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Selections for April 2007

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Icebergs by Rebecca Johns (2007)

Although the central metaphor of Rebecca Johns' first novel Icebergs may not be original (people are like icebergs, less than a quarter is visible; the rest remains hidden), it's still a solidly satisfying, quietly powerful, and deeply pleasurable read. When a World War II fighter plane crashes on the coast of Labrador in Newfoundland, Canada, only young Walt Dunmore and Alister Clark are left alive. The novel begins with their fight for survival in the wilderness, then, moves to after the war and the experiences of the Clark and Dunmore families in the American Midwest of the 1960s and 70s. Here's an example of Johns' writing style: "The only true war story, Sam's father told him, is one in which you are not the hero. It's never about what happened, but about the shock of finding yourself alive on the other side of it. It could be funny or it could be dead serious, but if someone tries to tell you how he blew away the enemy, if the guy shows off his scars and medals, then what he's telling you isn't true." Like that old metaphorical iceberg, there's much going on beneath the surface of Johns' muted, deceptively simple prose, as well as in the lives of her characters.

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World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks (2006)

What if mankind's greatest foe turns out to be the living dead? That's the premise of World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, a page-turning thriller by Max Brooks. The book is set up as a series of interviews with survivors of the Walking Plague, a potent virus that turns its victims into undead killing machines. Among the interviewees are the Chinese doctor who tried to save some of the first victims; an Israeli intelligent agent; a Tibetan smuggler; a trafficker of human organs whose work inadvertently spread the virus faster throughout the world; several politicians and soldiers; and more or less ordinary people who somehow survived those terrible war years. There are several pointed references throughout the novel to current issues of global politics and the state of the world today, and readers will recognize certain characters who seem to be based on real people, all of which gives the novel an immediacy and a patina of reality that it might not otherwise have.

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Anahita's Woven Riddle by Meghan Nuttall Sayres (2006)

One of the great gifts of literature is that it can entertain us, while at the same time expanding our world. A case in point is Meghan Nuttall Sayres's young adult novel, Anahita's Woven Riddle. It's the story of high spirited Anahita, a teenager who lives with her family, a tribe of nomadic weavers, in 19th century Iran. Needless to say, her father's plan to marry her off to the khan, or leader of the tribe - a much older man whose two earlier wives died under mysterious circumstances - doesn't thrill her in the least. Disdaining tradition (as teenagers are wont to do, even in 19th century Iran) she wants to choose her own husband, and devises a plan to do so. She will weave a riddle into her wedding carpet, and the man who comes closest to solving the riddle will win her hand. Despite the faraway setting, contemporary readers will identify with Anahita's relationships with her parents and her friends, as well as her strong desire to have a say in her own future. Sayres skillfully interlaces a lot of Persian history and culture, including information about the daily lives of nomads, Sufi poetry, and carpets and carpet weaving into Anahita's story.

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A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel (1993)

Probably many of us were assigned Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities in high school; quite likely a good number of those who were assigned it never read much beyond the oft quoted first sentence ("It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.") until later in life, if at all. It's undoubtedly still the best known novel about the French Revolution ever written and, like all of Dickens, well worth reading. But wait! With A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel offers us a brilliantly written contemporary novel covering the same events. This masterful retelling of the events of 1789 to 1799 is impeccably researched and compulsively readable. Mantel brings the major movers and shakers of the French Revolution - among them Danton, Robespierre, and Desmoulins - as well as their families, lovers, friends, and enemies to vivid life (including, in most cases, a vivid death). She shows how the idealistic rebellion against the monarchy descended into terror, lawlessness, and the ultimate corruption of those who came to power determined to make France more democratic. Fans of historical fiction won't want to miss this.

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Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family by Patricia Volk (2001)

In Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family, Patricia Volk delivers a hymn of love to both family and food. In a series of vignettes, Volk lovingly describes her adored extended family. There's her great-grandfather, who was the first to import pastrami to New York; her grandfather, who invented the wrecking ball; her mother, forever trying to improve her daughters ("Mom made me, and now she will make me better"); her magnetic father, who finally closed the last family restaurant in Manhattan; her longtime embittered aunt Lil, who embroidered a pillow with the phrase, "I've never forgotten a rotten thing anyone has done to me."; another aunt, known for her talent for mamboing, and more. Volk's family is sufficiently odd enough to engage anyone's attention, while her writing (she's also the author of a novel and two collections of stories) is both witty and tender. As I turned the pages of this lovely memoir, I found myself wishing that I, too, could be part of the whole Volk/Morgen clan.

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Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn (2001)

Mark Dunn's first novel is the very imaginative and totally delightful Ella Minnow Pea. Nollop, an island off the coast of South Carolina, was home to the now deceased inventor of the sentence, "The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over The Lazy Dog" - which those of us who are old enough to have formally studied what used to be called "typing" will recognize as the practice sentence in which every letter of the alphabet is used. That sentence is engraved on a monument the residents of Nollop have erected to honor their most famous native son. But one day the letter "x" falls off, and the town council decides that this is a sign that people on the island are now forbidden to use that letter in their speech or writing. As additional letters proceed to fall off, and more and more letters are designated off bounds, the islanders discover that communication is becoming increasingly difficult. In order for this nightmarish situation to end, someone must come up with another sentence of 32 letters or less, which makes use of every letter in the alphabet. Will they be able to do it? Can you? Dunn's novel is a testament to the glory of language and freedom of speech, presented in an amusing and yet cautionary manner.

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The True Account: A Novel of the Lewis and Clark and Kinneson Expeditions by Howard Mosher (2003)

Howard Frank Mosher's The True Account: An Account of the Lewis & Clark & Kinneson Expeditions tells the story of a Vermont ex-soldier named True Teague Kinneson and his nephew Ticonderoga, who race Lewis and Clark to the Pacific. Ticonderoga narrates their adventures, which include a run-in with Daniel Boone (who believes that True has jilted his red-headed, six foot, two inch daughter, Flame Danielle); an historic baseball game with the Nez Perce Indians; frequent death-defying escapes from dangerous situations; and their periodic meetings-up with the more famous pair of explorers (who often need to be rescued by means of True's ingenuity). Ti's descriptions of his uncle and their adventures across the Louisiana Purchase to the west are related with a straight face, but will leave the reader with anything but one - True, philosopher, inventor, classicist, and Ti's much loved teacher, dresses in chain mail, sports an Elizabethan codpiece, and wears a cap festooned with bells to cover the copper plate that protects the top of his head from further injury (he fell while he was celebrating with Ethan Allan after the victory at Fort Ticonderoga during the Revolutionary War), clashes constantly with the devil (whom he calls the Gentleman from Vermont), and carries his hemp habit across the continent, generously sharing his stash with all and sundry. Don't miss this gem.

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Gossip Hound by Wendy Holden (2003)

If you're in the mood for a few hours of light entertainment, take a look at Wendy Holden's Gossip Hound, a frothy contribution to the Bridget Jones/chick lit genre. Grace Armiger's life is plugging along, but not very satisfactorily. She works as a low-paid publicist at a British publishing company, where her thankless tasks include setting up interviews, signings, and readings for writers whose books no one wants to read, let alone buy; she doesn't much enjoy spending time with her boring politico boyfriend; and she's constantly trying to avoid, at all costs, her matchmaking mother. But when a famous movie star decides to sign up with Grace's employers, she thinks her problems just might be over. Alas - the author turns out to be a real skunk, and his novel's outlandish plot doesn't sound at all marketable. Will Grace ever find true love? Can she turn her job into something satisfying and meaningful (with a higher salary)? Although the ending is, of course, predictable, getting there is a great deal of fun.

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Birds Without Wings by Louis De Bernieres (2004)

Louis de Bernières, author of Corelli's Mandolin, sets his newest novel, Birds Without Wings, in a small coastal town in Anatolia, a region of Turkey, during the dying days of the Ottoman Empire just before, during, and after World War I. Told from the points of view of dozens of characters, including both men and women, rich and the poor, nobles and peasants, Christians and Muslims, Greeks and Armenians, all of whom have lived together for generations in peace, unnoticed and far from the seats of influence, until they're swept up in the maelstrom of war and become simply pawns of history, subject to the decisions of their misguided, incompetent, and dangerously power-hungry rulers. Alongside the story of the residents of this one small town, de Bernières tells the story of the rise of Kemal Ataturk, whose goal was to make Turkey a modern, secular country. These parallel tales play off one another brilliantly and together make for a particularly rich and satisfying novel.

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The Judgment of Paris by Ross King (2006)

Ross King's The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism is an illuminating history of a fascinating place and period: Paris, from 1863 to 1874. This was a particularly exciting time, because the French art world was torn between two extremes: the very precise, almost photographic and historically accurate paintings of Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, probably the best known (and certainly wealthiest) painter of his time, and the slowly growing Impressionist movement, led by Claude Monet and the artist King focuses on, Edouard Manet, whose masterpieces include his six-foot long painting of a French prostitute, "Olympia," and his mysterious "Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe," which depicts an outdoor picnic attended by two men and an unclothed woman. Together, the two M's challenged the artistic status quo, painting ordinary people rather than historical subjects, outdoor scenes, and the effects of changing light on their subjects. But King, author of Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling and Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, works on a large canvas, so that readers become familiar with the politics, the literature, and the major players of the period as well.

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Dirt Music by Tim Winton (1998)

Tim Winton is one of those writers whose books just keep getting better and better. Two of the Australian novelist's best books are Cloudstreet and The Riders. (The latter is a wonderfully infuriating choice for book clubs.) And his newest novel, Dirt Music, just might be his best book yet, in which the two main characters are haunted by their pasts. Fleeing her family and her job as a nurse, Georgie Jutland moves in with wealthy widower Jim Buckridge in his home on White Point, on the coast of Western Australia, recognizing the emptiness in her life but unable to rouse herself enough to do anything to change it. Then by chance (but somehow in Winton's novels you get the feeling that it's fate) she meets musician Luther Fox, whose lost his love of music when his family was killed, and who now ekes out a living as a poacher, threatened and despised by the townspeople. The feelings that spring up between Georgie and Lu are visceral, passionate, and ultimately dangerous, and their affair only comes to an end after an act of terrible violence. Luther disappears, and Georgie tries to track him down, following him along the coast and into the desert of Western and Northern Australia. This is one of those novels that will thrill readers looking for good writing, living, breathing, complicated characters, and a palpable sense of place, not to mention an engrossing story of loss and the possibility of forgiveness (for oneself and others) and grace.

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Racketty-Packetty House by Frances Hodgson (2006)

There are some children who love playing with doll houses and whose most fervent wish is that the dolls in them could come alive. For those children, Racketty Packetty House by Frances Hodgson Burnett is the perfect book to share. First published in 1906, it's recently been reissued with charmingly spirited illustrations by Wendy Anderson Halperin. When Tidy Castle arrives in Cynthia's bedroom, she moves her old and shabby dollhouse (which she calls Racketty Packetty House) and its inhabitants (the wonderfully named Meg, Peg, Ridiklis, Kilmanskeg, Peter Piper, and Gustibus) behind a door and out of sight. It takes a visit from a real princess (this is the Victorian period, after all, when there were many princesses around) and some help from Crosspatch, the queen of Fairyland (who tells the story), to give the old dolls and their home a new lease on life.