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Selections for October 2007

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Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (2007)

The graphic novel Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel, is not just a fun read, it's a complex, self-aware, poignant, and sharply funny coming-of-age memoir, enhanced by rich, detailed drawings. Bechdel's story mainly revolves around her relationship with her father - an angry, small town intellectual snob who teaches high school English, runs the town's local funeral parlor (a.k.a "the fun home"), and sees himself as a modern day F. Scott Fitzgerald. As she navigates her way through adolescence, coming to terms with her sexual identity and her father's death, Bechdel discovers the dark reality behind her father's anger and finds in herself an uncomfortable (and disorienting) sense of sympathy for him. Bechdel views her life through the filter of literature and pop culture - she sees her childhood family as a real-life version of the TV show The Munsters; she finds herself inhabiting an Oscar Wilde-ian relationship with her actress mother; and throughout her life runs the myth of Icarus, illuminating the complicated dynamic of her relationship with her father. In the dedication, Bechdel thanks her mother and her brothers for not stopping her from writing this book. After just the first few pages of Fun Home, I knew that I wanted to thank them, too.

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A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You by Amy Bloom (2001)

Amy Bloom's A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You is a stunning collection of stories that are marked by strong and vivid writing and characters whose lives remind us that there's much still to be understood about ourselves and others. Exploring the dreams and desires of a variety of characters in language that makes the absolute most of every word she uses, Bloom places us inside these characters and at the same time provides enough context and perspective so that we can understand what makes them tick. She displays an enormous spirit of generosity for her characters (and, by extension, for us, the readers who identify with those characters). Bloom, a psychotherapist in "real life" (whatever that is!), is infinitely forgiving of the wrong turns that her characters make in their lives, of the pain they intentionally or unintentionally inflict on others, and their struggles to cope with the bad jokes that fate, or karma, or the way of the world, play on them. This is a collection of stories that will make you feel it's okay to be a flawed human being, to try to be better, but to understand that no one is perfect, and to forgive (in the best, most healing, sense of the word) yourself, and others.

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Grant: A Novel by Max Byrd (2001)

If you're a fan of historical fiction, don't miss Max Byrd's Grant, a novel about the 18th president of the United States. Interestingly, Byrd chose not to set his story during the Civil War, when Grant distinguished himself on the battlefields of Vicksburg and Richmond and ultimately accepted Lee's surrender at Appomattox, or during his two presidential terms, which were marked by general ineptitude and scandals. Instead, Byrd's book opens five years before Grant's death in 1885 from cancer of the throat. Byrd mixes a large cast of real people with one central invented character. Nicholas Trist is a veteran of the Civil War who lost an arm at the battle of Cold Harbor (in which Grant was the commanding general); he's now a reporter for The Washington Post covering Grant's potential candidacy for a third term as President. Both professionally and socially, Trist interacts with the major political and literary lights of the time, including Mark Twain and Henry and Clover Adams, among many others. Byrd presents life in Washington in the 1880s as not being so different from today: high level love affairs, a generous portion of liars and scoundrels, as well as some genuinely devoted to public service. This is an outstanding historical novel, and readers who enjoy this will want to check out the author's novels about Presidents Jefferson and Jackson.

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The Corpse in the Koryo by James Church (2006)

Chances are, James Church's atmospheric (rather than fast-moving) novel, The Corpse in the Koryo, is the closest most of us will ever get to North Korea (and reading it will probably not encourage a visit). This is the first in a series of mysteries featuring Inspector O of the Pyongyang Police Department (the second, Broken Moon, is due out this month). Its pseudonymous author spent many years as an intelligence officer in the Far East and clearly knows all (or almost all) there is to know about North Korean society. After failing at what should have been a routine surveillance assignment, O, the grandson of a hero of the war against Japan, begins to suspect that he has been placed in the middle of a turf war between the country's military police and its intelligence forces - a war that somehow involves North Korea's ongoing and complicated relationship with Japan. And then, when a corpse turns up in the local tourist hotel, the Inspector realizes that his own survival is going to depend on figuring out who he can trust in a society where virtually nobody can be trusted. O is a complex character, a man who's loyal to his government, but is not blind to its flaws. He's decent, smart, pragmatic, a bit of a rebel, and a bit of a romantic, too - much like Lew Archer in the Ross MacDonald mysteries, or Arkady Renko in Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park series. Church fills his narrative with enough concrete detail to make the North Korean setting palpably real: a country where little works (the water taps are constantly broken) and domestic amenities are minimal at best; where everything one does that's not part of the tight code of acceptable behavior is reported to the authorities and becomes part of one's permanent record; and where an atmosphere of fear, deprivation, and mistrust pervades the lives of ordinary people. And I loved Church's descriptions. Here's how he depicts the voice of one of the bad guys in the novel: "Kim's voice emerged from inside a dark cave, where even simple questions were mauled and came out nasty," while North Korea itself is described as a place where "(A)nswers get twisted, or misinterpreted, or used as weapons." My one quibble with The Corpse in the Koryo is that it lacks a map. I found myself constantly checking an atlas to find out the locations of the different cities in North Korea that O is sent to at the seeming whim of his superiors.

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The Folded World by Amity Gaige (2007)

I'm always thrilled when a small, independent publisher brings out a book I love, so I'm very grateful to the folks at Other Press for publishing Amity Gaige's The Folded World this year. (This was my first introduction to the author, since I hadn't read her first work of fiction, O My Darling - a situation I intend to remedy as soon as possible.) In her newest novel, Gaige explores the ups and downs in the early years of a marriage. (This is Anne Tyler country, set not in Tyler's Baltimore but in an unnamed eastern seaboard city that sounds a lot like Boston to me.) Charlie grew up in a prosperous Midwestern family where he was securely enveloped by the love of his parents and grandmother, while Alice, who lived with her aloof mother (a librarian) in Gloucester, Massachusetts, found all her emotional sustenance in her compulsive reading. They meet, fall in love, marry, have twin daughters, and attempt to make a satisfying life for themselves. But Charlie, a dedicated social worker, finds himself torn between the needs of his clients and the needs of his young wife and family. In reading Charlie and Alice's story, I was struck by three things: Gaige's crystalline prose, the three-dimensionality of all of her characters, even the minor ones, and her ability to convey the darkness in the minds of Charlie's clients, who are suffering from schizophrenia or other mental illnesses. Gaige takes what is really a conventional plot (boy meets girl; boy marries girl; problems ensue) and offers us something very special indeed.

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The Kids' Book Club Book: Reading Ideas, Recipes, Activities, and Smart Tips for Organizing Terrific Kids' Book Clubs by Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp (2007)

Any parent, teacher, or librarian thinking about starting a book club for kids or teens, or looking for good ideas to help an ongoing one work better, should find pretty much all they need in Judy Gelman's and Vicki Levy Krupp's The Kids' Book Club Book: Reading Ideas, Recipes, Activities, and Smart Tips for Organizing Terrific Kids' Book Clubs. They begin by offering tips to help you set up and structure various kinds of book clubs, including online book clubs and community reading projects, and discuss the benefits and challenges of each kind. They then consider different ways of choosing the books your group is discussing, what sorts of books make for a rousing discussion, and what kinds of questions to ask to encourage participation. My favorite part of the book is a list of fifty great books for kids to read and talk about. Among the books they recommend are Eleanor Estes's The Hundred Dresses, Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo, Walter Dean Myers's Monster, Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter by Adeline Yen Mah, Lois Lowry's The Giver, and Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. For each book they include something about the author, a section called "Book Bites," with recipes for a snack that fits the theme of book (the ones for Ender's Game come from NASA--"Space Peanut Butter and Jelly Wraps," "Freeze-Dried Ice Cream Sandwiches" and "Orange Space Drink" - think Tang), activities specific to the theme of the book, and a great question to begin the discussion.

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The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin (2006)

Writers who attempt historical fiction set themselves the always challenging task of convincingly recreating the periods in which their books are set. For historical fiction to be successful, such a recreation must be detailed and vivid enough to enable the reader to fully enter a world of unfamiliar smells, tastes, sights, and sounds, and believe it's real. Writers of historical mysteries have the added challenge of coming up with a credible crime, a compelling crime solver, and a convincing narrative of crime solution, all without falling into the snare of anachronism. In The Janissary Tree, Jason Goodwin more than meets these challenges; the result is an uncommonly good read. (This is the author's first novel, after four well-reviewed works of non-fiction. It won the 2007 Mystery Writers of America Edgar award for Best Novel.) Set in 1836, less than a century before World War I would bring an end to the Ottoman Empire, the current Sultan is about to modernize the political system when a member of his harem and several army officers are murdered in a most grisly fashion. All signs point to the culprit being one of the Janissaries, an elite group of army officers that was all but eradicated by royal decree in favor of a new standing army ten years before Goodwin's book takes place. The only person the Sultan can trust to find the killer or killers is Yashim Togalu, who, being a eunuch, can go places ordinary men cannot - like into the women's side of the palace. Aided by friends, including the Polish ambassador (who the Sultan kept around because it annoyed his perennial enemies, the Russians) and a transvestite dancer/prostitute, Yashim uncovers layers of deceit to bring the truth to light. The fast-moving plot, likeable hero, and exotic setting add up to one rewarding read.

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English Passengers by Matthew Kneale (2000)

When I first tried reading Matthew Kneale's English Passengers (which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2000), I couldn't get into it. When I went back to it a few months later and purposely slowed myself down, so that I could better appreciate the experience of reading a tale not only set in the 19th century but also written as though it were a 19th century novel, I absolutely loved it. Kneale's exploration of the events that occurred when the British first came to Tasmania is told through the experiences of more than twenty different characters. At its heart, it's the story of the destruction of the aboriginal culture in Tasmania, as seen through the eyes of Peevay, a young aboriginal, but it's also the story of the Reverend Geoffrey Wilson, a deluded English minister who believes that the Garden of Eden was on Tasmania, and sets out to prove it, and the story of a rum smuggling sea captain from the Isle of Manx who, through a series of very funny calamities, is forced to take the aforementioned Reverend halfway around the world as he attempts to prove his theory. Along for the journey is a most unpleasant scientist, Dr. Thomas Potter, whose beliefs about the differences among races will strike most readers as simply odious. English Passengers is filled with humor and sadness and is a very nearly perfect first novel. If you decide to pick it up, get ready for a leisurely, thought-provoking, funny, and thoroughly engrossing read.

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The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm by Juliet Nicolson (2007)

Juliet Nicolson's first book, The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm is an entertaining and informative exploration of a particular time and place. Among my favorite parts were her descriptions of the privileged lives of the upper classes, including richly detailed (and often very funny) accounts of the goings-on during their traditional "Saturday-to-Mondays" (it was considered déclassé to say "weekends"); the apprehensions of Queen-to-be May, as she approached her coronation (and name change) as Queen Mary, wife to King George V; Parliament's attempt to deal with the growing labor unrest among the working classes; the Liberal government's uphill struggle to remake the House of Lords in its own image; the appearance for the very first time of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russes in London's Covent Garden; and much, much more. Names familiar and not-so-familiar appear here: Winston Churchill and his political sparring partner, F.E. Smith; racy novelist Elinor Glyn (the early 20th century's Jackie Collins or Sidney Sheldon); Leonard Woolf and his bride-to-be, Virginia Stephen, and other Bloomsbury dwellers (Nicolson is herself the granddaughter of two of the best known - Harold Nicolson and his wife, Vita Sackville-West); painter Augustus John; the heartbreakingly handsome poet Rupert Brooke; charismatic labor leader Ben Tillett; and Lady Diana Manners (famous primarily for being Lady Diana Manners, and thus, perhaps, the Paris Hilton of her day), among many others. What we know now, of course, is that the seemingly endless months of bright sunshine and above average temperatures were an ironic prelude to the horrors of World War I, which would begin a short three years later. Fans of the wonderful old BBC television series Upstairs, Downstairs will definitely enjoy Nicolson's character-driven social history. When you finish The Perfect Summer, you may want to check out these books: Nicolson's grandmother Vita Sackville West's novel The Edwardians, her father Nigel's memoir of his parents' marriage, Portrait of a Marriage, and The Children of the Souls, Jeanne MacKenzie's account of the best and brightest of the generation of young men who died during the war - Diana Manners plays a large supporting role here, as well.

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The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart (2007)

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Chicago Review Press, for reissuing The Ivy Tree, by Mary Stewart. No one writes romantic suspense like Mary Stewart, and The Ivy Tree (which was originally published in 1961) is among my favorites of her many books. When handsome and more-than-slightly menacing Connor Winslow mistakes Mary Grey for his beautiful cousin Annabel Winslow, who disappeared nearly a decade before, he and his half-sister Lisa (who's not unlike Mrs. Danvers in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca) persuade the Canadian visitor to pretend to be the heiress herself. Annabel's grandfather is close to death, and Connor fears that the inheritance of money and their Northumberland home, Whitescar, will not come his way. He believes that if Annabel reappears, she will then inherit from her grandfather, Connor and Annabel can split the proceeds, and then the fake Annabel will simply disappear again. As secrets from Annabel's past slowly unfold, including the appearance of her married lover (now widowed and horribly scarred) and the real reason she left Whitescar, Mary begins to realize that Annabel's life is in mortal danger. This is a page-turner that, once finished, you want to immediately reread in order to savor Stewart's subtle clue dropping, as well as the fullness of the characters and her smooth prose. (If you like novels with an impersonation theme, don't miss Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey and the long out-of-print E. Phillips Oppenheim's The Great Impersonation, two other well-read books that I haven't been able to part with, despite the very limited space in my home library.)

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I See the Rhythm by Michele Wood (paintings) & Toyomi Igus (text) (2005)

The multiple-award-winning picture book I See the Rhythm combines dazzling paintings by Michele Wood and prose poems by Toyomi Igus to describe the development of African-American music, from the rhythm of its beginnings to the present. Long before the slave trade invaded the African continent, the oral tradition of Bantu, Yoruba, and Ibo griots (storytellers) was enhanced by the music they used to accompany their teachings and tales. Slave songs and spirituals led in the late 19th and early 20th century to the birth of the blues and the publication, in 1912, of "Memphis Blues," by the seminal African-American composer W.C. Handy. The blues led to ragtime, which gave way, in turn, to jazz (there's a whole section devoted to the women of jazz, including Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Sarah Vaughn, and Billie Holliday), and on to swing, be-bop (played by jazz hipsters like Charlie Parker who were not interested in the big band sound of swing), cool jazz (Miles Davis's music is the best example), gospel, rhythm and blues, soul music, rock and roll, 1970s funk (Toyomi writes about bands such as Earth, Wind and Fire and Kool and the Gang with these words: "With our Afro'd minds and sequined souls,/we have come to Earth to move, the music/to a new level./One nation/under a groove/nothing can stop us now."), and the latest incarnations of African-American music, rap and hip hop, which in a strangely appropriate way takes us all the way back to those African griots, chanting out their stories. There's also a very useful timeline that provides a historical context for the musical events described in the book. Although the picture book format suggests this is a book for young children, it's really aimed at anyone interested in music, from about age 11 up.

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The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin (2005)

The 1920s and 1930s are known as the Golden Age of British mysteries, when now-classic writers such as Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, and Dorothy Sayers first crafted their meticulously plotted whodunits, in which seemingly impossible murders occur and the reader is challenged to figure out, as the detective protagonist uncovers the clues, who, in fact, did do it. The talent of those Golden Age writers was such that even though they hid nothing - the sufficiently attentive reader knows everything that the detective knows, at each point in the story - most readers are kept in suspense to the very end. (At least the first time through. I find these books so delightful that I read many of them over and over again. For me, they're the reading equivalent of comfort food.) The equally talented mystery writer Edmund Crispin (the pseudonym for Bruce Montgomery, a British composer), wrote mysteries in that grand old style during the 1940s and 1950s. His 1944 novel, The Case of the Gilded Fly, was reissued in 2005 by the wonderfully named Felony & Mayhem Press, which describes itself as devoted to "bringing the best in bygone mysteries back to life." Murder Most Foul occurs in a theater company, and it's up to Oxford don Professor (of English) Gervase Fen to unmask the miscreant. The dramatis personae are introduced in the first chapter, as they all travel down to Oxford via train from London. They include Yseut Haskell, a wealthy conniver and mediocre actress; playwright Robert Warner, who once had a fling with Yseut but is now romantically involved with his current leading lady, Rachel West; Nicholas Barclay, dedicated drinker and devotee of all things Shakespeare; journalist Nigel Blake (who quickly falls in love with Yseut's half-sister, the beautiful and talented Helen); the aforementioned Helen; brilliant musician Donald Fellowes, who's besotted with Yseut; Jean Whitelegge, ditto with Fellowes; Oxford's Chief Constable, Sir Richard Freeman; Sheila McGraw, the theater's producer; and Fen himself. Within the next few days, three of these people will be dead. But who's responsible? Nearly everyone has a motive, but everyone definitely has an alibi. Crispin's mysteries are cleverly plotted and highly literate, with references to books, authors, and music sprinkled throughout. They're often humorous, and there are several recurring quirky secondary characters, such as the deaf and edging-toward-senility (or perhaps he's there already) Professor Wilkes, and Fen's long-suffering wife. Of my other two favorites by Crispin, one is in print (The Moving Toyshop) and Glimpses of the Moon, which is, sadly, not, but seems to be readily available in used copies.