dotty old Sister Monica Joan, who fancied cakes immoderately. Patients included Molly, only 19 and already trapped in poverty and degradation with several children and an abusive husband; Mrs. Conchita Warren, who was delivering her 24th baby; or the birdlike vagrant, Mrs. Jenkins, whose children were taken away from her when she entered the workhouse.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Rachel's Suggestions

The Language of Flowers
Vanessa Diffenbaugh
352 pages

Victoria Jones is just eighteen, recently "emancipated" from British foster-care system and now sleeping on park benches. Timid and self-deprecating, she speaks with confidence in only one tongue, the language of flowers. Her gift with floral subtleties, however, proves to be enough, at least temporarily; it opens the way to a new vocation that nurtures both others and herself. Eventually though, Victoria discovers that to truly flourish, she must grapple with the painful secrets of her own past.

Love Walked In
Marisa de los Santos
320 pages

When Martin Grace enters the hip Philadelphia coffee shop Cornelia Brown manages, her life changes forever. But little does she know that her newfound love is only the harbinger of greater changes to come. Meanwhile, across town, Clare Hobbs—eleven years old and abandoned by her erratic mother—goes looking for her lost father. She crosses paths with Cornelia while meeting with him at the cafĂ©, and the two women form an improbable friendship that carries them through the unpredictable currents of love and life.

Love Walked In, the first novel by award-winning poet Marisa de los Santos, is bursting with keen insight and beautifully rendered prose. Invoking classic movies to illuminate the mystery and wonder of love in all its permutations, Love Walked In is an uplifting debut that marks the entrance of an enchanting literary voice.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
Laura Hillenbrand
473 pages

On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood.  Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared.  It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard.  So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.

The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini.  In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails.  As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile.  But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown.

Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater.  Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion.  His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will.

Charlotte's Suggestions

Alan Brennert
389 pages

Young Rachel Kalama, growing up in idyllic Honolulu in the 1890s, is part of a big, loving Hawaiian family, and dreams of seeing the far-off lands that her father, a merchant seaman, often visits. But at the age of seven, Rachel and her dreams are shattered by the discovery that she has leprosy. Forcibly removed from her family, she is sent to Kalaupapa, the isolated leper colony on the island of Moloka'i.

In her exile she finds a family of friends to replace the family she's lost: a native healer, Haleola, who becomes her adopted "auntie" and makes Rachel aware of the rich culture and mythology of her people; Sister Mary Catherine Voorhies, one of the Franciscan sisters who care for young girls at Kalaupapa; and the beautiful, worldly Leilani, who harbors a surprising secret. At Kalaupapa she also meets the man she will one day marry.

True to historical accounts, Moloka'i is the story of an extraordinary human drama, the full scope and pathos of which has never been told before in fiction. But Rachel's life, though shadowed by disease, isolation, and tragedy, is also one of joy, courage, and dignity. This is a story about life, not death; hope, not despair. It is not about the failings of flesh, but the strength of the human spirit.

Harris and Me
Gary Paulsen
young adult fiction
157 pages

"A hearty helping of old-fashioned, rip-roaring entertainment," said PW about this post-WWII story of an 11-year-old boy sent to spend the summer on his relatives' farm.

Gary Paulsen never shuns writing about real life to spare your kiddies' artificial innocence. His books deal with the pains and joys of childhood - parental quarrels, alcoholism, abusive behavior, etc. - more forthrightly than any other children's writer I encountered with my own son as he was learning to read, and my son loved Paulsen's book enough to choose them for himself.

"Harris and Me" is a first-person narrative, told by a boy whose dysfunctional family has sent him to live with kinfolk on a backcountry farm in Minnesota. Harris is the bigger boy whose family has the farm. He becomes the narrator's surrogate older brother and role model for devil-may-care enjoyment of boyish wildness. The narrator senses that his own nature is different from Harris's but he treasures Harris's spirit. It's a quick read for an adult, a kind of hyper-condensed adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. It's fun for the right kid to read silently or out loud, but children raised in a household devoted to propriety may find it incomprehensible, since propriety is not a virtue on Gary Paulsen's farm.

Caleb's Crossing
Geraldine Brooks
318 pages

Bethia Mayfield is a restless and curious young woman growing up in Martha's vineyard in the 1660s amid a small band of pioneering English Puritans. At age twelve, she meets Caleb, the young son of a chieftain, and the two forge a secret bond that draws each into the alien world of the other. Bethia's father is a Calvinist minister who seeks to convert the native Wampanoag, and Caleb becomes a prize in the contest between old ways and new, eventually becoming the first Native American graduate of Harvard College. Inspired by a true story and narrated by the irresistible Bethia, Caleb’s Crossing brilliantly captures the triumphs and turmoil of two brave, openhearted spirits who risk everything in a search for knowledge at a time of superstition and ignorance.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Bonnie's Suggestions

The Paris Wife
Paula McLain
Historical Fiction
352 pages

Chicago, 1920: Hadley Richardson is a quiet twenty-eight-year-old who has all but given up on love and happiness—until she meets Ernest Hemingway. Following a whirlwind courtship and wedding, the pair set sail for Paris, where they become the golden couple in a lively and volatile group—the fabled “Lost Generation”—that includes Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Though deeply in love, the Hemingways are ill prepared for the hard-drinking, fast-living, and free-loving life of Jazz Age Paris. As Ernest struggles to find the voice that will earn him a place in history and pours himself into the novel that will become The Sun Also Rises, Hadley strives to hold on to her sense of self as her roles as wife, friend, and muse become more challenging. Eventually they find themselves facing the ultimate crisis of their marriage—a deception that will lead to the unraveling of everything they’ve fought so hard for. A heartbreaking portrayal of love and torn loyalty, The Paris Wife is all the more poignant because we know that, in the end, Hemingway wrote that he would rather have died than fallen in love with anyone but Hadley. 

Invisible Cities
Italo Calvino
Historical Fiction
176 pages

Imaginary conversations between Marco Polo and his host, the Chinese ruler Kublai Khan, conjure up cities of magical times. “Of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvelous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant” (Gore Vidal). Translated by William Weaver. A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book.
One of the world's best storytellers, Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities) pinpoints for future generations the universal values for literature. Here are his works, methods, intentions, and hopes.

Beautiful Ruins
Jess Walter
352 pages

The story begins in 1962. On a rocky patch of the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper, chest-deep in daydreams, looks out over the incandescent waters of the Ligurian Sea and spies an apparition: a tall, thin woman, a vision in white, approaching him on a boat. She is an actress, he soon learns, an American starlet, and she is dying. 

And the story begins again today, half a world away, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a movie studio's back lot—searching for the mysterious woman he last saw at his hotel decades earlier.

What unfolds is a dazzling, yet deeply human, roller coaster of a novel, spanning fifty years and nearly as many lives. From the lavish set of Cleopatra to the shabby revelry of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Walter introduces us to the tangled lives of a dozen unforgettable characters: the starstruck Italian innkeeper and his long-lost love; the heroically preserved producer who once brought them together and his idealistic young assistant; the army veteran turned fledgling novelist and the rakish Richard Burton himself, whose appetites set the whole story in motion—along with the husbands and wives, lovers and dreamers, superstars and losers, who populate their world in the decades that follow. Gloriously inventive, constantly surprising, Beautiful Ruins is a story of flawed yet fascinating people, navigating the rocky shores of their lives while clinging to their improbable dreams.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Rosalie's Suggestions

A Year Down Yonder
Richard Peck
young adult novel; Newbery Medal Winner - 130 pages

The year is 1937, and the Great Depression has hit the Dowdel family hard.  Fifteen-year-old Mary Alice is sent downstate to live with her unpredictable Grandma Dowdel while her Ma and Pa eke out a meager living in Chicago. Mary Alice is less than thrilled with the arrangement. Grandma's  farming community couldn't be more different from Chicago if it tried. Soon, however, she becomes Grandma's partner in crime, helping to carry out madcap schemes to benefit friends and avenge enemies.  (Rosalie's comment: it was a fun read with some laugh-out-loud moments.)

Nothing Daunted–The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West (2011) 
Dorothy Wickenden
non-fiction - 226 pages

In 1916 Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamond Underwood, close friends from childhood and graduates of Smith College, shocked their families and friends in Auburn New York by taking teaching jobs in a remote school in northwestern Colorado.  Based on their letters and interviews, Woodruff's granddaughter tells of the events leading up to their decision and their year in Colorado. These rich and well-educated young society women, tired of social conventions, came face to face with another America in the years before World War I–one that was poor, diverse, remote, lacking in modern conveniences, occasionally violent, and yet spectacularly beautiful and "new."  The book offers a wide cross-section of life in the American West, but the core of the story is the girls' slow adaptation to a society very different from the one in which they were raised, and their evolution from naive but idealistic and open-minded society girls to strong-willed and pragmatic women who later married and raised families in the midst of the Great Depression.  (Rosalie's comment: I skimmed the first hundred pages about their lives in Auburn, but really liked it when they started teaching.)

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin (2011)
Erik Larson
non-fiction (history/biography) - 448 pages

This book covers the experiences of U.S. ambassador to Germany William E. Dodd and his family during his first year as US ambassador in Berlin in 1933-1934.  Dodd had been teaching history at the University of Chicago when he was summoned by FDR to the German ambassadorship–a job several others had turned down.  Larson, using lots of archival as well as secondary-source research and Dodd's diary, chillingly portrays the terror and oppression that slowly settled over Germany in 1933. Dodd quickly realized the Nazis' evil intentions but his warnings to his superiors in the State Department were ignored. His daughter Martha, in her mid-20s and an indiscriminate flirt, was initially smitten by the courteous SS soldiers surrounding her family, but over time she, too, became disenchanted with the brutality of the regime.  Larson also traces the Dodds' lives after their time in Germany.  (Rosalie's comment: I liked the historical parts, but skipped Martha's affairs.) 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Amy's Suggestions

The Weird Sisters
Eleanor Brown
Fiction - 384 pages

Three sisters have returned to their childhood home, reuniting the eccentric Andreas family. Here, books are a passion (there is no problem a library card can't solve) and TV is something other people watch. Their father-a professor of Shakespeare who speaks almost exclusively in verse-named them after the Bard's heroines. It's a lot to live up to.
The sisters have a hard time communicating with their parents and their lovers, but especially with one another. What can the shy homebody eldest sister, the fast-living middle child, and the bohemian youngest sibling have in common? Only that none has found life to be what was expected; and now, faced with their parents' frailty and their own personal disappointments, not even a book can solve what ails them...
What Alice Forgot
Liane Moriarty
Fiction - 488 pages

Alice Love is twenty-nine, crazy about her husband, and pregnant with her first child. So imagine Alice’s surprise when she comes to on the floor of a gym (a gym! She HATES the gym) and is whisked off to the hospital where she discovers the honeymoon is truly over — she’s getting divorced, , she has three kids, and she’s actually 39 years old. 
Alice must reconstruct the events of a lost decade, and find out whether it’s possible to reconstruct her life at the same time. She has to figure out why her sister hardly talks to her, and how is it that she’s become one of those super skinny moms with really expensive clothes. Ultimately, Alice must discover whether forgetting is a blessing or a curse, and whether it’s possible to start over.

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less
Terry Ryan
Memoir - 352 pages
Paperback *

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio introduces Evelyn Ryan, an enterprising woman who kept poverty at bay with wit, poetry, and perfect prose during the "contest era" of the 1950s and 1960s. Evelyn's winning ways defied the church, her alcoholic husband, and antiquated views of housewives. To her, flouting convention was a small price to pay when it came to raising her six sons and four daughters.
Graced with a rare appreciation for life's inherent hilarity, Evelyn turned every financial challenge into an opportunity for fun and profit. The story of this irrepressible woman, whose clever entries are worthy of Erma Bombeck, Dorothy Parker, and Ogden Nash, is told by her daughter Terry with an infectious joy that shows how a winning spirit will always triumph over poverty.

* I saw a copy of the book for $13ish. When I looked online, however, I can only find a paperback edition selling for $22ish (that seems exhorbitant). Just an FYI.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

December Meeting

What:  Christmas Brunch
When:  Saturday, December 15th at 11:00 am
Where:  Shelley’s house

Food Assignments
Amy: sweet rolls
Bonnie: sausage
Charlotte: syrup
Jeana: waffles
Joanne: eggs & vegetables
Rachel: bacon
Rosalie: fruit
Shelley: quiche
Sirpa: Scandinavian rye bread, ham, and cheese
Tiffanie: juice

Please email me three book suggestions by December 1st.  It would be great if you could include the title, author, number of pages, and a short summary.  I’ll compile the list and email it out to everyone a week or so before we meet on the 15th. (I’ll put the suggestions up here as they come in.  If you’d like to post your suggestions yourself, feel free.  I think I've invited everyone to be contributors.)

I've emailed you more details.  Let me know if you don't get the email. :)

Wednesday, November 7, 2012