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Selections for May 2007

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Manhattan Nocturne by Colin Harrison (1996)

Colin Harrison's third noirish thriller, Manhattan Nocturne, is a doozy. Tabloid columnist Porter Wren - married to a surgeon and father of two children he loves dearly - meets a beautiful woman at a party, who immediately asks him to investigate the death of her husband, a brilliant movie director. Since he's already fallen into lust with her, he naturally accepts the challenge, and just as naturally gets drawn into a far more complicated - and dangerous - scenario than he ever supposed was possible, even on the mean streets of the Big Apple. Brisk dialogue, an up close and personal look at the sleazy side of Manhattan, and an awfully likable narrator add up to one compulsive read.

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How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel by Alain de Botton (1997)

If you're in the mood for an off-beat, entertaining book, check out Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel, a brilliant homage to Marcel Proust's The Remembrance of Things Past in the guise of a self-help book. Using the tropes of literary criticism and biography, with tongue firmly in cheek, de Botton tells his readers - via Proust's writing - how to change their lives for the better. The book includes chapters such as "How to Suffer Successfully," "How to Be Happy in Love," "How to Open Your Eyes," "How to Express Your Emotions" and "How to Take Your Time." One of my favorite examples of de Botton's delicious sense of humor is from the chapter, "How to Be a Good Friend," in which he assures readers that tipping waiters 200% will ensure their friendship. But caveat emptor. As we learn from de Botton, ironically Proust himself was not the most psychologically healthy of individuals: he was a chronic hypochondriac and was frequently disinclined to get out of bed, hiding under the blankets rather than face the day (and his mother). Will reading this book change your life? Probably not, but it's not out of the realm of possibility. Will you chuckle often, and painlessly learn a lot about Proust? Yes, indeed.

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The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood (2000)

It might be hard to believe that knowing shorthand can change your life, even in the very early 17th century, but as Widge, the 14-year-old orphaned hero of Gary Blackwood's The Shakespeare Stealer, finds out, it just might. Widge learns a unique and cryptic form of writing from an unscrupulous clergyman, who himself uses it to quickly copy down the sermons of other ministers and pass them off as his own. When the minister apprentices him to a mysterious traveler, Widge learns that his new task is to go to London's Globe Theater and surreptitiously copy down every word of William Shakespeare's new play, Hamlet. But events don't go as planned, and Widge, even as he's growing close to the members of Shakespeare's acting troupe, realizes that he's going to have to deliver on his new master's orders, or else. The first of a trilogy (which should be read in order), this is a perfect book to offer budding actors and historical fiction fans between the ages of 9 and 12.

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Napoleon's Pyramids by William Dietrich (2007)

On the lookout for a book with a swashbuckling hero, an exotic setting, and pretty much nonstop action? You need look no further than William Dietrich's Napoleon's Pyramids. In 1798, dashing American Ethan Gage, a protégé of Benjamin Franklin's, wins an unusually inscribed medallion in a Paris poker game, and almost immediately finds his life in danger. Falsely accused of killing a prostitute, he's given the choice of going to prison or joining a group of learned men, or savants, whom Napoleon plans to take along with his army on his quest to conquer Egypt. Choosing the latter, he sets off on the adventure of a lifetime, marked by encounters with dangerous enemies and a beautiful Macedonian slave, and soon realizes that his medallion might offer the answer to the ancient mystery of who built the pyramids and for what purpose. Well-crafted historical fiction like Dietrich's is always a pleasure to read, because in addition to a good story you have the opportunity to learn so relatively painlessly. Dietrich includes much information on military and political history, the Freemasons, Egyptology, and mathematics, as well as introducing readers to a host of real characters (Napoleon being only the most famous), along with the ones he's invented; yet the solid research Dietrich obviously did in preparation for writing this book rests lightly on it, and the pages turn quickly from beginning to end.

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The Reconstructionist by Josephine Hart (2001)

How much do we ever understand the events of our own pasts? In The Reconstructionist, Josephine Hart shows us how in some sense we spend our adult lives rewriting (consciously or not) our childhood experiences. After the shocking murder of their mother, when Jack was 13 and Kate three years younger, brother and sister are sent from the family's home in Ireland to live with relatives in England - torn away from the home and the father they loved, who stands accused of the crime. Jack grows up to be a psychiatrist, helping other people to examine their pasts and reconstruct their lives, but cannot do the same for himself. He colludes, as well, in his sister's amnesia regarding the traumatic events of their childhood. When their father dies, and their former home in Ireland is put up for sale, Jack decides it's finally time to return and face the ghosts of his past - to reconstruct the truth from the unstable shards of memory. Hart's elegant writing and her deep understanding of human nature make this a very special novel, indeed.

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The Children in Room E4: American Education on Trial by Susan Eaton (2007)

For anyone interested in the state of public education in our country, Susan Eaton's The Children in Room E4: American Education on Trial is a necessary read. Eaton, who is the former assistant director of the project on school desegregation at Harvard (where she received a doctorate in education policy), spent four years observing classes at the inner-city, all-minority, Simpson-Waverly Elementary School in Hartford, Connecticut. Interweaving the ongoing progress (or lack thereof) of Sheff v. O'Neill, a civil rights lawsuit originally filed in 1989 by a group of 19 schoolchildren and their families against the State of Connecticut in response to the de-facto segregation of Hartford's schools, with the story of one particular teacher and her students, Eaton shows us the depressing reality in which the "No Child Left Behind" law is played out. Readers will root for Ms. Luddy, and all the kids in her classroom, but most especially for Jeremy Otero, whom we first meet as an eight-year-old ecstatic about checking out a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone from the library. Not since Jonathan Kozol's Death at an Early Age and Herbert Kohl's 36 Children - classics of the 1960s - has there been such a vital, informative, important book about public education in the U.S.

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Fowl Weather by Bob Tarte (2007)

It's clear that Bob Tarte, author of Fowl Weather, and his wife, Linda, aren't your run-of-the-mill animal lovers. They aspire to a level of devotion generally only found, at least among those who write about it, in the British, i.e., Gerald Durrell and James Herriott. The Tartes live in a small Michigan town near Grand Rapids, along with a veritable menagerie of animals. The cast of characters very helpfully listed at the front of the book includes a few of the two legged variety, but many more who have four legs or wings, and are feathered or furred. Whether he's engaged in a physical argument with a duck, dealing with a supposed master gardener who doesn't know flowers from weeds, hand-feeding a spider, trying to evade a pesky former classmate who somehow knows the fate of everyone in their elementary school (as well as unsavory facts about Linda's old sow, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle), or trying to cope with his dad's death and his mother's growing dementia, Bob's voice is self-deprecating, humorous, and completely believable.

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Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler (2006)

It's hard to grow up in the United States - indeed, the world - without having your life touched in some way by Walt Disney and his legacy. Whether it's through the Mickey Mouse Club, films like Snow White, Fantasia and Mary Poppins, or a trip to one of his theme parks, Disney's work and influence informs our imagination. Neal Gabler explores the man and the myth in what will surely be regarded as the standard biography for years to come in Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. Gabler portrays Disney as a compulsive perfectionist, a visionary who labored under the burden of his sky high expectations for both himself and the people who worked for him. From his early upbringing in middle America, to his first experiments with animation, to his final triumph in Hollywood, Gabler offers insight into the man and his work, including the fact that Disney was in the habit of personally acting out the various parts in his films to give his crew a sense of what he wanted in the final product; an early list of possible names for the seven dwarfs in Snow White (including "Blabby," "Flabby," "Burpy," "Wheezy," "Lazy," "Puffy," "Stuffy," "Baldy," and "Hickey" - who was to be afflicted with hiccoughs that showed up at inconvenient times); the reaction of Carole Lombard and Clark Gable at an early screening of Disney's first feature film (they both wept at the scene of Snow White being poisoned); and the bitter fight to unionize the Disney studio, which led to Disney's subsequent hatred of both Communists (he became a friendly witness for the early anti-communist government committees) and Jews. Gabler's book is a triumph of the art of biography.

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Sunshine by Robin McKinley (2003)

I have never been a fan of novels with vampires in them. In fact, until recently I'd never read horror fiction at all. (I've always felt that real life is scary enough before you add the supernatural to the mix.) But I've always loved the novels of award-winning fantasy writer Robin McKinley, and a friend whose book smarts I respected recommended McKinley's novel Sunshine, so I somewhat hesitantly picked it up and started reading. And I found that I couldn't put it down. Set in a world quite similar to ours in the time just after the Voodoo Wars, Rae Seddon, who's nicknamed Sunshine, is driving home from a baking stint at her stepfather's café when she's kidnapped by a group of vampires and locked in the ballroom of an old house. It soon becomes clear that she's apparently intended to provide the main course of a meal for their starving captive, another vampire, the powerful, handsome, and enigmatic Constantine. But Constantine, going against everything Sunshine thought she knew about vampires, resists his powerful urge to drink her blood, and the two form an uneasy alliance with him against their joint captors. Just in time, Sunshine discovers that she has apparently inherited the magical talents that run through the blood of her long absent father's side of the family, and she contrives to set herself and Constantine free. But now her troubles really begin"¦.

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The History of the Siege of Lisbon by Jose Saramago (1998)

The hero of Nobel Prize-winner Jose Saramago's The History of the Siege of Lisbon is a proofreader for a Lisbon publishing house. While Raimundo Silva is proofing a history of the 1174 siege of Lisbon by Moorish troops, he breaks the cardinal (if implicit) rule of proofreading by deciding to "improve" the text. He inserts the word ‘not' in a sentence, thus totally changing its meaning. Naturally his transgression is discovered, but his supervisor, rather than firing him, asks him to write a "what if" history, based on his changed sentence. Saramago is right up there with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie in his brilliant use of language, inventiveness, and wit. The density of Saramago's prose may present a challenge to some readers, but it's well worth the effort. Not only is the novel magically written, but it raises some wonderfully provocative questions about history and language, chief among them: Can recorded history, really, ever be anything other than a variety of fiction? (Of course, reading the novel in Giovanni Pontiero's excellent translation introduces as subtext a parallel question: To what extent are you reading the thoughts of the author and to what extent the interpretation of the translator?)

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Kings of Infinite Space by James Hynes (1997)

Maybe the best way to describe Kings of Infinite Space by James Hynes is to imagine Stephen King writing satirical fiction. The life of the main character, Paul Trilby, has never been the same since he drowned his wife's cat Charlotte in the couple's bathtub (the whole sad tale is one of the three stories in Hynes's Publish and Perish). Charlotte now haunts Paul, following him in ghostly form as he moves from place to place in a fruitless search for success and happiness. Paul, an aspiring college professor in Publish and Perish, finally ends up as a lowly, temporary technical writer at TxDoGS, a government services office in what seems to be Austin, Texas. A series of encounters with his weird coworkers (including the unnoticed-by-anyone-else dead body in the next cubicle) force him to choose between a life of ease at TXDoGS and an honorable but probably futile quest for a successful future - a dilemma worthy of Faust. Without giving away too much of the plot (except to say that it includes zombies and human sacrifice), it's probably best just to say that the cat, Charlotte, who's bent on revenge, continues to run Paul's life.

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The House on Boulevard St. by David Kirby (2007)

Poet David Kirby's newest collection, The House on Boulevard St., includes both new poems and those selected from his earlier collections. Kirby writes what I call "kitchen-sink poetry." He's not a formalist or a lyricist, or any other "ist" or "ism" by which we traditionally label writers. His is a conversational, more or less stream of consciousness approach to his subjects (which are wacky in their own right); the poems, filled with specific detail, invite readers into often complicated and convoluted stories, and you can never predict from the opening lines just where the story is going to end up. They're suffused with humor, but they're not light verse. For anyone who feels baffled and/or put off by poetry, Kirby's the man to change your mind. You might want to start with these poems: "The Search for Baby Combover," "The Exorcist of Notre Dame," and "The Elephant of the Sea," which begins:

Because I make the big bucks fooling around with words, in France sometimes I like to say "Sylvia Plath" instead of "s'il vous plait," as when I open the door for Barbara and say, "Apres-vous, Sylvia Plath!" But yesterday the lady in the boulangerie asked me what I wanted, And I said, "Une baguette, Sylvia Plath! Crap"¦"

and goes on - with great panache - from there.