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It's the End of the World As We Know It

The Dog StarsThe world has changed in Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars.  A pandemic has infected millions. Many have not survived, and those that have are shunned and avoided.  The novel begins nine years after the outbreak, and centers around pilot Hig and his aging dog, Jasper. Hig and Jasper live at an abandoned airport with survivalist and gun-nut Bangley.  Hig has refurbished a 1956 Cessna, which he takes on short flights in the area. He has to choose his paths with care. If he flies too far, he could run out of fuel.  Airports in the area can be dangerous places. Wandering groups of marauders appear that would kill you as soon as look at you.  Airport runways have fallen into ruin and there is a good chance Hig would not be able to land.  He could find himself too far from home, and not able to find the fuel he needs to get back.  He finds himself desperately lonely.  He is reminded of his wife Melissa who died during the pandemic.  Bangley is not much for conversation. Occasionally, Hig flies to deliver supplies to a group of Mennonites who have been infected with the blood disease, but he can never get too close with them. Suddenly, a tragic event happens that will change Hig’s perceptions and force him to make a decision that will alter the course of his life.

 

The Dog Stars is primarily a character study of a man who has lost hope.  It is a heartbreaking work, and the reader gets the sense of intense loneliness that Hig is feeling, trapped in this new world, fighting each day for survival.  Written in short passages and often single sentences, the story has a distinct style that is very readable and ultimately compelling.  This is a novel to be savored, and the reader will remember Hig long after they have finished the final page.

Doug

 
 

Antarctica or Bust

Antarctica or Bust

posted by:
September 21, 2012 - 8:01am

Where'd You Go BenadetteBernadette Fox—mother, wife, one-time architectural prodigy—has disappeared, and it’s up to her thirteen year-old daughter Bee Branch to put together the clues as to her whereabouts. Where’d You Go Bernadette is a brash satirical novel, told in a series of emails and other correspondence from various characters that relay the circumstances leading up to Bernadette’s flight.

 

Bee’s reward for a perfect report card throughout middle school was her own idea: a family trip to Antarctica. (She’d much rather have an expedition than a pony.) But her parents don’t quite share her enthusiasm. Bernadette, the recipient of a MacArthur genius grant at the beginning of her career, suffered a crippling setback when her Twenty Mile House (built from materials sourced within 20 miles of its location) met a vengeful demise. She retreated from the world of architecture, setting up house with her husband Elgin Branch, a techie wunderkind project manager for Microsoft whose TEDTalk is the fourth most viewed video on YouTube. Increasingly antisocial and generally testy, she abhors dealing with her fellow Galer Street School moms, a petty group she refers to as “gnats.” No one in Seattle knows that Bernadette is a genius in self-imposed exile who has hired a virtual assistant in India to deal with the overwhelming details of her life. How can she handle Antarctica? How can Elgin take a vacation when his team is working overtime on Samantha 2, a brain-computer interface?

 

Author Maria Semple, a former sitcom writer for shows including Arrested Development and Mad About You, has written a wickedly entertaining sendup of over-doting parents, the politics of private schools, the importance of keeping up appearances, the zeitgeist of Microsoft, and all things held sacred by the upper middle class Seattle intelligentsia. But at the heart of this novel are the relationships between a mother and daughter, and a husband and wife who appreciate each other in spite of it all.

Paula G.

 
 

Life As We Come to See It

Life As We Come to See It

posted by:
September 14, 2012 - 8:45am

An Uncommon EducationWaiting for one’s life to begin often means missing out on the present. In An Uncommon Education, Elizabeth Percer presents a reflective, coming-of-age story. Naomi Feinstein spends her childhood waiting for circumstances to change, especially hoping for more friends and freedom from her classmates’ cruelty. As a young adult, she gradually comes to terms with her life, embracing both its imperfections and possibilities. 

 

More than one person’s reflections, however, this book is also an immigrant story and family saga. Naomi chronicles her lonely childhood with first-generation immigrant parents who were often in poor health. Her father was Jewish and her mother a Catholic who converted to Judaism, which furthers her feelings of isolation and confuses her sense of identity and where she belongs. Gifted with a photographic memory and fascinated from an early age with saving lives and curing illness, Naomi goes to Wellesley College to become a doctor. Her time at the school is heavily influenced by her initiation into a secret Shakespeare society comprised of students who are all unconventional or outsiders in some capacity.

 

Although a large part of this story takes place at a university, Naomi’s true “education” is the life lessons she receives along the way, particularly when a scandal threatens her hard-earned friendships. Percer’s writing is very poetic and lyrical. As a narrator, Naomi is smart and insightful, and as her character matures, so does her narrative style and thought process. Readers will relate to her journey, which is less heroic than it is a series of wrong turns and learning by trial and error. A good recommend for book clubs.

 

Melanie

 
 

Across the Pond Contenders

Across the Pond Contenders

posted by:
September 13, 2012 - 8:30am

Bring Up the BodiesThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold FrySkiosWhat do Skios by Michael Frayn, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, and Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies have in common? Each has been included on the Long List of Great Britain’s highly coveted contemporary fiction award, the Man Booker Prize.

 

Taking place on the private Greek island of Skios, blonde Nikki Hook is the coolly capable public relations rep for the prestigious Fred Toppler foundation. She is preparing for the arrival of, and fantasizing about, much vaunted guest speaker Dr. Norman Wilfred. Nikki’s gal pal Georgie is heading to a secretive tryst at the other end of the island with dilettante playboy Oscar Fox. Lost luggage, mistaken identity, wrong rooms, taxi-driving brothers, and a language barrier all figure prominently in this farce, both comedic and satirical. Euphoksoliva, anyone?

 

Hobby-less Harold is recently retired. Seemingly estranged from his only son, on the very last nerve of his house-cleaning wife, and locked in desultory lawn care chats with his recently widowed neighbor, Harold needs a purpose. Purpose arrives via the mail in the guise of a brief letter from former co-worker Queenie Hennessy, who writes to let Harold know she is dying. Harold responds with a quick condolence note but instead decides that if he walks to see Queenie himself, she will survive. Marching along in yacht shoes and a neck tie, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry has Mr. Fry walking five hundred miles through England as he develops both blisters and perspective in this charming yet poignant tale.

 

Bring Up the Bodies is the sequel to Hilary Mantel’s 2009 winner of the Booker Prize, Wolf Hall, and again features Thomas Cromwell. Now a powerful minister to Henry VIII, Cromwell’s job is to clear out Anne Boleyn as Henry yearns to replace her with Jane Seymour. Written using present tense, the author offers a fresh view on Cromwell as a thoughtful reformer carrying out the wishes of the King. Mantel’s skill in writing fascinating and suspenseful historical fiction is on display here, drawing in the reader despite the foregone conclusion. Mantel plans a third book which will complete the Thomas Cromwell trilogy.

 

Lori

 
 

Life, Love, and Ducks

Life, Love, and Ducks

posted by:
September 4, 2012 - 8:00am

The Chemistry of TearsMerriam-Webster’s dictionary defines automaton as “a mechanism that is relatively self-operating” such as a robot. Such a machine forms the underpinning of the two-time Booker Prize-winning author Peter Carey’s newest book, The Chemistry of Tears.

 

Carey introduces Catherine Gerhig, a London museum curator. She has just been told about the unexpected death of co-worker and family man Matthew, with whom she has been having a covert long-term affair. Catherine’s boss assigns to her the labor-intensive job of reassembling a complicated Victorian mechanical toy in attempt to distract her from her overwhelming grief. Amongst the chests of parts, Catherine finds the journals of Henry Brandling. Brandling was an Englishman who had traveled to rural Germany to commission clockmakers to build a fantastic mechanical duck which he intends to present to his beloved sickly son.

 

Webster’s second meaning for automaton refers to a machine operating according to predetermined directions; Catherine and Henry, as revealed through his diaries, both seem to be on autopilot themselves. Henry is on his single-minded quixotic quest to bring home a toy, the magical novelty of which he believes will spark his son to live. Self-medicated Catherine is slogging through the motions of life, unhinged as she is by her anguish at losing her lover.

 

Carey is a clever writer who blurs the distinctions between man and machine. Catherine eats only to live, Henry despairs at the paucity of food available to him, and what turns out to be a swan has a fully functioning digestive tract and eats for the entertainment of others. Henry and Catherine are objects of manipulation, as is the swan. The Chemistry of Tears is a well-written and intelligent story and Carey’s illuminating descriptions of antique mechanical inventions are a lovely bonus.  

Lori

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A Simple Life

A Simple Life

posted by:
August 31, 2012 - 8:30am

The OrchardistDespite majestic surroundings and lifelong ties to the earth's bounty, there was little color in William Talmadge's days.  A solitary figure living a simple life, his emotional and physical toils are somberly chronicled in Amanda Coplin's haunting literary debut, The Orchardist.

 

Set in the rural Pacific Northwest at the turn of the twentieth century, Talmadge spends his days methodically tending a grove of fruit trees started by his widowed pioneer mother on his 400 acres of family land. No stranger to loss, the middle-aged farmer still pines for a beloved sister who mysteriously disappeared years earlier. When he encounters two young and pregnant runaway sisters, Jane and Della, he decides to shelter them. His actions are shaped by his memories of the sister he lost and the family he hesitantly envisions. It is the one person who knows him well, his old friend Caroline Middey, who observes, "suffering had formed him. " Circumstances will now change his life, especially as a new baby, Angeline, becomes "his shadow in the trees," and the new bud of this makeshift family whose fragile underpinnings are about to give way.

 

Coplin's writing is spare and deliberate, with minimal dialogue. Much is conveyed by the silent introspection of memorable characters and their sense of belonging, especially of a broken Della. Coplin, who was born in Wenatchee, Washington, grew up among her grandfather's orchards. Her storytelling is rich with images of a frontier before railroads or highways and of a time and place when one belonged to the earth. Fans of John Steinbeck, Leif Enger ‘s Peace Like a River or Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain will welcome Coplin to their stack of enticing reads.

 

Cynthia

 
 

Memories of War

Memories of War

posted by:
August 28, 2012 - 10:20am

The Yellow BirdsDebut author Kevin Powers takes us to the Iraq War and back in his poignant novel The Yellow Birds. Narrating from a secluded cabin in the mountains of Virginia, twenty-one-year-old veteran John Bartle recalls his hellish experiences in Iraq’s Nineveh Province and his current struggles to rebuild a life ravaged by post-traumatic stress.

 

Private Bartle’s story begins in basic training, where he quickly befriends an eighteen-year-old recruit named Murphy. They become inseparable, and Bartle takes it on himself to protect Murphy and get him back home safely. But once they arrive in war-torn Iraq, these two young soldiers discover that neither is ready to face the physical and psychological battles yet to come. What unfolds is a testament to friendship and loss set against the horrors of war, as well as a moving portrayal of how war affects not just soldiers but also their families and friends at home.

 

Powers, an Iraq veteran himself and recent M.F.A. graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, has the voice of a poet and wrote The Yellow Birds largely based on his own war experiences. Early praise from authors like Colm Toibin and Ann Patchett hails this novel as a “superb literary achievement” and proclaims it a modern classic. In fact, New York Times bestselling author Chris Cleave has compared Powers to Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy for his use of spare, lyrical prose.

 

Rich with flashbacks, metaphors, and written in a stream-of-consciousness style, The Yellow Birds will stay with you long after the final page. Readers who enjoy this new novel may also want to try Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain and Fobbit by David Abrams, two equally wonderful stories that take a satirical spin on the Iraq War.

 

Alex

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Fierce Women

Fierce Women

posted by:
August 24, 2012 - 8:30am

Tigers in Red WeatherTigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann is the story of two cousins growing up in Tiger House on Martha’s Vineyard. The first cousin, Nick, is getting married to the devilishly handsome Hughes when he returns from the war. But Hughes returns a different man, slightly distant and living in his own head. Nick requires variety and excitement, but what Hughes provides is stability and normalcy, and they begin to drift slowly apart. Helena is the second cousin, and she was engaged to a man who was killed in the war. She instead marries Avery, who works in Hollywood in the film industry. Later, Helena discovers that Avery’s sole purpose in life is to maintain a collection pertaining to a dead actress and this drives a wedge between the couple.

 

Years pass, and Nick gives birth to daughter Daisy. Helena has a son named Ed, and the children become good friends. One fateful summer in the late fifties, Daisy and Ed discover the body of a young maid left beaten, strangled and covered in a blanket. This discovery affects all of the residents of Tiger House. Relationships deteriorate, secrets are kept and then revealed, and the world spins off its axis.

 

Klaussman, the great-granddaughter of Herman Melville, creates a compelling story. It is told in five parts, each focusing on one of the characters, and several scenes are replayed featuring a different point of view. This technique allows the reader to get a clear picture of the troubles facing Tiger House as well as the extent of the dysfunction within. Because of the unique storytelling style and the strong character development, this would be a good choice for a book club.

 

Doug

 
 

Where Joy and Sorrow Meet

In the Shadow of the BanyanGrowing up in a wealthy Cambodian family, seven-year-old Raami enjoys a privileged life until a civil war rips from her the only existence she has ever known. In an elegant autobiographical literary debut, In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner brings to life the 1975 Khmer Rouge capture of Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, and one family’s extraordinary fight to live.

 

Told through the curious, fearful eyes of a young girl, Ratner’s story is more than the atrocities of revolution. Rather, it is about not losing faith in life’s beauty and goodness. With Raami’s tender, lyrical voice, the reader is introduced to pre-revolution Cambodia, as well as the new reality of forced labor and other unspeakable horrors. It’s a confusing world where being intelligent can mean death. Silence is the key to survival, and family members become lost. Before they know it, Raami, her beautiful mother and younger sister are forced into a peasant’s life. Raami becomes "koan neak srae," a child of these paddies. Her solace is remembering stories told to her by her stoic Sisowath prince father, who once said he writes because "words give me wings."  

 

Rattner's prose is as mellifluous as the Mekong River that Raami longs to see. Rich with similes, Rattner's images are as magical and lovely as they are harsh. In their fullness, the reader sees a Cambodia that is much more than a war-torn landscape and heartbreaking characters who reflect the human tragedy. A small child when the Khmer Rouge took over her country, Ratner strives to honor the lives lost during the genocides. "Sometimes we, like little fishes, are swept up in these big and powerful currents,” Raami's father tells her. Rattner's personal story describes their journey.

 

 

Cynthia

 
 

A Modern Catch-22

A Modern Catch-22

posted by:
August 3, 2012 - 9:00am

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime WalkBen Fountain’s new book, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a deeply personal novel about one young man’s experience as a soldier in Iraq and his subsequent visit home in which he tries to make sense of his own life and country. The novel features Billy Lynn and his accompanying Bravo Squad soldiers as they attend a Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys game. The book covers this single day, with occasional flashbacks to Billy’s home life and his military life as a soldier in Iraq. Members of the Bravo Squad are being hailed as heroes after a harrowing firefight with Iraqi insurgents. They’ve been invited to the game, with a special halftime show in their honor, complete with a performance from Beyoncé. The entire story is told from inside Billy Lynn’s head. It is a deeply personal account that exposes the incredible disconnect between a soldier’s life in the Iraq war and life in the country he returns to. Fountain brilliantly captures elements of American culture that take on an absurd, grotesque quality when seen through this uniquely cross-cultural lens.

 

Fountain has written a book that is as much about family, grief, media, consumerism, sex and politics as it is about war. It has been hailed as “one of the most important books of the decade….as close to the Great American Novel as anyone is likely to come these days.” Just published in May of this year, it is quickly being considered one of the best novels written about the Iraq War. Billy Lynn is often compared to another classic war novel, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. Both books depict the effect war has on individual soldiers and both are darkly humorous takes on modern American culture and military life.

 

Fountain successfully takes on huge targets: the Bush years, the NFL, the Iraq war and American consumerism. In lesser hands, a book of this nature would feel heavy-handed and one-sided. Luckily for us, Ben Fountain writes like a dream. He is one of those rare writers who can write with both immediate urgency and nuance. Like the best satirists, he is able to inspire dark humor, sympathy, heartbreak and anger, all in equal measure. In the end, Fountain’s real strength is Billy. Readers will cheer, laugh and weep for Billy Lynn, a nineteen-year-old soldier who has seen and done more than most of us could ever fathom.

 

 

Zeke

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