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Selections for July 2007

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Hello to the Cannibals by Richard Bausch (2003)

In the tradition of A.S. Byatt's Possession, Richard Bausch's Hello to the Cannibals tells two parallel stories in alternating chapters, one set in the late 20th century and one a century before. The 19th century story is about the very real Victorian explorer, Mary Kingsley, while the contemporary tale centers on a fictional young woman. As a child, Lily Austin develops a fascination for the life and adventures of Kingsley. As an adult, Lily not only writes a play about Kingsley, but uses Mary's life as a measuring stick for her own. Although I loved Lilly's story, and hated to come to the end of each chapter about her, I was always eager to get back to Mary's life and read more about her experiences, both in London and while exploring West Africa. (There's a thrilling account of her beating off crocodiles who are attacking her small boat, as well as a lovely description of her trek up to the top of Mt. Cameroon - in full Victorian garb, despite the heat - where she left her calling card at the summit). This is a novel that may well lead you on a Mary Kingsley jag, and Bausch recommends three good ones in a note at the end of the novel: Katherine Frank's A Voyager Out: The Life of Mary Kingsley, Caroline Alexander's One Dry Season: In the Footsteps of Mary Kingsley, and Travels in West Africa, Kingsley's own account of her two trips to the Dark Continent.

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Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen (2006)

Everybody - kids and adults alike - who comes into the library knows that the head librarian, Miss Merriweather, cares a lot about quiet and decorum in her library. Everybody knows that loud noises and running are not allowed. Everybody knows, that is, except a lion, who wanders into the library one day, and becomes a regular visitor. After some unfortunate roaring, Miss Merriweather agrees to let him stay, as long as he promises not to break any of her rules. In fact, Miss Merriweather puts him to work dusting the shelves, licking the envelopes for overdue notices, and serving as a step stool for small kids needing to reach books on high shelves. But a day comes when the lion is forced to break the rules - and even Miss Merriweather has to admit that there are times when that's okay. In Library Lion, Michelle Knudsen's text and Kevin Hawkes' nostalgic acrylic and pencil illustrations combine to create a picture book treat for any library lover.

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An Eiger Obsession: Facing the Mountain That Killed My Father by John Harlin III (2007)

When John Harlin III was nine years old, his good-looking and fearless father, known among the Alpine mountain climbing community as ‘the blond god,' was killed on the north face - the direttisima route - of the Eiger, one of the Swiss Alps. Two thousand feet from the summit John Harlin II's rope broke, and he plunged over 4,000 feet to his death. Although he had always promised his mother that he wouldn't follow in his father's mountain climbing footsteps, Harlin III gradually realized that rock climbing and downhill skiing just didn't cut it for him, that nothing would satisfy him except to fulfill his father's dream of conquering the Eiger. In 2005, Harlin went back to Switzerland to succeed where his father failed. Of course, fans of mountain climbing memoirs, such as Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, will definitely want to read The Eiger Obsession: Facing the Mountain that Killed My Father as well, but readers who looking for a gracefully written account of a son growing up in the shadow of a father's expectations (that his father was dead made the expectations more intense rather than less) will also want to check out Harlin's book as well.

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The Watchman by Robert Crais (2007)

Dedicated fans of Robert Crais's thrillers know that his long time detective, Elvis Cole, usually takes center stage, but often turns for assistance to Joe Pike, former Marine and Los Angeles cop, now working as a gun for hire (for the good guys). In The Watchman, Crais's emotionally charged new mystery, Pike takes center stage for the first time. He's hired to protect a Paris Hilton type socialite who sees something she shouldn't have and, as a result, finds her life at risk. Soon after Larkin Barkley walks away unscathed from what seems to be a potentially serious automobile accident, it becomes clear that it was not an accident at all. Someone wants her dead, and soon. After Joe disposes of several would-be assassins, he calls upon Elvis to do the paper-chasing while he sets out to destroy the baddies. The suspense builds to a pitch that anyone who's jonesing for the sort of emotional roller coaster ride that thrillers can provide will appreciate, but those readers more interested in the emotional lives of their characters will not be disappointed here. I look forward to more Joe Pike novels from Crais.

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Ragweed by Avi (2000)

The very first line of Ragweed by Avi ("Ma, a mouse has to do what a mouse has to do") perfectly sets the tone for this very funny novel, which is aimed at 8 to 12-year-old readers. Ragweed, a young country mouse, leaves his (large) family behind and sets out to find adventure in the big city. He meets a group of mouse dudes and dudettes - green-furred Clutch (I'm thinking Courtney Love, here), Dipstick, and Lugnut, members of an ultra cool rock band (the B-Flat Tires), as well as Blinker, an escaped pet mouse trying to make it on the mean streets of Amperville. He also encounters extreme danger in the form of the wily Silversides, founder, president, and one of two members of F.E.A.R. (Felines Enraged About Rodents). Silversides and her vice-president Graybar will go to any length, sink to any depth, to get rid of their arch-nemeses, even to the point of destroying the Cheese-Squeeze club (!!!), where hip mice go to party. It takes all of Ragweed's native cunning, a good dollop of courage, and a fine mind to come up with a plan to foil F.E.A.R.'s Felines First brigade. This introduction to Ragweed, who reappears in Avi's award-winning novel Poppy, is a good choice for a family read-aloud.

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The Ghost at the Table by Suzanne Berne (2006)

The intricacies of family dynamics has always been a favorite subject of novelists - just think of the popularity of Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides or Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, to name just two examples. Suzanne Berne's newest novel, The Ghost at the Table, is a shining example of why both readers and writers find this topic so compelling. When Cynthia, the youngest of three sisters, grudgingly allows herself to be persuaded to come east from her San Francisco home to spend Thanksgiving with her sister Frances' family in Concord, Massachusetts, she doesn't expect to exactly enjoy herself. She agrees to go only so that she can do some research for the latest book in her series of fictionalized biographies of famous women told from the point of view of their unheralded sisters. But she's little prepared for all that will occur as the holiday unfolds. As Frances puts in place her plan for Cynthia to reconcile with their domineering and difficult father (whom Cynthia always felt murdered their mother twenty years before), old resentments flare up, long hidden memories bubble to the surface, and each sister has to come to terms with the emotionally charged terrain of the past. Berne's evocative writing and the fact that she offers no comfortable resolution to the sisters' relationship leaves lots to discuss about this novel.

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The Mulberry Empire by Philip Hensher (2003)

I think fans of historical fiction will love Philip Hensher's The Mulberry Empire: it brings alive a little known (at least to American readers) series of events; it's set in an exotic part of the world that's in the headlines today; and Hensher dexterously animates a diverse collection of real and imaginary characters. Set at the zenith of the British Empire, and the sense of national superiority that accompanied it, Hensher tells the cautionary tale of what's known as the First Afghan War. In 1839, the British sent nearly 50,000 troops to unseat Dost Mohammed, the Amir of Afghanistan, in order to replace him with someone more acceptable to one of their important allies, the King of the Punjab. Hensher explores these events from many different points of view, allowing readers to experience the wide-ranging effects of a country's overweening pride and sense of entitlement not just on the soldiers themselves, but also on the ordinary men and women whose lives, in a time of war, are inevitably shaped by events beyond their control. Another excellent historical novel that touches on the same topics is Susanna Moore's One Last Look.

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Sunday Money: Speed! Lust! Madness! Death! A Hot Lap Around America With NASCAR by Jeff MacGregor (2006)

Sports Illustrated writer Jeff MacGregor and his wife, photographer Olya Evanitsky, spent the entire 2002 racing season following the NASCAR circuit - and Sunday Money: Speed! Lust! Madness! Death! A Hot Lap Around America With NASCAR is the result. It's filled with colorful characters, and, as MacGregor describes races run at death-defying (and sometimes, sadly, deadly) speeds around an oval track, he generates excitement enough to satisfy even the greatest adrenaline junkies among us. It's also an entrée into a world whose appeal some find utterly mystifying. (Among whom I would have numbered myself. I'm not quite ready to go out to the track on a regular basis, yet, but I've certainly been watching a lot of races on television.) MacGregor includes the history of NASCAR (the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing), beginning when it was just a gleam in the eye of its founder, Bill France, to its years as solely the purview of gutsy speed nuts from below the Mason-Dixon line, up until today, with its broad appeal to Americans from all 50 states and all economic levels. He also acquaints readers with the big names in the sport, past and present, living and dead: Jeff Gordon, the various members of the Petty family, Dale Earnhardt, Tony Stewart, and others.

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Broken Verses by Kamila Shamsie (2005)

I'd never read anything by Kamila Shamsie before I picked up Broken Verses while browsing the fiction shelves at my neighborhood library, but I'm now one of her biggest fans. The novel takes place in Pakistan, just after September 11, 2001. For Aasmaani Inqalab Akram, who has just returned home to Karachi from the west to work at Pakistan's first independent television station, the city holds terrible memories for her. It's the place from which her mother Samina, a feminist and political activist, went missing 14 years before, two years after Samina's lover, Pakistan's best-known poet, disappeared, perhaps, as his friends and fans believe, murdered by a government displeased with his radical writings. But when Aasmaani receives a letter, written in a code known only to herself and the lovers, she begins to believe that The Poet is alive, and in communication with her mother. Artfully written, and with an unexpected but realistic ending, Broken Verses provides a penetrating look at the power of language and the risks of challenging the status quo in a repressive regime. It's an unforgettable read, and an excellent choice for book groups.

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Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris (2007)

Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End is one of those novels that slowly grew on me; I enjoyed it right from the beginning, but it wasn't until I turned over the last page that I was struck by just how good this first novel really is. The story begins as the economic boom of the 1990s is beginning to head south. The writers and designers in a rapidly failing Chicago ad agency are just waking up to the reality of a world marked first by austerity measures (no flowers in the lobby), and then layoffs and firings, which are known in the agency's parlance as "Walking Spanish down the hall," a reference to pirates' treatment of their prisoners (and a Tom Waits song). Told in the first persons plural (the "we" voice is my favorite narrative style when it's done well, as it is here), Ferris's novel is about work and identity - the extent to which we define ourselves by how we make a living - and how people behave (often badly) in the face of change, particularly change for the worse. There are the flying rumors, the infighting, the paranoia, and the incessant gossip around the water cooler about who's in and who's out, who's doing what to whom, who's going crazy, who's brought a gun to work, who's still showing up at the office even though he was fired weeks ago, whose marriage won't make it through the downturn, plus the endless pettiness. One unforgettable series of scenes involves the machinations the characters go through in order to capture a particularly coveted chair that belonged to one of the first people fired. But Ferris goes beyond the work setting in exploring how people cope with change. In one very moving section (for which he switches to the third person), he writes with compassion about the ramifications of one character's bout with breast cancer, leavening the inherent oppressiveness of the situation with humor. Reading Then We Came to the End made me feel good about the state of contemporary fiction.

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The Long Road Home by Martha Raddatz (2007)

For the political junkies among us, it's been hard to miss Martha Raddatz - currently chief ABC White House correspondent - on radio and television talk shows discussing her important and affecting new book about the war in Iraq. The Long Road Home: A Story of War and Family is a must read for those interested not just in politics and policy, but in the actual experiences of those fighting the war, and of their families. As Mark Bowden did in Black Hawk Down (the story of the 1993 mission by the U.S. Special Forces to capture two renegade Somalian army officers in Mogadishu, Somalia), Raddatz takes readers inside a mission that has gone horribly wrong. On April 4, 2004, a platoon of the First Cavalry Division arrives in Iraq and is almost immediately sent off on what everyone thought would be a routine patrol in Sadr City. Unfortunately, they found themselves ambushed by hundreds of militants from the Mahdi Army. As their comrades tried desperately to come to their aid, in too many inadequately armored trucks and too few tanks, they too were attacked. The final toll was 8 dead and more than 60 wounded. Raddatz cuts back and forth between the hour-by-hour unfolding of the firefight and attempted rescues (she includes some very useful street maps) and events at the homefront, mainly at Fort Hood, Texas, where the wives and families of the soldiers wait for word from, or news of, their loved ones. What makes this book so good is Raddatz's deep empathy and ability to convey the sacrifices these soldiers and their families make - on the battlefield and off - as the war continues.

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The City Is a Rising Tide by Rebecca Lee (2006)

I read (and enjoy) a lot of novels that are pretty much all plot. In such books, events happen lickety-split, so you feel a need to turn the pages quickly (or they seem to be turning themselves) in order to find out what happens. They're entirely satisfying in the way that watching a good action movie - say, Die Hard - can be (perhaps snarfing down a gigantic tub of hot buttered popcorn at the same time). But I treasure the times that I come across an odd and charming book like Rebecca Lee's The City Is a Rising Tide in which almost nothing seems to happen, but I am so taken with the narrator's voice that I don't want to put it down. These sorts of books are a great challenge to book reviewers because their essence is so hard to capture in words, but here goes: Thirty-something Justine Laxness describes her long time, and seemingly hopeless, love for Peter, whom she met when she was a child in Beijing in the 1970s (her parents were missionaries there) and he was there as a member of President Nixon's staff. Now, she's employed by a non-profit agency that he runs. The agency newest project is to build a holistic retreat center for Americans near the Three Gorges Dam in China. More than any of the events that occur in the book - their plans for the center are foiled, Justine refuses to tell Peter any bad news, an old boyfriend reappears in her life - what this book is really about is undying, unrequited love, both the hope and hopelessness that shape Justine and Peter's lives.