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Selections for August 2007

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No Angel by Penny Vincenzi (2004)

The term potboiler has a clearly negative connotation (according to the website wordnet.princeton.edu, it's defined as "a literary composition of poor quality that was written quickly to make money (to boil the pot)." I'd never defend poor quality, but I have no objection to a book written quickly to make money. (It can't make money unless it's an entertaining read, which is certainly a good thing, in my view.) In any case, I tend to use the term more to describe those sorts of books in which you're so engrossed in the problems and successes of the characters that you don't notice the time passing or the teakettle whistling; used thusly I can't think of a better term than potboiler to describe Penny Vincenzi's No Angel and its sequels, Something Dangerous and Into Temptation. Vincenzi, a major bestseller in Great Britain, has never quite reached that level of popularity in the United States, but once begun, it's hard to imagine many women being able to put these books down. What happens with me is that I sigh with regret as I finish one of her books, and have to resist (or not) opening another as quickly as I can lay my hands on one. Vincenzi writes old-fashioned sagas in the sense that the pleasures of each particular book are rooted in the strength of the story-telling about the lives and loves of its characters. No Angel is the tale of a strong-willed and hot-blooded upper-class young woman in England just before and after World War I. (And there's nothing like strong will and hot blood to make a good saga.) Lady Celia Beckenham decides to go against the wishes of her parents and marry the lower class Oliver Lytton, who actually works for a living at his family's publishing company. (Her parents accede to the marriage when she informs them that she is pregnant.) Once she gets the parenting thing down pat (with the help of servants), she decides to go to work in the Lytton family business. Complications ensue - not least the outbreak of World War I, which takes Oliver out of England for four long years. In addition to following Celia's story, readers are also made privy to the lives of a variety of secondary characters, including Oliver's sister; a dreadfully poor family whom Celia befriends; and the author with whom she desperately falls in love. The two sequels, equally as transporting as this book, focus on the next generation and carry the story through the twentieth century.

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American Chica by Marie Arana (2002)

I have to admit that I have a love/hate relationship with memoirs. I think self-indulgence is quite possibly the eighth deadly sin, and it's one that many memoirists fall prey to. Everyone's life is a story, of course, but does everyone have to get it published? I don't think so. However, I was reminded of how interesting and enjoyable a really well conceived and written memoir can be when I read Marie Arana's American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood. Arana, editor of the Washington Post Book World, explores the difficulties of growing up with parents of differing cultures - in her case an aristocratic Peruvian father and an American born mother. Arana's sense of being a hybrid, never to fully belong to either culture, is touchingly described. The deep cultural differences between her parents show up most clearly in the years the family spent living in Peru, where Arana's mother found it nearly impossible to fit in with her Latin in-laws. Arana's examination of her parents' marriage - they were seemingly unable to live together and unwilling to live apart - is quite moving. Of great interest, as well, is the Peruvian history Arana incorporates into the book. This is a lyrical, thoughtful memoir that would be a good choice for book groups.

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After by Jane Hirshfield (2006)

The poems in After, Jane Hirshfield's newest collection of poetry, reflect and refract on her Buddhist practice of many years. In these gorgeously wrought poems, each word somehow feels as though it were handmade for the particular purpose of being part of that particular poem. How we experience ourselves, how we experience the world around us, the actual sensations of being in the world, the language we use to describe our experiences, the death of friends, the very lives we choose to live - all these become part of Hirshfield's poems, transmuted, through her quiet genius, into something very close to wisdom. Start with the first poem, "After Long Silence," and the last, the luminous "It Was Like This: You Were Happy," which begins

It was like this: you were happy, then you were sad, then happy again, then not.

and ends

Your story was this: you were happy, then you were sad, you slept, you awakened. Sometimes you ate roasted chestnuts, sometimes persimmons.

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Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland by Mark Kreidler (2007)

Presidential caucuses aside, the state of Iowa is known for two things: corn and wrestling. In Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland, Mark Kreidler explores the latter, and takes us into the lives and times of Jay Borschel and Dan LeClere, two high school seniors who, in 2006, are seeking to become state champions (in different weight classes) for the fourth consecutive year. In the more than 80 years of the existence of the Iowa State High School Wrestling Tournament, only 14 young men have won four individual state championships, and only once before have two wrestlers achieved that status during the same year. Being a four time champion ensures the kind of mythic status in Iowa that most people can only dream about. As one would expect, Kreidler gives us exciting descriptions of various matches Jay and Dan participate in during the season, culminating in those of the championship tournament itself, but this is, as is invariably the case with the best sports books, about more than the specifics of particular athletic contests. It's also about coaching and recruiting in high school and college sports, the challenges of being the parent of a young athlete who aspires to a championship level, and the culture of a sport that's defined by pain (both inflicting and receiving) and a sometimes fanatical self-discipline and willingness to accept deprivation, where success can be dependent on the luck of the draw, foregoing that order of fries at the drive-in, or not getting the cold that's going around, and in which, one false move, can, quite literally, lead to defeat. And finally, as a kind of extra added attraction, there is the fascinating presence of Dan Gable, the legendary Olympic gold-medalist who wrestled for Iowa State and coached the University of Iowa to 15 NCAA wrestling titles, whose reputation, long after he's retired from coaching, still plays a vital part in the lives of the boys on the mats who want to emulate his success.

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Stormy Weather by Paulette Jiles (2007)

Paulette Jiles's brilliantly evocative Stormy Weather takes readers deep into the heart of central Texas during the 1920s and 1930s. Mayme, Jeanine and Bea Stoddard, along with their mother, follow their charming and ne'er-do-well father Jack as he follows the oil strikes from one small town (Ranger to Conroe to Mexia to Manahans to Kilgore and on and on) to another. Jeanine, her father's favorite and gentle enabler "understood that her father slid from addiction to addiction, a shape changer, and nothing would hold in one place for long, and she knew this with a childlike combination of disillusion and forgiveness." He both shares with her his dream of one day owning a great racehorse and uses her as cover on the many evenings that he's out gambling, carousing, and drinking. When Jack Stoddard dies in jail, Elizabeth takes her daughters back to her long deserted childhood home near the Brazos River. Their resolve to stay and reclaim the wreckage wrought by time and weather is tested daily by their poverty, severe drought, and the fierce dust storms ("a deliberate, hurtful wind"). But in a novel that is essentially a tribute to the strength and resilience of its female characters, those challenges fail to break the spirits of the Stoddard women, or their determination to wrest success from disaster. Read this splendid novel in tandem with Tim Egan's The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.

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The Time It Takes to Fall by Margaret Lazurus Dean (2007)

Like many kids growing up around Cape Canaveral in the 1980s, with parents employed in one capacity or another at NASA, Dolores Gray is obsessed with space travel. For years, Dolores has kept notebooks filled with information about the various space programs, especially anything connected with her idol, Judith Resnik, one of the first women to train as an astronaut. As the shuttle program heats up and then falters in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster, Dolores encounters disaster in her own life: her parents separate. Her mother moves out of the house, leaving her father, her younger sister Delia, and 13-year-old Dolores to fend for themselves. Dolores is determined to understand the reasons behind both these events, the public and the private. Margaret Lazurus Dean's beautifully written first novel, The Time It Takes to Fall, successfully blends the personal experiences of the Grays with the public tragedy of the Challenger explosion, and in the process gives us an appealingly sensitive narrator in Dolores, and a peek behind the scenes at NASA.

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The Grand Complication by Allen Kurzweil (2002)

The Grand Complication, Allen Kurzweil's clever and often laugh-out-loud funny second novel, is ostensibly about the search for a watch supposedly made for Marie Antoinette. The main character is Alexander Short, a reference librarian in Manhattan who carries around a notebook tethered to his waist, just as the monks of old used to carry their journals around. His attachment (literally as well as figuratively) to girdling - obsessively writing notes on everything that occurs to him - is described by his "shrimp" (as Short's French wife refers to his therapist) as "a buffer against shame, offering the precarious semblance of order to an emotionally blocked, obsessive young adult male." Despite (or perhaps because of) being obsessive and blocked, he's hired by Henry James Jesson III, a wealthy bibliophile and aesthete, to research the whereabouts of the aforementioned watch. The search wreaks havoc on his relationship with his wife, who doesn't trust Jesson at all. The Grand Complication is an intellectual romp, filled with delightful wordplay, hilarious scenes set in the library (including a contest, "Class Struggle," to see who can attach the correct Dewey number to the most obscure subjects - the winner is invariably the building's janitor), a real life mystery (re the actual watch in question, which disappeared in Jerusalem in the 1980s and has never been found), and some wickedly entertaining characters. A must read (and perfect gift) for anyone who loves books, and most especially anyone who has lately despaired of finding an intelligent and humorous novel to read.

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True Notebooks by Mark Salzman (2004)

It's hard for me to imagine anyone not being immediately drawn into Mark Salzman's engaging and touching True Notebooks, the story of his experiences teaching creative writing at a detention center for "high risk" male juveniles outside Los Angeles. Many of these young men, who are in the detention center for serious crimes - robbery, rape, and murder, among others - are likely headed for a life lived largely in prison. Originally not thrilled about taking on this volunteer project (what could a white, middle-class writer offer to these young men of color? he hated the movie Dead Man Walking, despite never having seen it, etc.), Mark is convinced to do so by Sister Janet Harris, who coordinates the Inside Out Writers Program and is a tireless advocate for the young and incarcerated population at the center, as well as by the fact that he needs some background information to flesh out a juvenile delinquent character in a new novel he's writing. Readers come to know the young men who participated in Mark's writing group through their own words, and we also learn much about Salzman himself - someone who is humane, compassionate, and possessed of a great sense of humor. This is one of his best works yet, and a good stepping off point for checking out this always interesting author.

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Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations by Georgina Howell (2007)

Gertrude Bell has been called both the female T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) and the woman who invented Iraq. Both descriptions, as we learn from Georgina Howell's riveting biography, Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations, are justified by the facts of this remarkable woman's life. Born in 1868 to a wealthy British family, she had a life full of firsts for her gender: she was the first woman to achieve a First in Modern History at Oxford; the first to win a prize from the Royal Geographical Society; and the first female British Intelligence Officer. After graduating from Oxford she visited Tehran, and, much as T.E. Lawrence did, fell in love with the Middle East. She ended up devoting a good portion of her life to understanding its complexities and shaping its future. (She was also an intrepid mountain climber - there's a pulse-pounding account here of one of her ascents in the Alps - organized the care of the wounded in France during World War I, and, somewhat surprisingly, spoke out passionately against women's suffrage in England.) She taught herself to speak and read Arabic and Persian, and, in the years leading up to World War I, explored the desert terrain by camel, always accompanied by a devoted group of servants who toted along everything that might be needed by a proper British lady on such a journey, including pistols, a canvas bath, tea sets (one imagines they were Spode, or Wedgwood), evening gowns, fur stoles, and Zeiss telescopes to serve as gifts to the tribal leaders she met along the way. Following the War to End All Wars, she drew up, on behalf of the British government, the boundaries of a new country to be carved out of the sands of Mesopotamia, and picked Faisal, son of a tribal chief from Mecca, to be Iraq's first king. Howell, who clearly fell in love with her subject while she was researching and writing this book, has given us a compulsively readable (and information packed) account of the life of one of the most fascinating women of the last 150 years. It can be highly recommended for biography fans, history buffs, or any reader with an interest in the deep background of events playing out in the Middle East today.

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Tanglewreck by Jeanette Winterson (2006)

Sometimes the first line of a book just opens the door a crack - you have to jump right into the novel before it totally grabs you. Tanglewreck, Jeanette Winterson's enthralling first novel for kids eleven to fourteen, begins this way: "At six forty-five one summer morning, a red London bus was crossing Waterloo Bridge," - a fairly bland first line, at best. It isn't until you read on a bit that you get to these lines, the ones that grabbed me and wouldn't let me put the book down: "The bus and its passengers were never found. It was the first of the Time Tornadoes." What the reader soon discovers is that Time is behaving very strangely in London - it's slowing to a standstill and then speeding up crazily; the tornadoes (and disappearances) are happening with increasing frequency and intensity; and a wooly mammoth, long thought extinct, is seen near the River Thames. What - or who - is behind these unusual occurrences? Eleven-year-old Silver, whose parents and sister disappeared years before, lives with her cruel guardian, Mrs. Rokabye, in an ancient, sprawling mansion called Tanglewreck (which holds powers and secrets of its own). She discovers that an ancient and mysterious clock, The Timekeeper, is somehow at the heart of the time distortions. Whoever controls the clock, controls Time itself. And - to her peril - she realizes that two evil adults - Abel Drinkwater and Regalia Mason - are both desperate, for nefarious reasons of their own, to find the Timekeeper. Along with her new friend Gabriel, whose father had a long ago connection to The Timekeeper, Silver faces terrible dangers and difficult choices. Fans of some of the classics, old and new, of children's fantasy (Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, for two) will enjoy this as well.

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Dingley Falls by Michael Malone (2002)

One of my favorite novels was written more than a quarter-century ago, and yet each time I reread it, which I do every couple of years, I fall in love with it all over again. Michael Malone has written many terrific novels, including Foolscap, Time's Witness, and Handling Sin, but for some reason it's Dingley Falls that I go back to, time and time again. For me, Dingley Falls is the über soap opera as novel or novel as soap opera, take your pick. (This makes a lot of sense since for many years Malone was one of the writers on that über television soap opera, One Life to Live.) It's one of those novels in which you're immediately drawn into the world the author has created, so that when the book ends - and it's not a short book by any means, thank goodness - you're left feeling bereft, as though you've somehow been banished from a familiar and well-loved place. The seemingly bucolic Dingley Falls, Connecticut (the sort of town in which being a nut and an egghead are nearly synonymous, the author tells us), is celebrating the 300th anniversary of the year of its founding, and strange events are occurring. Love is on everyone's mind, as are a series of very nasty anonymous letters, strange lights in the sky, and an uncommonly large number of deaths from heart failure. Evil is afoot in Dingley Falls, and no one is quite sure what to do about it, except, perhaps, for sixteen-year-old Polly Hedgerow, who's wiser than her years might indicate. The novel's a bit racy in places, with some scenes of somewhat raunchy sex occurring both behind both closed doors and in the woods surrounding the town, but Malone's descriptions are offered in such affable humor that it's all simply irresistible. And how could you not love a book that begins not only with a map, but also a four page alphabetical listing of all the characters, with short identifying phrases: Sidney Blossom - Town librarian and former hippie; Louie Daytona - Gorgeous bisexual sculptor and ex-convict befriended by Tracy Canopy; and Polly Hedgerow herself - a bookworm, gossip, and amateur sleuth.

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In Their Shoes: Extraordinary Women Describe Their Amazing Careers by Deborah Reber (2007)

Teens thinking about their future (or, for that matter, adults looking for a career change) shouldn't miss Deborah Reber's In Their Shoes: Extraordinary Women Describe Their Amazing Careers. (Full disclosure: I am one of the women profiled in Reber's book - talking about the joys of being a librarian - but received no money for my participation or from sales of the book.) Through informal, chatty interviews, Reber offers insights into and highlights of the career choices and careers of an impressively diverse group of women. Even though all the subjects are women, their choices extend far beyond the "traditional" female careers of librarian, teacher, nurse: there's an architect, an educational psychologist, a museum curator, a director of a non-profit organization, a video game programmer, a firefighter, a yoga instructor, a sheriff, and a lieutenant in the Coast Guard, among many others, which makes this is a good selection for young career seekers of either sex.