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Selections for September 2007

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My Dream of You by Nuala O'Faolain (2002)

In My Dream of You, her gorgeously written, thought-provoking first work of fiction, Nuala O'Faolain, an accomplished Irish journalist whose earlier book was Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman, explores the lives of two women living a century apart. Now nearing 50, Kathleen de Burca takes a leave of absence from her job when Joe, her best friend and a fellow travel writer, dies suddenly. She returns home to Ireland after 20 years of living in a dingy basement apartment in London and decides to write the book she's thought about for years: an account of the 19th-century case of an English landowner who divorces his wife when he discovers that she has had an affair with his Irish groom. These two stories of passionate women - Kathleen (who describes herself as someone who "believed in passion the way other people believed in God: everything fell in place around it.") and Marianne Talbot, who is willing to break long held taboos of class (and her marriage vows) in the name of love - offer O'Faolain ample room to delve into Irish history (especially the events of the potato famine) and the role of women in Irish society. She also gives us an utterly contemporary novel about love, family relationships, and responsibilities. This is an excellent choice for book clubs - begin the discussion by asking how many women would make the same decision that Kathleen ultimately does.

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Among the Missing by Dan Chaon (2002)

Among the Missing by Dan Chaon (pronounced Shawn) is a superb collection of a dozen stories on the theme of loss - of people, of places, of possibilities - and of the various ways we try to fill the emptiness at the heart of our lives. Often, while reading these stories, I was struck with wonder at how Chaon could so perfectly use language to evoke seemingly indescribable feelings - guilt, sorrow, love, hate, and a sort of existential despair. The stories here are uniformly strong, but among the best are "Big Me," in which a twelve-year-old boy believes that a new arrival in the neighborhood is himself - all grown up; the title story, about a family whose death by drowning in a Nebraska lake has a profound effect on a family living nearby; and, especially, "Here's a Little Something to Remember Me By," in which the disappearance of a fifteen-year-old boy reverberates throughout his best friend's life. Both Chaon's plots and elegant prose will stay with you long after you return Among the Missing to the library.

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Restless by William Boyd (2007)

Fans of John le Carré's spy novels and Alan Furst's historical thrillers will not want to miss William Boyd's Restless. In chapters that alternate between 1976 and the years leading up to World War II, Boyd introduces us to Ruth Gilmartin and her mother Sally. In 1976, Ruth is trying to finish up a graduate degree and raise a son on her own. One day, seemingly out of the blue, Ruth's mother hands her a manuscript that turns her world upside down. She learns that her mother, rather than being the contented, attractive, über-Englishwoman she appears to be, was actually born in Russia as Eva Delectorskaya, and was living in Paris as an émigré in 1939 when she was recruited by British intelligence agent Lucas Romer (with whom she fell in love) to work for the British Security Organization, who used their New York headquarters to plant pro-British stories in the newspapers all over the world in order to pressure the U.S. into entering the war against Germany. In 1942 Sally left the shadowy world of intelligence, moved herself and Ruth to the outskirts of Oxford, and began leading a seemingly placid and exceedingly normal life. But now, in 1976, it appears that Sally's past is coming back to haunt her, and she begins to fear for her life. Boyd, author of many award-winning works of fiction, writes stylishly; his newest novel - in addition to being an engrossing story - raises the specter of how we can be deceived by even those who are closest to us, whether the ends always (or ever) justify the means, and whether a sort of restless paranoia is a sensible accommodation to the world we live in, whether it's 1939, 1976, or today.

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The Great Good Thing by Roderick Townley (2002)

Book lovers from the ages of 9 to about 12 (especially girls, but boys too) will be delighted by Roderick Townley's The Great Good Thing, which explores the relationship between readers and the books they love. (Adult readers may be reminded of Jasper Fforde's books featuring Thursday Next, which explore a similar theme, in a more manic and punny style.) The Great Good Thing opens with the intriguing sentence: "Sylvie had an amazing life, but she didn't get to live it very often." Sylvie is the heroine of a children's book, called - what else - The Great Good Thing, but she longs to do a really great good thing, not just live out her increasingly boring (and repetitive) life in the book she inhabits. In Sylvie's world, whenever a Reader opens the book all of the characters have to scurry back into place on the pages where they appear, so they're ready to speak their lines. One day, Sylvie breaks out of the story of the book she lives in and makes contact with the Reader, a young girl named Claire. This simple act of defiance offers Sylvie both great opportunity and great danger, as she ventures beyond the margins of the Book that had been her home into a world made up not only of Readers, but of Writers, too. Townley followed this book up with two sequels, Into the Labyrinth (Sylvie in the worldwide web) and The Constellation of Sylvie (Sylvie in outer space).

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The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong (2006)

Karen Armstrong's strength as a writer is that she's able to convey complex ideas about religious issues in a fascinating and thoroughly accessible, yet authoritative (but non-dogmatic), manner. All her books are well worth reading. The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions ranks, in my view, among her best. Focusing on the seven centuries between 900 and 200 B.C.E, a period the German philosopher Karl Jaspers refers to as the Axial Age, Armstrong argues, persuasively, that this was the critical period for the development of the central tenets of the world's major religions, including Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and monotheism, out of which grew Christianity and Islam. Armstrong believes that the political conflict and social upheaval of this period led to an emphasis by all the early sages of these Axial religions - men such as the Buddha, Confucius, Elijah and Jeremiah, and Socrates - on such social values as compassion, justice, and love - what Armstrong calls "disciplined sympathy" for others. Looking at each of these religions in turn (and pointing out that in fundamental ways they are remarkably similar), Armstrong suggests that religious faith can unite rather than divide people of disparate religious beliefs - a suggestion with obvious relevance for the fractious times in which we are now living.

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The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (2007)

Fans of the epic high fantasies of George R. R. Martin or J. R. R. Tolkien will definitely want to check out Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind: The Kingkiller Chronicles: Day One. The story opens in a quiet inn, far from the large cities of the world that Rothfuss has conjured up for us. When a traveling historian/writer, known as Chronicler, stumbles on the Waystone Inn, he sees through proprietor Kote's disguise and recognizes him as Kvothe (pronounced more or less like "Quothe"), the most talented, and infamous, magician of his day. Kvothe begins to relate the story of his life, a rags-to-riches-to-rags story of murder and a desperate search for truth and knowledge through study of the arcane arts. One of the great pleasures of this remarkable first novel is the meticulously detailed unfolding of the tale of Kvothe's life. A true page-turner, with an engrossingly complex hero (or is he an anti-hero?), and set in a remarkably well-imagined world, this volume has set the standard high for the next two installments in a planned trilogy, Day Two and Day Three, due out, respectively, in 2008 and 2009. I can't wait.

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Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes: Nine Indian Writers on the Legacy of the Expedition edited by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr. (2007)

On the occasion, in 2004, of the 200th anniversary of the historic and much written about expedition of Lewis and Clark, a leading scholar of Western history, Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., lamented how little represented the Indian point of view was in the extant literature. In order to rectify the situation, he asked nine Indian writers to answer this question: What impact, good or bad, immediate or long-range, did Lewis and Clark's journey have on the Indians whose homelands they traversed? The resulting essays - diverse, compelling, and enlightening - make up Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes: Nine Indian Writers on the Legacy of the Expedition. The nine authors all come from different tribes, whose response to the coming of the white men of the Corps of Discovery varied from welcoming to hostile. Vine Deloria, Jr., a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, begin his essay "Frenchmen, Bears, and Sandbars," this way: "Exaggeration of the importance of the expedition of Lewis and Clark is a typical American response to mythology" and goes on to argue that the most important decision that Lewis and Clark ever made was to include Sacagawea in their travels. N. Scott Momaday, member of the Kiowa tribe and Pulitzer Prize winner (for his novel House Made of Dawn), agrees about Sacagawea's importance to the expedition, and part of his essay, "The Voices of Encounter," is written in her (imagined) voice. Other contributors include Debra Magpie Earling, of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana, who writes about her ancestors' visions of the coming of the white men, and newspaperman Mark Trahant (Idaho's Shoshone-Bannock tribe), whose essay, "Who's Your Daddy?," describes his attempt to prove or disprove the family lore that William Clark was his father's great-great-great-grandfather.

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The House That George Built: With a Little Help From Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty by Wilfrid Sheed (2007)

The only downside to The House That George Built: With a Little Help From Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty, Wilfred Sheed's witty and thoroughly delightful history of American popular music in the first half of the 20th century, is that it doesn't come with CDs attached. As exhilarating as it is to read the book, you want to listen to the music, too. Sheed describes his experience of writing this book as "wallowing in," rather than "working on" it. And oh my, his love of his subjects and their music shines through on every page. Sheed is the sort of literary craftsman that other writers must surely envy: time after time he comes up with the perfect description to capture the essence of the composers and musicians that he's profiling. In describing George Gershwin's seemingly inexhaustible generosity to fellow musicians, including Vernon Duke and Harold Arlen, Sheed writes: "It was as if George wanted all those great songs to be written by somebody, preferably by himself, of course, but not exclusively." Whether he's writing about Harold Arlen's manic-depression, the differences between writing music for Tin Pan Alley, Hollywood, and Broadway, or the genius of Hoagy Carmichael, Fred Astaire, and Duke Ellington, Sheed's insights and sparkling prose bring his subjects and their music to life. (Note to Random House: If this volume does well, how about a "Special Deluxe Edition" with CDs included?)

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The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios by Yann Martel (2004)

Yann Martel's The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios contains a novella (from which the title of the book comes) and three short stories, all of which predate the author's bestselling novel, The Life of Pi. While there's nothing at all shabby about the short stories, the novella is, quite simply, an awe-inspiring piece of writing. It's the sort of work that makes you marvel at the way language can be used, at the inventiveness of the author, and at how affecting a work of fiction can be. Two college-age friends, one of whom is dying from AIDS (caused by a blood transfusion required by an automobile accident), decide to make up (and relate to one another) a continuing saga of an imaginary family, the Roccamatios of Helsinki, whose lives are set against the major events of the 20th century. What we get, though, is not exactly the stories they relate to one another, but rather meditations on the background historical events, filtered through the present experiences of the two friends. Prepare to be blown away by Martell's novella.

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The Wedding of the Two Headed Woman by Alice Mattison (2005)

Alice Mattison is one of my favorite authors; few writers can match her talent at exploring complicated relationships, whether they're between friends, unmarried lovers, or, as in her splendid novel The Wedding of the Two-Headed Woman, a husband and wife. Nothing is simple, ordered, or even clear cut in 50ish Daisy Andalusia's life, although, ironically, her job is to organize other people's lives and belongings. When she falls more or less in love with Gordon, one of her clients, she finds herself torn between him and her husband, whom she also more or less loves. While arranging and organizing Gordon's desk, Daisy sees a newspaper article about a two-headed woman who marries two different men, and this becomes the subject of a play that Daisy's theater group puts on, which perfectly mirrors Daisy's own dilemma. Can adultery be compatible with a successful marriage? Just ask Daisy.

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Free Fire By C.J. Box (2007)

Free Fire is C. J. Box's seventh mystery featuring Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett, and it's a doozy. In the previous book in this series, In Plain Sight, Joe (who once arrested a former governor for fishing without a license) lost his job and unhappily went to work as foreman of his father-in-law's ranch. Now Wyoming's unpredictable new governor, Spencer Rulon, asks Joe to investigate the shooting deaths of four Yellowstone National Park employees, in which the identity of the shooter is known (he's actually confessed to the crime), but various law enforcement agencies have told the governor that the shooter can't be prosecuted (the murders occurred in a section of the park where legal jurisdiction is unclear). But what's behind the murders? As Joe digs deeper into the case, he's ably assisted by his old friend, falconer Nate Romanowski, as well as by Yellowstone Park ranger Judy Deming. Long-time fans of the series may be a bit disappointed to find that Joe's wife and daughters only make a brief appearance, but will be interested to learn more about Joe's difficult relationship with his own father. As always in Box's mysteries, the dialogue crackles and the story moves along at a brisk pace, but what makes this series special is Joe Pickett himself - he's a fully developed, satisfyingly complex character, whose morality and code of behavior, as well as his deep love and concern for the environment, all too often put him at odds with the powers that be.

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The Unknown Terrorist by Richard Flanagan (2007)

If what you're looking for is a good beach read, you can safely skip Richard Flanagan's deeply unsettling new novel, The Unknown Terrorist. However, if you're interested in first-class writing, a central character whose past and present will tear your heart in two, and a plot that carries you inexorably along to the last sad and awful climactic scene, this is definitely the book for you. In his previous novels, including Gould's Book of Fish, Death of a River Guide, and The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Flanagan has never shied away from depicting the wretchedness and sorrows of his characters' lives. But his newest novel ratchets things up considerably. The morning after a nightclub pole dancer known as "the Doll" picks up a man named Tariq and spends a cocaine-laced night with him at his apartment, she discovers her face splashed all over television and the newspapers: she's been linked to a group of terrorists rumored to be planning to bomb Sydney's Olympic stadium. As the media frenzy grows, egged on by a self-serving sleazebag television journalist, and as the police narrow in on her identity and whereabouts, the Doll tries desperately to figure out how to save herself. Should she turn herself in? Can she manage to leave Australia? Once you start this book there's no way to stop reading it, nor do you have any doubt in your mind that there is no way this can end well. You know, with the Doll, that she's "alone in a world without divine saviours, without rules, a world in which she could see nothing and everyone could see her...that her life was no longer what she made of it, but what others said it was." And, at that moment, we understand, as the Doll herself understands, her fate.