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Selections for March 2007

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A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation by Catherine Allgor (2006)

I have a distinct memory of reading about Dolly Madison in one of those orange covered books in the "Childhood of Famous Americans" series when I was a child. I remember being totally fascinated with her romance and marriage to the much older James Madison, as well as her thrilling experiences during the War of 1812, in which she saved a portrait of George Washington from the burning White House. (I didn't know then that it was the famous portrait of Washington by Gilbert Stuart.) So I was thrilled to reacquaint myself with her life and times in A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation by Catherine Allgor. Madison was loved and admired by all (with the exception of her husband's political enemies) for the three decades she spent in the public spotlight; she was the first First Lady to carve out an important role for herself in the everyday workings of the new nation. Collaborating with her husband to bring the still fractious states (and their leaders) together, Dolley turned the White House into a salon, where men from all sides of the political spectrum, as well as foreign diplomats, kings, and potentates, could come together and, mellowed by good food and wine and an attractive and charming hostess, begin to work out their differences. She was a true partner to her husband - one political opponent believed that Madison never would have won the presidency without Dolley at his side. Allgor's lively biography brings this vivacious and intelligent woman back into the spotlight she so deserves.

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Uniform Justice by Donna Leon (2003)

Reading any one of Donna Leon's uniformly excellent mysteries - all set in contemporary Venice (Italy, not California) and all starring Commissario Guido Brunetti - will get you hooked. But one of my favorites is Uniform Justice, in which Brunetti is called in to a military school to investigate the apparent suicide of a young cadet. He discovers that young Ernesto Moro, rather than killing himself, was in fact brutally murdered. Was it payback for his doctor-turned-politician father's whistleblowing about the details of a military procurement scandal? Who knows more than they're telling? Who's covering for whom, and why? In this series of mysteries, Leon gives us a good cop working in a flawed, even corrupt, system, and offers American readers a view of Italy they're not likely to get elsewhere. There's also a wonderful cast of supporting characters, including both Brunetti's family (his wife Paola is interesting enough to warrant a book or two of her own), as well as his colleagues on the police force, such as the divine Signorina Elettra (who also deserves her own books). Fans of police procedurals will not want to miss getting acquainted with Donna Leon's mysteries. Incidentally, you don't need to read these books in any particular order.

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Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney (1995)

Awwww. Sweet but definitely not sappy is the best way to describe Guess How Much I Love You. According to the publisher, Sam McBratney's picture book has already sold more than 13 million copies worldwide. It's easy to see why this lovely tale of the game a father and son play before bedtime resonates with families everywhere. Anita Jeram's engagingly tender watercolor illustrations lovingly depict Little Nutbrown Hare and his father, Big Nutbrown Hare, as they take turns telling each other how much they love each other. This is a perfect choice to read just before you tuck that little one into bed and turn out the light.

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The Echo Maker by Richard Powers (2007)

Most of Richard Powers's nine brilliant and meticulously constructed novels weave issues of contemporary science into the lives of his characters. (In The Gold Bug Variations, it was DNA; in Galatea 2.2, it was artificial intelligence.) In his newest novel, The Echo Maker, winner of the 2006 National Book Award, it's neurology and the mysteries of the brain. 27-year-old Mark Schluter (described by his sister, Karin, as someone who'd "long ago taken every wrong turn you could take in life, and from the wrong lane") wakes up from a coma with no memory of the automobile accident that caused it. He is also suffering from Capgras syndrome, which causes him to believe that Karin is a stranger impersonating his sister. In desperation, Karin turns for help to an Oliver Sacks-like neurologist whose fame rests on the popular books he's written about patients with brain injuries. Powers effectively communicates the pain and bewilderment she feels - how can you prove to someone you are who you say you are, when everything you give as evidence is construed as a more elaborate and insidious plot? As the story unfolds around these three main characters, plus a nurse's aide who probably knows more than she's telling, we are asked to consider just what a "self" is, and to what extent who we think we are is simply a creation of our minds. Book groups looking for a meaty, thought-provoking selection will have a stimulating time with Powers's latest work.

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American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (2006)

Three different storylines are interwoven in Gene Luen Yang's graphic novel, American Born Chinese. They include the story of the over-reaching Chinese folk hero, the Monkey King; the story of Jin Wang, the American born Chinese of the title, a typical middle-school student except that he's one of the few non-Caucasians in his class; and the story of Danny, a white kid who's terribly embarrassed by his Chinese cousin, Chin-Kee (presented here as a racial stereotype, in both appearance, speech, and behavior, that's both painful to read and view). Yang uses his sensitivity to the difficulties of adolescence (he's a high school teacher in San Francisco) and his consummate skill as an illustrator - the drawings are sharp and distinctive - to bring these different strands together in a satisfying way. His book conveys an important message - be satisfied with who you are - in a sufficiently subtle and authentic way that teen readers won't be put off or feel they're being preached to. Yang's book was a finalist for the National Book Award and the winner of the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature from the American Librarian Association.

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Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld (2006)

Once I started Curtis Sittenfeld's Man of My Dreams, I was so charmed by the narrative voice that I could barely put the novel down. We first meet Hannah Gavener when she's 14, at the point in time when her mother has just decided to stand up to her controlling and unpredictable father. (Throughout the novel Hannah shares with the reader her observations about the experience of growing up in a dysfunctional family. She says, for example, "Being raised in an unstable household makes you understand that the world doesn't exist to accommodate you...you have never believed you live under the shelter of some essential benevolence." I think anyone who's ever lived with a father anything like Hannah's will see the truth in that statement.) We follow Hannah through four years of college and beyond, watching as she struggles to figure who, exactly, she is, and what it is she wants. It's clear to her that she's not like Allison, her beautiful and intelligent older sister, or her boy-crazy, wildly attractive cousin, Fig. Why is she so dissatisfied with Mike, a young man who adores her? Why does she hold herself so aloof from her classmates and would-be dates, and why does she - it sometimes seems deliberately - choose to remain basically the same lonely, self-doubting kid she was at age fourteen? That the book ends with no satisfyingly complete resolution shows, I think, the author's respect for her readers.

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This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin (2006)

For me, Daniel J. Levitin's This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession was one of those books that - when you find it - you realize you've been waiting for it all your life. Here are the ABCs of music theory and appreciation, for those of us who know nothing about music, but know what we like. Finally, someone to explain to me why songs written in a major key tend to sound happy, while those in a minor key usually seem hauntingly sad (and what the difference is between a major and minor key, in the first place). Levitin, before he became a neuroscientist (he now runs the Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition, and Expertise at McGill University), was a session musician, sound engineer, and record producer, and he puts theory and practice together in a deft and fascinating manner. Beginning with the building blocks of music - tone, pitch, scale, timbre - he proceeds to provide us with answers to all sorts of questions that range from why bits of songs obsessively stick in our heads to whether or not a tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear it fall makes any sound. This is a book best read slowly, with a piano nearby, and an eclectically stocked music library, so that you have access to all the examples he uses, which span from Wagner to Miles Davis, from Liszt to Ludacris, and everyone in between.

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A Safe Place for Dying by Jack Frederickson (2006)

If you want to get in at the beginning of what promises to be a superior mystery series, check out Jack Fredrickson's first novel, A Safe Place for Dying. The main character, Dek Elstrom, is a down-on-his-luck and recently divorced private investigator. He's hired to find the facts of a case involving an explosion that destroyed a multi-million dollar mansion in Crystal Waters, a gated, heavily secured community on the outskirts of Chicago. (Coincidentally, it's the place where he lived with his very wealthy wife during their brief marriage.) When Dek starts digging, he uncovers clues that indicate that the roots of this crime lie more than 30 years in the past. In addition to Dek, who's satisfyingly complicated and comes with a solid back story, I look forward to getting to know more about Fredrickson's secondary characters as the series progresses.

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What Is the What by Dave Eggers (2006)

In What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, Dave Eggers has written what's best described as a fictionalized memoir. Based on what must have been hours and days and months of conversations with Deng, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, and written in Deng's own voice, he describes how, as a youngster o the victims of the 1980s, he was swept up in the horrors of the Sudanese Civil War. When an Arab militia destroyed his Dinka village, he joined up with a group of other orphaned children, mostly boys, who attempted to walk to Ethiopia where they believed they would find peace and safety. (Unfortunately, that turned out to be just another unmet hope.) The tragic circumstances these children endured have been told in several works of nonfiction before, but having Deng relate, in an almost matter-of-fact tone, those nightmare-like experiences (where death - by starvation, via murderous adults masquerading as friends, from exhaustion, or being captured and killed by the wild animals who stalk them - is a constant companion) gives it an immediacy and potency that is unique among other accounts. Sadly, even when Deng and his compatriots are finally settled in towns and cities all over the United States, their troubles are not over. Readers of Eggers's own memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, will find that here he's subsumed his own strong personality and enormous talent for verbal fireworks into this truly heartbreaking and powerful story. All proceeds from the sale of this book will be divided among various foundations supporting Sudanese Civil War.

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The Abortionist's Daughter by Elisabeth Hyde (2006)

The Abortionist's Daughter by Elisabeth Hyde is the story of the death of a wife and mother who just happens to run an abortion clinic in a smallish Colorado town. Dr. Diana Duprey has made plenty of enemies in her day, including the head of the local anti-abortion coalition, and she's not getting along all that well with her husband or her teenage daughter, either. When she's found dead in the family's pool, though, it's going to take both sound reasoning and a bit of luck to figure out who was angry enough at her to actually kill her. Contrary to what one might expect, this is not a book about abortion rights; rather, it's an examination of mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, and love gone awry.

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Dead Reckoning by Helen Whybrow (2002)

If you're interested in exploring the genre of armchair travel and adventure, Dead Reckoning: Great Adventure Writing from the Golden Age of Exploration, 1800 -1900, edited by Helen Whybrow, is the perfect place to begin. Whybrow has included excerpts from the writings of a diverse group of travelers, both the familiar (Meriwether Lewis, Charles Darwin, and Sven Hedin, among others) and the not so familiar (including Mrs. Alfred "Mary" Mummery, who climbed one of the most difficult mountains in the Alps with her husband in 1880, and Mary Kingsley, whose trip to West Africa in the 1890s included friendly encounters with cannibals, fighting off crocodiles, and summiting Mount Cameroon, where she left her calling card). Among other travelers whose tales we share are George Kennan (who nearly froze to death in Siberia), Mark Twain (in the American West); John Wesley Powell (on the Colorado River), Fridtjof Nansen (at the North Pole); Robert Louis Stevenson (journeying with a donkey in France); and Francis Parkman (on the Oregon Trail). There are thrills, chills, and excitement galore in these stirring accounts of men and women who roamed the world o'er.

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Beauty Tips From Moose Jaw: Travels in Search of Canada by Will Ferguson (2005)

In Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw: Travels in Search of Canada, Will Ferguson writes about his native Canada with humor, affection, and occasional exasperation. He describes places and people from Victoria to Newfoundland, and includes tales of early explorers like Samuel Hearne, who, in 1770, walked from Prince of Wales Fort, on the shores of Hudson Bay, to the Arctic Ocean, and back again, a distance of some 5600 kilometers, looking for the Northwest Passage and copper (and finding neither). He also describes his own experiences watching polar bears from about as up close as anyone would want to get. Reading Ferguson's sometimes laugh-aloud essays is a good way to remind ourselves of just how vast and varied our neighbor to the north is.

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Interface by Neal Stephenson (2005)

Along with many superior science fiction novels (like Cryptonomicon), Neal Stephenson co-authored a few splendid suspense novels with J. Frederick George. Originally published in the 1990s under the name of Stephen Bury, they've been reissued with the real names of the two authors. You don't have be a conspiracy theorist to enjoy Interface - just liking fast-paced, more-or-less plausible political thrillers is enough - but it certainly helps in the requisite suspension of disbelief. A powerful group of financiers (i.e., sophisticated bad guys) from around the world decide they need to elect a U.S. president who will answer only to them. When genuinely likeable Illinois governor (and potential presidential candidate) William A. Cozzano has a stroke and is hospitalized, they seize their opportunity and have a microchip implanted in his brain that places him under their control. Will these miscreants get away with it? Will Cozzano be elected president? It's basically up to three people - Cozzano's daughter Mary Catherine, his best friend, Mel, and Eleanor Richmond, a spunky, plain speaking, down on her luck former bank teller - to foil their Manchurian Candidate-like plot. Or not.