Category Archives: 2008 Books

Book Club List for 2008

american-lightning Every year, Linda compiles a list of the books we’ve read in the previous year, in case our memories and notes are faulty when someone asks, “What have you been reading lately?”

In alphabetical order: (Reviews and descriptions are from various sources.)

  • Almost Moon (Alice Sebold) Explores the complex ties between mothers and daughters, wives and lovers, the meaning of devotion, and the fine line between love and hate.
  • American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, The Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century (Howard Blum) The October 1910 bombing of the offices of the Los Angeles Times, which killed 21 people, seemed to portend that the vicious battle between capital and labor would escalate into the United States’ second civil war. Howard Blum, bestselling author and contributing editor for Vanity Fair, examines the crime and its aftermath from the perspective of three legendary men of the period, each of whom would “permanently transform the nature of American thought, politics, celebrity, and culture.” The first, detective William Burns, led a painstaking investigation that revealed a conspiracy by the Iron Workers Union to set off bombs around the country — the Times was targeted for its fierce anti-labor campaign. The second, famed attorney Clarence Darrow, reluctantly agreed to represent the defendants despite his belief that an acquittal would be impossible; in the low point of a distinguished career, Darrow, seen passing money to an associate who then bribed a juror, was subsequently tried for jury tampering. The third, director D. W. Griffith, had no real connection to the case, but Blum argues that his epic Birth of a Nation was informed by the events in L.A. While he doesn’t provide ample evidence for that assertion, Griffith’s inclusion still seems somehow fitting: Blum’s true-crime drama plays out like an old movie, complete with complex heroes, mustachioed villains, and lusty dames. It doesn’t always read like history, but it is great fun nonetheless. –Barbara Spindel
  • Candy Girl (Diablo Cody) Why would a healthy, college-educated young woman start stripping for a living, when she could work in a nice, clean office?
  • Desert of the Heart (Jane Rule) is a 1964 lesbian-themed novel, which was adapted into the 1985 film, “Desert Hearts.”
  • The Double Bind (Chris Bohjalian)  The idea of the invented self hovers over F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.   Jay Gatsby, we remember, begins an unpromising life as James Gatz and is murdered for a crime he does not commit. Bohjalian, too, is interested in the gray area between hope and delusion, in how people are shaped by the events of their lives and the efforts they make to hold the self inviolable against fate and harm. As Nick Carraway concludes, the past is powerfully present in the future, and Laurel’s investigations into Bobbie Crocker’s life lead her inevitably into her own history. Some readers may reach the end and feel blindsided rather than enlightened, but The Double Bind describes just how circuitous that inescapable journey can be. 
  • Ghostwalk (Rebecca Stott) The mysterious drowning death of Elizabeth Vogelsang, a Cambridge University scholar who was almost finished writing a controversial biography of Isaac Newton.
  • Glass Castle (Jeannette walls) A nonfiction story in which Walls chronicles her upbringing at the hands of eccentric, nomadic parents.
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Burrows) This books, told in letters, is the story of an English author living in the shadow of World War II—and embarking on a writing project that will dramatically change hguernsey-societyer life. Unfolding in a series of letters, this enchanting novel introduces readers to the indomitable Juliet Ashton. Through Juliet’s correspondence with her publisher, best friend, and an absorbing cast of characters, readers discover that despite the personal losses she suffered in the Blitz, and author tours sometimes marked by mishaps, nothing can quell her enthusiasm for the written word. One day, she begins a different sort of correspondence, responding to a man who found her name on the flyleaf of a cherished secondhand book. He tells her that his name is Dawsey Adams, a native resident of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands recently liberated from Nazi occupation. Soon Juliet is drawn into Dawsey’s remarkable circle of friends, courageous men and women who formed the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society as a cover to protect them from the Germans. With their appetite for good books, and their determination to honor the island’s haunting recent history, this is a community that opens Juliet’s heart and mind in ways she could never have imagined.
  • The Gravedigger’s Daughter (Joyce Carol Oates)  In 1936 the Schwarts, an immigrant family desperate to escape Nazi Germany, settle in a small town in upstate New York, where the father, a former high school teacher, is demeaned by the only job he can get: gravedigger and cemetery caretaker. After local prejudice and the family’s own emotional frailty result in unspeakable tragedy, the gravedigger’s daughter, Rebecca, begins her astonishing pilgrimage into America, an odyssey of erotic risk and imaginative daring, ingenious self-invention, and, in the end, a bittersweet—but very “American”—triumph. “You are born here, they will not hurt you”—so the gravedigger has predicted for his daughter, which will turn out to be true.   In The Gravedigger’s Daughter, Oates has created a masterpiece of domestic yet mythic realism, at once emotionally engaging and intellectually provocative: an intimately observed testimony to the resilience of the individual to set beside such predecessors as The Falls, Blonde, and We Were the Mulvaneys.
  • The House on Fortune Street (Margot Livesey) The book opens multiple perspectives on the life of Dara MacLeod, a young London therapist, partly by paying subtle homage to literary figures and works. The first of four sections follows Keats scholar Sean Wyman: his girlfriend, Abigail, is Dara’s best friend, and the couple lives upstairs from Dara in the titular London house. While Dara tries to coax her boyfriend Edward to move out of the house he shares with his ex-girlfriend and daughter, Sean receives a mysterious letter implying that Abigail is having an affair, and both relationships start to fall apart. The second section, set during Dara’s childhood, is narrated by Dara’s father, who has a strange fascination with Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) and shares Dodgson’s creepy interest in young girls. Dara’s meeting with Edward dominates part three, which mirrors the plot of Jane Eyre, and the final part, reminiscent of Great Expectations, is told mainly from Abigail’s college-era point of view. The pieces cross-reference and fit together seamlessly, with Dara’s fate being revealed by the end of part one and explained in the denouement. Livesey’s use of the classics enriches the narrative, giving Dara a larger-than-life resonance.
  • Last night at the Lobster (Stewart O’Nan) Explores how the closing of one chain restaurant profoundly affects many lives.
  • The Little Book ( Selden Edwards) First-time novelist Selden Edwards here conjures up a light fable about the birth of modernism — a frothy bit of time-travel that makes literal Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return. In this case, we’re given to understand that Edwards’s all-American hero, Frank Standish Burden III, and his father, Frank II, were able to change the course of modern history and culture by traveling back to Vienna during its golden age. With cameos by Freud, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, and a host of Viennese luminaries, Edwards compounds his historical conceit by comparing the radical politics and artistic tumult of the fin de siècle to America in the ’60s. Frank III, known to friends as “Wheeler” for his devastating baseball pitch, shows up Zelig-like at all sorts of crucial moments in his own time as well. A hip refusenik in the Bartleby tradition, he walks off the mound at the Harvard-Yale game — one pitch shy of a perfect game; and off the stage at Altamont — he’s also a kick-ass rocker who learned his licks from Buddy Holly himself. But Wheeler, “a stranger in a strange land” wherever he is, rises to greater challenges when he wakes up one day in the past — a past inhabited also by members of his own Boston Brahmin family, who figure greatly into the future of politics and culture. The plot twists can be dizzying, with some weird suggestions of incest, but Edwards’s mythic quest and liberal notions will delight fans of Jack Finney and John Irving. His New Age-y ideas about a “symmetric reality,” “state of flow,” and “life force” serve him well for this improbable romp through time. –Thomas DePietro
  • Martin Dressler (Stephen Milhouse) Martin Dressler is a turn of the last century New York City entrepreneur who begins in his father’s cigar store, but creates a much bigger empire.
  • Out Stealing Horses (Per Peterson) Trond Sander, a man nearing 70, dwelling in self-imposed exile at the eastern edge of Norway in a primitive cabin, deals with his complicated past.the-little-book
  • Song Yet Sung (James McBride) Escaped slaves, free blacks, slave-catchers and plantation owners weave a tangled web of intrigue and deceit.
  • On Chesil Beach  (Ian McEwan) The year is 1962. Florence, the daughter of a successful businessman and an aloof Oxford academic, is a talented violinist. She dreams of a career on the concert stage and of the perfect life she will create with Edward, the earnest young history student she met by chance and who unexpectedly wooed her and won her heart. Edward grew up in the country on the outskirts of Oxford where his father, the headmaster of the local school, struggled to keep the household together and his mother, brain-damaged from an accident, drifted in a world of her own. Edward’s native intelligence, coupled with a longing to experience the excitement and intellectual fervour of the city, had taken him to University College in London. Falling in love with the accomplished, shy and sensitive Florence – and having his affections returned with equal intensity – has utterly changed his life.Their marriage, they believe, will bring them happiness, the confidence and the freedom to fulfill their true destinies. The glowing promise of the future, however, cannot totally mask their worries about the wedding night. Edward, who has had little experience with women, frets about his sexual prowess. Florence’s anxieties run deeper: she is overcome by conflicting emotions and a fear of the moment she will surrender herself.From the precise and intimate depiction of two young lovers eager to rise above the hurts and confusion of the past, to the story of how their unexpressed misunderstandings and fears shape the rest of their lives,  the novel shows us how the entire course of a life can be changed – by a gesture not made or a word not spoken.
  • The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (David Wroblewski) explores the deep and ancient alliance between humans and dogs, and the power of fate through one boy’s epic journey into the wild.Born mute, speaking only in sign, Edgar Sawtelle leads an idyllic life with his parents on their farm in remote northern Wisconsin. For generations, the Sawtelles have raised and trained a fictional breed of dog whose thoughtful companionship is epitomized by Almondine, Edgar’s lifelong companion. But with the unexpected return of Claude, Edgar’s uncle, turmoil consumes the Sawtelle’s once-peaceful home. When Edgar’s father dies suddenly, Claude insinuates himself into the life of the farm – and into Edgar’s mother’s affections.Grief-stricken and bewildered, Edgar tries to prove Claude played a role in his father’s death, but his plan backfires, spectacularly. Edgar flees into the vast wilderness lying beyond the farm. He comes of age in the wild, fighting for his survival and that of the three yearling dogs who follow him. But his need to face his father’s murderer, and his devotion to the Sawtelle dogs, turn Edgar ever homeward.Wroblewski is a master storyteller, and his breathtaking scenes – the elemental north woods, the sweep of seasons, an iconic American barn, a ghost made of falling rain – create a family saga that is at once a brilliantly inventive retelling of Hamlet, an exploration of the limits of language, and a compulsively readable modern classic.ghostwalk
  • The Story of Lucy Gault (William Trevor)is set in provincial Ireland in the early 1920s at the height of the civil turmoil and anti-English violence.  Everhard Gault, a retired Anglo-Irish army captain married to an Englishwoman, shoots and wounds one of  the boys who has come in the night to set their house on fire.This act sets in motion a chain of events that has serious consequences for the Gault family.  Convinced that their attackers will return, Everard and Heloise plan to leave Ireland. Their daughter Lucy, heartbroken at the idea, runs away.  When some of her clothes are found by the sea shore, her parents assume she has drowned.  In their grief, they decide to travel, losing touch entirely with Ireland.They are unaware that Lucy didn’t die, but has lived out the years waiting for their return, unable to forgive herself for her recklessness.
  •  Three Cups of Tea (Greg Mortenson)   Some failures lead to phenomenal successes, and this American nurse’s unsuccessful attempt to climb K2, the world’s second tallest mountain, is one of them. Dangerously ill when he finished his climb in 1993, Mortenson was sheltered for seven weeks by the small Pakistani village of Korphe; in return, he promised to build the impoverished town’s first school, a project that grew into the Central Asia Institute, which has since constructed more than 50 schools across rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. Coauthor Relin recounts Mortenson’s efforts in fascinating detail, presenting compelling portraits of the village elders, con artists, philanthropists, mujahideen, Taliban officials, ambitious school girls and upright Muslims Mortenson met along the way. As the book moves into the post-9/11 world, Mortenson and Relin argue that the United States must fight Islamic extremism in the region through collaborative efforts to alleviate poverty and improve access to education, especially for girls. Captivating and suspenseful, with engrossing accounts of both hostilities and unlikely friendships, this book will win many readers’ hearts.
  • Thunderstruck (Erik Larson)   Larson’s new suspense-spiked history links Guglielmo Marconi, a developer of wireless telegraphy, with Hawley Crippen, a mild-mannered homeopathic doctor in turn-of-the-last-century London. While Larson tells their stories side by side, most listeners will struggle to find a reason for connecting the two men other than that both lived around the same time. Only near the end does the logic behind the intertwining of the stories become apparent and the tale gain speed. At this point, the chief inspector of Scotland Yard sets out after Crippen on a transatlantic chase, spurred by the suspicion that he committed a gruesome murder. Larson’s account of the iconoclastic Marconi’s quest to prove his new technology is less than engaging and Crippen’s life before the manhunt was tame. Without a very compelling cast to entertain during Larson’s slow, careful buildup, many listeners may not make it to the breathless final third of the book when it finally come alive.

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