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Rating Index   Carolyn’s List

Colored dot icon.The Shadow of the Wind - (Carlos Ruiz Zafon)   Barcelona, 1945 - Just after the war, a great world city lies in shadow, nursing its wounds, and a boy named Daniel awakes one day to find that he can no longer remember his mother's face. To console his only child, Daniel's widowed father, an antiquarian book dealer, initiates him into the secret of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a library tended by Barcelona's guild of rare-book dealers as a repository for books forgotten by the world, waiting for someone who will care about them again. Daniel's father coaxes him to choose a book from the spiraling labyrinth of shelves, one that, it is said, will have a special meaning for him. And Daniel so loves the book he selects, a novel called The Shadow of the Wind by one Julian Carax, that he sets out to find the rest of Carax's work. To his shock, he discovers that someone has been systematically destroying every copy of every book this author has written. In fact, he may have the last of Carax's books in existence. Before Daniel knows it, his seemingly innocent quest has opened a door into one of Barcelona's darkest secrets, an epic story of murder, magic, madness, and doomed love, and before long he realizes that if he doesn't find out the truth about Julian Carax, he and those closest to him will suffer horribly.


Carolyn:  Mysterious pre-war Barcelona.  Passion of a child.  Evil.  Friendships over generations.  A long-abandoned mansion and true love. These all combine in a web of fog that keeps you turning pages. 

Colored dot icon.The Time Traveler's Wife - (Audrey Niffenegger)   A dazzling novel in the most untraditional fashion, this is the remarkable story of Henry DeTamble, a dashing, adventuresome librarian who travels involuntarily through time, and Clare Abshire, an artist whose life takes a natural sequential course. Henry and Clare's passionate love affair endures across a sea of time and captures the two lovers in an impossibly romantic trap, and it is Audrey Niffenegger's cinematic storytelling that makes the novel's unconventional chronology so vibrantly triumphant.


Carolyn:  Strange and disorienting.  Wonderful love story that reinforces the timelessness of love.  Those who touch us never really leave us when we hold them in our hearts.


Bangkok 8 - (John Burdett)   "Under a Bangkok bridge, inside a bolted-shut Mercedes: a murder by snake - a charismatic African American Marine sergeant killed by a methamphetamine-stoked python and a swarm of stoned cobras." "Two cops - the only two in the city not on the take - arrive too late. Minutes later, only one is alive: Sonchai Jitpleecheep - a devout Buddhist, equally versed in the sacred and the profane - son of a long-gone Vietnam War G.I. and a Thai bar girl whose subsequent international clientele contributed richly to Sonchai's sophistication." Now, his partner dead, Sonchai is doubly compelled to find the murderer, to maneuver through the world he knows all to well - illicit drugs, prostitution, infinite corruption - and into a realm he has never before encountered: the moneyed underbelly of the city, where desire rules and the human body is no less custom-designable than a raw hunk of jade. And where Sonchai tracks the killer - and a predator of an even more sinister variety. 


Carolyn:  Voyeuristic look into another world.  Keeps you turning those pages.


Colored dot icon.When the Emperor Was Divine - (Julie Otsuka)   Julie Otsuka’s commanding debut novel paints a portrait of the Japanese internment camps unlike any we have ever seen. With crystalline intensity and precision, Otsuka uses a single family to evoke the deracination—both physical and emotional—of a generation of Japanese Americans. In five chapters, each flawlessly executed from a different point of view—the mother receiving the order to evacuate; the daughter on the long train ride to the camp; the son in the desert encampment; the family’s return to their home; and the bitter release of the father after more than four years in captivity—she has created a small tour de force, a novel of unrelenting economy and suppressed emotion. Spare, intimate, arrestingly understated, When the Emperor Was Divine is a haunting evocation of a family in wartime and an unmistakably resonant lesson for our times. It heralds the arrival of a singularly gifted new novelist.


Carolyn:  US WWII internment camps sequestering the entire Japanese-American population seem a lot like POW camps.  This reads like a first hand account.  You can read it in a day, but you remember it for a lifetime.  Read it a second time to discover the depth of Otsuka's beautiful spare writing style.  


The Lake of Dead Languages - (Carol Goodman)   Twenty years ago, Jane Hudson fled the Heart Lake School for Girls in the Adirondacks after a terrible tragedy. The week before her graduation, in that sheltered wonderland, three lives were taken, all victims of suicide. Only Jane was left to carry the burden of a mystery that has stayed hidden in the depths of Heart Lake for more than two decades. Now Jane has returned to the school as a Latin teacher, recently separated and hoping to make a fresh start with her young daughter. But ominous messages from the past dredge up forgotten memories. And young, troubled girls are beginning to die again–as piece by piece the shattering truth slowly floats to the surface. 


Carolyn:  Gothic mystery set in a second-line girls' prep school.  Many interesting concepts here that could have developed into a good read, but way too obvious - I guessed three of the four mysteries well before the mid-point.   The fourth reveal was just so pollyanna, who would have though she would throw that in along with the kitchen sink.  Even fifth graders who follow Harry Potter can handle more sophistication than this mystery assumes, and it was written for adult book groups.  My early alternate ending would have been far better - and truly gothic.  The characterizations had no complexity and were twisted to meet the needs of her mystery.  The author made this just too ham-fisted and should have cut at least a third of the book.  Doesn't quite rise to the level of beach book.


Colored dot icon.The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - (Mark Haddon)   Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7,057. He relates well to animals but has no understanding of human emotions. He cannot stand to be touched. Although gifted with a superbly logical brain, Christopher is autistic. Everyday interactions and admonishments have little meaning for him. Routine, order and predictability shelter him from the messy, wider world. Then, at fifteen, Christopher’s carefully constructed world falls apart when he finds his neighbor’s dog, Wellington, impaled on a garden fork, and he is initially blamed for the killing. Christopher decides that he will track down the real killer and turns to his favorite fictional character, the impeccably logical Sherlock Holmes, for inspiration. But the investigation leads him down some unexpected paths and ultimately brings him face to face with the dissolution of his parents’ marriage. As he tries to deal with the crisis within his own family, we are drawn into the workings of Christopher’s mind. And herein lies the key to the brilliance of Mark Haddon’s choice of narrator: The most wrenching of emotional moments are chronicled by a boy who cannot fathom emotion. The effect is dazzling, making for a novel that is deeply funny, poignant, and fascinating in its portrayal of a person whose curse and blessing is a mind that perceives the world literally. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is one of the freshest debuts in years: a comedy, a heartbreaker, a mystery story, a novel of exceptional literary merit that is great fun to read.-  Jump to the New York Times review.   Second Review  Essay


Carolyn:  A page-turner and a quick read.  Christopher is the ultimate uncompelling character - he has screaming fits and passes out when life gets too personal.  Yet he is our hero, and you hold your breath at each new challenge he faces.  How can life possibly become bleaker for him?  But it does.  It's a good thing connecting emotionally is impossible for him, neither parent is equipped, but Christopher rises to the occasion.  Just one or two lapses in continuity of the premise.  Haddon is one to watch - can he continue to engage us with such diabolical creativity?


A Brief History of the Human Race - (Michael Cook)   Why has human history been crowded into the last few thousand years? Why has it happened at all? Could it have happened in a radically different way? What should we make of the disproportionate role of the West in shaping the world we currently live in? This witty, intelligent hopscotch through human history addresses these questions and more. Michael Cook sifts the human career on earth for the most telling nuggets and then uses them to elucidate the whole. From the calendars of Mesoamerica and the temple courtesans of medieval India to the intricacies of marriage among an aboriginal Australian tribe, Cook explains the sometimes eccentric variety in human cultural expression. He guides us from the prehistoric origins of human history across the globe through the increasing unification of the world, first by Muslims and then by European Christians in the modern period, illuminating the contingencies that have governed broad historical change. 11 maps, 28 illustrations.-  Jump to the New York Times review.


Carolyn:  Couldn't connect, having read and loved the seminal work: Guns, Germs and Steele.

Colored dot icon.The Ha-Ha - (Dave King)   An unforgettable first novel about silence, family, and the imperative of love. Howard Kapostash has not spoken in thirty years. Ever since a severe blow to the head during his days in the Army, words unravel in his mouth and letters on the page make no sense at all. Because of his extremely limited communication abilities-a small repertory of gestures and simple sounds-most people think he is disturbed. No one understands that Howard is still the same man he was before enlisting, still awed by the beauty of a landscape, still pining for his high school sweetheart, Sylvia. Now Sylvia is a single mom with troubles of her own, and she needs Howard's help. She is being hauled into a drug rehab program and she asks Howard to care for her nine-year-old son, Ryan. The presence of this nervous, resourceful boy in Howard's life transforms him utterly. With a child's happiness at stake, communication takes on a fresh urgency, and the routine that Howard has evolved over the years-designed specifically to minimize the agony of human contact-suddenly feels restrictive and even dangerous. Forced out of his groove, Howard finds unexpected delights (in baseball, in work, in meals with his housemates). His home comes alive with the joys, sorrows, and love of a real family. But these changes also open Howard to the risks of loss and to the rage he has spent a lifetime suppressing.-  Jump to the New York Times review.


Carolyn: A page-turner.  I read this book in two sittings, and Howard lives with me still.  Right up to the last pages, you're not sure how this book is going to resolve itself.  Here's a 50 year-old disabled Vietnam vet who lives in his head - just getting by, taking no risks.  


In my mid-life, it's just the book that speaks to me.  Should he lean in for a kiss?  Howard asks himself, "How long has it been since I took a chance?...I can't risk getting set in my ways."  In the end, he picks his priorities - it's the life with the woman he wants - his lousy job is good enough for now.  He considers what his charge Ryan will think about keeping that demeaning job. "What ...does a child know of compromise?"  Howard's been given a second chance.  We only surmise how it will end.

Colored dot icon.Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - (J.K. Rowling)   The war against Voldemort is not going well; even Muggle governments are noticing. Ron scans the obituary pages of the Daily Prophet, looking for familiar names. Dumbledore is absent from Hogwarts for long stretches of time, and the Order of the Phoenix has already suffered losses. And yet... As in all wars, life goes on. Sixth-year students learn to Apparate -- and lose a few eyebrows in the process. The Weasley twins expand their business. Teenagers flirt and fight and fall in love. Classes are never straightforward, though Harry receives some extraordinary help from the mysterious Half-Blood Prince. So it's the home front that takes center stage in the multilayered sixth installment of the story of Harry Potter. Here at Hogwarts, Harry will search for the full and complex story of the boy who became Lord Voldemort -- and thereby find what may be his only vulnerability.-  Jump to the New York Times review.  

Carolyn: J.K. Rowling is setting up her surprise ending for the last book of the series, and at the same time, providing Harry with the break he needs to become the true hero by struggling alone to battle the arch villain of his world.  With this book, it's clear to me how the series will be resolved.  Rowling's brightest talent is in creating this incredibly rich world - enough to lose yourself when you're reading  - and on for days later.

Saturday - (Ian McEwan)   "Saturday, February 15, 2003. Henry Perowne is a contented man, a successful neurosurgeon, the devoted husband of Rosalind and the proud father of two grown-up children, one a promising poet, the other a talented blues musician. Unusually, he wakes before dawn, drawn to the window of his bedroom and filled with a growing unease. What troubles him as he looks out at the night sky is the state of the world, the impending war against Iraq, a gathering pessimism since 9/11 and a fear that his city, its openness and diversity, and his happy family life are under threat." "Later, Perowne makes his way to his weekly squash game through London streets filled with hundreds of thousands of anti-war protestors. A minor car accident brings him into a confrontation with Baxter, a fidgety, aggressive young man, on the edge of violence. To Perowne's professional eye, there appears to be something profoundly wrong with him." Towards the end of a day rich in incident, a Saturday filled with thoughts of war and poetry, of music, mortality and love, Baxter appears at the Perowne home during a family reunion, with extraordinary consequences.-  Jump to the New York Times review.  NYT Arts and Culture  NYT Leisure  NYT Article

Carolyn: For the first three quarters of this book, you enjoy the McEwan's beautiful writing, but don't engage with the characters.  They are a family of perfect, talented, privileged, beautiful people. Yawn.  Then for the rest of the book, you hold your breath.  This is McEwan's  Mrs. Dalloway.  

Falling Angels - (Tracy Chevalier) - A fashionable London cemetery, January 1901: Two graves stand side by side, one decorated with an oversize classical urn, the other with a sentimental marble angel. Two families, visiting their respective graves on the day after Queen Victoria's death, teeter on the brink of a new era. The Colemans and the Waterhouses are divided by social class as well as taste. They would certainly not have become acquainted had not their two girls, meeting behind the tombstones, become best friends. And, even more unsuitably, become involved with the gravedigger's muddy son. As the girls grow up, as the new king changes social customs, as a new, forward-thinking era takes wing, the lives and fortunes of the two families become more and more closely intertwined-neighbors in life as well as death. Against a gas-lit backdrop of social and political history, Tracy Chevalier explores the prejudices and flaws of a changing time.  Jump to the New York Times review.


Carolyn: Not the grabber Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring was.  I know much more about the era's history and social customs, so the details of London in 1905 don't hold me like those of 17th Century Delft.   And the situation and characters didn't hold me as much.  Maude, Lavinia and Simon are more thoroughly described and idealized than Griet.   Yet the book has less engaging characters and situation.  Perhaps it's because I have personal knowledge of my grandparents and others of the era.  I live in a home steeped in the environment of 1900 Victoriana.  I expect more depth and complexity.  These characters are one dimensional - to make the author's point.  But really, social conventions haven't changed so much since the beginning of the 20th century.  In fact, the car has enabled us to isolate ourselves even more by economic, ethnic, religious and social class.  We feel less dependant on each other, less connected.  In Falling Angels, Kitty Coleman, the wealthiest character in the book, is dependant on her relationship with Jenny, her servant and Simon, the son of a gravedigger to obtain an abortion.  Her secret connects the children.  These days, our interdependence is felt obliquely, through the actions of a disaffected class of terrorists.

Blink - The Power of Thinking Without Thinking - (Malcolm Gladwell)  How do we make decisions--good and bad--and why are some people so much better at it than others? That's the question Malcolm Gladwell asks and answers in the follow-up to his huge bestseller, The Tipping Point. Utilizing case studies as diverse as speed dating, pop music, and the shooting of Amadou Diallo, Gladwell reveals that what we think of as decisions made in the blink of an eye are much more complicated than assumed. Drawing on cutting-edge neuroscience and psychology, he shows how the difference between good decision-making and bad has nothing to do with how much information we can process quickly, but on the few particular details on which we focus. Leaping boldly from example to example, displaying all of the brilliance that made The Tipping Point a classic, Gladwell reveals how we can become better decision makers--in our homes, our offices, and in everyday life. The result is a book that is surprising and transforming. Never again will you think about thinking the same way.-  Jump to the New York Times review.


Carolyn: This book only confirms my life-long reliance on my first thought - I have always trusted it.  Often you have to set the stage to make sure you can tap into that first impression.  My method is to tap the first impression, explore where it comes from, then systematically look at the detail.  Very rarely do I change my stance, but I always check "the math".  Gladwell doesn't follow the thread as tightly as he did in The Tipping Point.  This might have suffered a bit as I "read" in in an audiobook read by the author.

The Kalahari Typing School for Men - (Alexander McCall Smith)  Now that her business, the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, is firmly established, the agency's founder, Precious Ramotswe, can look upon her life with pride: she's reached her late thirties ("the finest age to be") and she has a house, two adopted children, a good fiance, and many satisfied customers. But life is never without its problems. Her adopted son has a somewhat troubling hobby. Her assistant wants a husband but can't find one. Meanwhile, the Satisfaction Guaranteed Detective Agency has opened up across town and seems to be getting all the attention. In this latest volume from Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, Precious manages to cope with these and other more serious problems with her customary mix of insight and good-heartedness.-  Jump to the New York Times review.


Carolyn: I'm a big fan of Mma Ramotswe.  In this book you see her use her talent of patience: sitting back and waiting to see if the situation will rectify itself.  A valuable life tool, but it doesn't make for the most exciting of this series of books.  I was a little disappointed in this one.  However, as usual, those who are wise usually come to the truth eventually.  Mma Makutsi is featured prominently in this one.  She falls briefly into a period where flattery outshines her good judgment, but eventually her judgment prevails.  We are still waiting for Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to set the date.

Requiem for a Lost Empire - (Andrei Makine) - "The narrator is a young Russian army doctor; sent to distant shores to bind the wounds of those in third- and fourth-world countries in Africa, the Near East, and South America that are pawns in the global political chess game during the Cold War between America and the U.S.S.R. Later recruited by an old-time intelligence agent, the narrator spends three years deeply involved in the mini-wars - the revolutions and counterrevolutions - that constantly erupt all over the globe." "The book flashes back to the narrator's grandfather, Nikolai, a Red cavalry soldier fighting the Whites in 1920 who one day, overwhelmed by all the senseless killing, deserts and returns to his native village. On his way home, in a forest riddled with the graves of soldiers who had been buried alive by their killers, he finds and disinters a young woman whom be saves and eventually marries. A son is born, Pavel, the narrator's father, whose story of World War II is invoked with a passion and force that bear comparison to the best writing on the subject. But, war weary like his father, Pavel retreats to a remote forest in the Caucasus, in a vain attempt to escape the increasing tyrannies of the post-war Soviet era. It is there, in that idyllic retreat from the world, that the narrator is born."-- Jump to the New York Times review.

Carolyn:  As usual, Makine's writing takes your breath away with it's fluid descriptiveness.  The scope of this book missed, though.  Two stories are intertwined: The narrator's odd love story with his colleague in the spy game, entwined with his family history, told through the stories of his grandfather, father and himself: the story of unending chaos and war: Russia's story.  Unfortunately Makine turns his talent for striking description to make memorable the cruel, gruesome costs of war.   The images are hard to shake, even many books later - too tough for me to like.

If you think this glorifies West versus East - it does not.  The U.S. come off as a monster of self interest, documenting cruelty when it serves a purpose.  "What was it old Marx said? 'Offer a capitalist a three hundred percent profit and there's no crime he won't commit.'

In being asked for an emergency contact at the airport, the narrator realizes only his dead love, the woman who raised him and the man who recruited him would make the list: two dead and one incommunicado.  This is a book about painful isolation and how geo-politics creates a no-win situation for humanity. The main characters are not named

  • Colored dot icon.The Plot Against America - (Philip Roth) - When the renowned aviation hero and rabid isolationist Charles A. Lindbergh defeated Franklin Roosevelt by a landslide in the 1940 presidential election, fear invaded every Jewish household in America. Not only had Lindbergh, in a nationwide radio address, publicly blamed the Jews for selfishly pushing America toward a pointless war with Nazi Germany, but, upon taking office as the thirty-third president of the United States, he negotiated a cordial "understanding" with Adolf Hitler, whose conquest of Europe and whose virulent anti-Semitic policies he appeared to accept without difficulty. What followed in America is the historical setting for this startling new book by Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Roth, who recounts what it was like for his Newark family-and for a million such families all over the country-during the menacing years of the Lindbergh presidency, when American citizens who happened to be Jews had every reason to expect the worst. Jump to the New York Times review.


Carolyn:  Creepy reconstruction of my country's history.  For all those American children of the 50's and 60's who explained the unexplainable by seeing the pre-WW II German population as "Other", Roth's novel shows how the steps toward inhumanity are accomplished in an American democracy. It raises the question: You aren't really paranoid if they ARE out to get you.  

Philip is He's 9.  Sandy's an opportunist.  "Look for advantage for themselves and to hell with everything else."  Selling out".  Sandy - trying to protect us - "Just Folks" Brother owns a market.  Mom Bess Dad: Herman Roth - Jewish Insurance agent in Newark from Elizabeth.  Families conscripted to move in downstaairs.  Italian.  Metropolitan, in compliance with a request from Homestead 42, office of American Absorption, US Department of the Interior, our company is offering relocation opportunities to senior employees like yourself, deemed qualified for inclusion in OAA's bold new nationwide initiative. - to enrich their Americanness over the generations. Danville, KY  Lindberg's peacetime America, where noone is in jeopardy except us., Mom, Sandy, Alvin, Seldon Wishnow , stamp collection - "I wanted to be a boy on the smallesyt scale possible.  I wanted to be an orphan." he wanted to be an orphan runs away - beat up, stamp collection stolen, 'you people'   $19.50 in pockets of Seldon's stolen pants.  His mom doesn't ask him why, and never tells his father - the secrets one parent keeps from another - bond between parent anc child.  Sunday evenings at 9.Walter Winchell calls Lindberg out...  imperfect Walter was incorruptable.  Lindbergh's decorum is hideous.  , gunned down in Louisville.  Nazis of america.  LaGuardia, "Where is Lindberg?  Wed, Oct 2, 1942 takes off and is never seen again.  2 days, martial law.  mirroring the kidnapping of his son in 1932.  British report L alive in Berlin.  122 Americans loose lives in anti Semitic riots (97 are Jews, including Seldon's mom.).  Saved by Anne Marrow Lindberg. (escapes from Walter Reed, reoccupies the Whhite House (media broadcast her calls for restoration of .  Two weeks later Democrats sweep the House and Senate.  Next month Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor.  8 yr. old son raised as model of Hitler youth.    225 families relocated from the northeast."What;s paranoid?'  "Someone who's afraid of this own shadow." "Somebody who thinks the whole world's against him."  Aunt Evelyn, the brown-nose (token) rabbi's girlfriend.  "Go out into the world like Sandy and prove you're just as good as anyone."   "I only wanted to disappear into a forgetfull sleep and wake up in the morning somewhere elsre."  Father beloeves in the system - it will never happen here.  Mother wants to follow neighbors and go to Canada.  I'm not running away.  This is our country.  Company relocates them to Kentucky.  Breakfront's liquor cabinet untouched - inkepping with the matter-of-fact temperance practiced in the bulk of the homes of that first inductrious American-born generation."   Riots: President Roosevelt detained by NY police.  

In the midst of chaos mom anguishing confusion one could do nothing right without also doing something wrong chaos reigned and everything at stake,, but to do nothing was also to do something.  there is no system for managing so sinister a mess.  being battered about by the most anguishing confusion.  Philip is going to run   I would run away from everything that was after me and everything that hated me and wanted to kill me.  I would run away from everything I'd done and everything I hadn't done, and start out fresh a a boy nobody knew. - to Elizabeth, to the pretzel factory.  he'll save his money and run away to Boys Town where Father Flanagan will take him in where he'll learn to become a good citizen.  hardly the person responsible for the death of Mrs. Wishnow and the orphaning of her son.   Finds his aunt in the basement - I know the truth.  More than thirty million Christian families in American and and only about a million Jewish families, why really should the events of the day bother them? (rioting, deaths, arrests, etc.)  @ days since heard from father and Sandy.   Trip across the country during the riots.  1913 'little factory girl" murdered in Atlanta pencil factory - her Jewish supervisor Leo Frank was convicted - lynch mob pulled him from the jail and from a tree.  hung him


Ford: pub 1920-1927 - The International Jew - the world's problem" - circ 300,000. lost $5 million.  Shut down after lawsuit settled out of court for defamation of a Jewish lawyer.    America First Committee.  


Start with something small and get away with it.  

Friday Night Lights - (GH Bissinger) - H. G. Bissinger's exquisitely written account brings into sharp focus the bitter struggle between sports and education in Odessa, Texas, as well as in high schools and colleges nationwide. "A biting indictment of the sports craziness that grips...most of American society, while at the same time providing a moving evocation of its powerful allure."(--New York Times Book Review) "A remarkable book, fascinating from start to finish, full of surprises."(--David HalberstamA) "An engrossing story...Exciting, funny and, above all, horrifying."(--Tracy KidderA).  NYT Article.  About the film.


Carolyn: You learn as much about Midland-Odessa Texas as you do about the all-consuming religion of football in those parts.   Bissinger followed the 1988 Permian High team during the energy bust period of the late 1980's, but the excesses of the boom periods are chronicled as well.  To see film footage of the people featured in the book, rent the DVD and check out the special features.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell - (Susanna Clarke) - English magicians were once the wonder of the known world, with fairy servants at their beck and call; they could command winds, mountains, and woods. But by the early 1800s they have long since lost the ability to perform magic. They can only write long, dull papers about it, while fairy servants are nothing but a fading memory. But at Hurtfew Abbey in Yorkshire, the rich, reclusive Mr Norrell has assembled a wonderful library of lost and forgotten books from England's magical past and regained some of the powers of England's magicians. He goes to London and raises a beautiful young woman from the dead. Soon he is lending his help to the government in the war against Napoleon Bonaparte, creating ghostly fleets of rain-ships to confuse and alarm the French. All goes well until a rival magician appears. Jonathan Strange is handsome, charming, and talkative-the very opposite of Mr Norrell. Strange thinks nothing of enduring the rigors of campaigning with Wellington's army and doing magic on battlefields. Astonished to find another practicing magician, Mr Norrell accepts Strange as a pupil. But it soon becomes clear that their ideas of what English magic ought to be are very different. For Mr Norrell, their power is something to be cautiously controlled, while Jonathan Strange will always be attracted to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic. He becomes fascinated by the ancient, shadowy figure of the Raven King, a child taken by fairies who became king of both England and Faerie, and the most legendary magician of all. Eventually Strange's heedless pursuit of long-forgotten magic threatens to destroy not only his partnership with Norrell, but everything that he holds dear. Jump to the New York Times review.


Carolyn:  Nearly 800 pages.  Much too detailed and properly slow-moving to hold my attention.  I read about 100 pages, then skipped to the end.  I think that was about right.  This is not Harry Potter for adults.   You care about Harry.  I just didn't care about any of these characters - not enough to follow the story.  Whatever ironies and insights were embedded in the tale weren't worth the time to read it all.        

Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons - (Lorna Landvik) - Sometimes life is like a bad waiter—it serves you exactly what you don’t want. The women of Freesia Court have come together at life’s table, fully convinced that there is nothing good coffee, delectable desserts, and a strong shoulder can’t fix. Laughter is the glue that holds them together—the foundation of a book group they call AWEB—Angry Wives Eating Bon Bons—an unofficial “club” that becomes much more. It becomes a lifeline. The five women each have a story of their own to tell. There’s Faith, the newcomer, a lonely housewife and mother of twins, a woman who harbors a terrible secret that has condemned her to living a lie; big, beautiful Audrey, the resident sex queen who knows that good posture and an attitude can let you get away with anything; Merit, the shy, quiet doctor’s wife with the face of an angel and the private hell of an abusive husband; Kari, a thoughtful, wise woman with a wonderful laugh as “deep as Santa Claus’s with a cold” who knows the greatest gifts appear after life’s fiercest storms; and finally, Slip, activist, adventurer, social changer, a tiny, spitfire of a woman wholooks trouble straight in the eye and challenges it to arm wrestle. 

Holding on through forty eventful years—through the swinging Sixties, the turbulent Seventies, the anything-goes Eighties, the nothing’s-impossible Nineties—the women will take the plunge into the chaos that inevitably comes to those with the temerity to be alive and kicking. Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons depicts a special slice of American life, of stay-at-home days and new careers, children and grandchildren, bold beginnings and second chances, in which the power of forgiveness, understanding, and the perfectly timed giggle fit is the CPR that mends broken hearts and shattered dreams. Tthere is nothing like the saving grace of best friends.


Carolyn:  Nice forty year journey with a group of women grappling with the burdens of life.         

Colored dot icon.Birth of Venus - (Sarah Dunant) - "Alessandra Cecchi is not quite fifteen when her father, a prosperous cloth merchant, brings a young painter back from northern Europe to decorate the chapel walls in the family's Florentine palazzo. A child of the Renaissance, with a precocious mind and a talent for drawing, Alessandra is intoxicated by the painter's abilities." But their burgeoning relationship is interrupted when Alessandra's parents arrange her marriage to a wealthy, much older man. Meanwhile, Florence is changing, increasingly subject to the growing suppression imposed by the fundamentalist monk Savonarola, who is seizing religious and political control. Alessandra and her native city are caught between the Medici state, with its love of luxury, learning, and dazzling art, and the hellfire preaching and increasing violence of Savonarola's reactionary followers. Played out against this turbulent backdrop, Alessandra's married life is a misery, except for the surprising freedom it allows her to pursue her powerful attraction to the young painter and his art.


Carolyn:  A page-turner, gripping historical fiction.        Jump to the NYT Review.   2nd review.

Gellhorn: A Twentieth-Century Life - (Caroline Moorehead) - Martha Gellhorn's heroic career as a reporter brought her to the front lines of virtually every significant international conflict between the Spanish Civil War and the end of the Cold War; her wartime dispatches rank among the best of the century. From her birth in St. Louis in 1908 to her death in London in 1998, the tall, glamorous blonde passed through Africa, Cuba, Panama, and most of the great cities of Europe. She made friends easily -- among them Eleanor Roosevelt, Leonard Bernstein, and H. G. Wells -- but happiness often eluded her despite her professional success: both of her marriages ended badly, the first, to Ernest Hemingway, dramatically and publicly so. Drawn from extensive interviews and exclusive access to Gellhorn's papers and correspondence, this seminal biography spans half the globe and almost an entire century to offer an exhilarating, intimate portrait of one of the defining women of our times.


Carolyn:  There's something about an energized, flawed person that attracts me.  People absolutely certain in their opinions.  Martha - so cruel, so dynamic, so instantly correct and consistent her whole life.  Her biographer, Caroline Moorehead was the daughter of one of Martha's best friends, Lucy Moorehead.  Lucy was there in the Italian campaign in Fiesole in 19 , when Martha was searching for an Italian war orphan to adopt and when she hit and killed a small African child driving on a dark back road.  Caroline had 20 cartons of Martha's papers archived at BU as a resource.         Jump to the NYT Review.   2nd review.

Colored dot icon.Breakfast of Champions - (Kurt Vonnegut) - Dwayne Hoover, a Midwestern automobile salesman, with a troubled marriage, meets Vonnegut's famous character, the hack writer, Kilgore Trout, on the eve of Trout's receiving the Nobel Prize. Filmed in 1998 with Bruce Willis, this is another of Vonnegut's savage satires of middle American values and their racketeering.  Breakfast of Champions is vintage Vonnegut. One of his favorite characters, aging writer Kilgore Trout, finds to his horror that a Midwest car dealer is taking his fiction as truth. The result is murderously funny satire as Vonnegut looks at war, sex, racism, success, politics, and pollution in America and reminds us how to see the truth.  


Carolyn:  Much too disjointed for a mind interrupted by personal thoughts, sugar-overload and hormonal flips.  Great insight in 1973 - less insightful 30 years later. 

Colored dot icon.Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War 1941-1945 - (Leo Marks) - In 1942, Leo Marks left his father's famous bookshop, 84 Charing Cross Road, and went off to fight the war. He was twenty-two. Soon recognized as a cryptographer of genius, he became head of communications at the Special Operations Executive (SOE), where he revolutionized the codemaking techniques of the Allies and trained some of the most famous agents dropped into occupied Europe, including "the White Rabbit" and Violette Szabo. As a top codemaker, Marks had a unique perspective on one of the most fascinating and, until now, little-known aspects of the Second World War. Writing with the narrative flair and vivid characterization of his famous screenplays, Marks gives free rein to his keen sense of the absurd and his wry wit, resulting in a thrilling and poignant memoir that celebrates individual courage and endeavor, without losing sight of the human cost and horror of war.


Carolyn:  This became a page-turner after the first clutch of chapters.  I spent my days wondering how it was going for Leo Marks.  He lived in my head.  This is as much a book about surviving bureaucracy as it is about war.  A rule-breaker who survived because his god-given skills were indispensable.  And sardonic... - as he tells it, his mother's black market goodies seem to get much of the credit for his success.  His single-minded determination to invent the most secure codes for agents dropped behind enemy lines had him bucking every military bureaucrat and breaking all the rules - and getting away with it.  Most disturbing: the story he tells of how the war office treated convincing evidence of the true situation in Holland - his belief that almost all our agents were captured (over years) and that it was really German agents on the end of the wireless to whom the War Office was feeding intelligence.  To this day, the truth remains secret.  It's a wonder we won the war. Leo Marks became a screenwriter.  Not only is this an incredible story - it is beautifully written.  Jump to the NYT ReviewBiography2nd review.

Colored dot icon.And Still We Rise - (Miles Corwin) - Author and journalist Miles Corwin spent an entire school year with a remarkable group of individuals: the students in the senior Advanced Placement English class at Crenshaw High School—young ghetto scholars who have managed to excel despite living in the hostile world of South Central Los Angeles. This book is a moving chronicle of their courage, achievements, strength, and resilient spirit—their personal crises, setbacks, catastrophes, and triumphs—over an unforgettable 10 month period. It is a fascinating visit to the dynamic, electrically charged classroom of Toni Little, an inspiring but volatile and wildly unpredictable white educator determined to imbue her minority students with a passion for great literature. Corwin also spent the year with Anita "Mama" Moultrie, a flamboyant black teacher whose Afrocentric teaching style was diametrically opposed to Little's traditional approach. The exceptional students provide a ground-zero perspective on the affirmative action debate and will remain with the readers long after they finish the book.


Carolyn:  Too real for school. I recognize these teachers and some of the students.  Interesting that this seems to have been picked up as conservative reading, as if only the gifted and talented are worth saving.  Despite the detritus floating everywhere, this school is a place where kids can find encouragement. Many are raising themselves following a chaotic and violent home life.  There just isn't enough of a safety net for the ones truly out on their own.  The book is most damning of the foster care system.  All these students cry out for the kind of therapy only Olivia got once she was in lockup.  A calm place to live and therapy - that's where I would put resources.  


The book ends with an epilogue two years after graduation.   Looking back at the ones who were still in college: they all had at least one parent (or brother) who was a source of support, some of them, despite the worst of living conditions (Sadi, Venola, Miesha, Claudia, Curt, Willie, Naila, Danielle, Princess).  With the exception of Olivia, all the rest who didn't make it through two straight years of college had two things in common:  violence in their childhoods and only themselves to rely on.  (Toya, Sabreen, Latisha).  These are the ones your heart aches most for.  I hope they find their way back to their dreams.  It confirms my belief that violence and abuse at a young age is the most difficult to overcome.  The cliché is that most children in neighborhoods like South-Central have violent and abusive childhoods.  In fact, most are more like the rest of us - only exhausted and dragged by the realities of poverty.


Olivia is the exception.  She had the most violent of childhoods and was living on her own, yet managed to attend the college of her choice.  In many ways her story drives this book.  Her survival mode: defiant arrogance and working all the angles, plus extraordinary intelligence.  I think being locked up saved her life.  It finally got her attention and allowed her to get therapy.  According to Venola, who ran into her in 2000, Olivia did attend Babson, her dream school.


There didn't seem to be a safety net for the teachers, either: one teacher clearly one foot over the edge, another decked by a student and the system takes the student's word above the teacher's.  It isn't the best teaching or administration that gets rewarded.   In the end, reward goes to those who can survive.  


Corwin's bottom line for this book is affirmative action. In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Corwin says he agrees affirmative action is imperfect, but that it's the right thing to do.  The kids may have been given an edge, but many of their classmates have been given an edge their whole lives.  In 2003 the Supreme Court ruled that minority students may be given an edge when applying for admissions to universities, but limited how much of a factor race can play in selection of students.   They struck down U of Michigan undergraduate point system, but upheld the U of Michigan Law School system based on achieving a critical mass of minorities.  If our country can successfully figure this out, there may be hope for us yet. 

Jump to summary of school and students.   Jump to the NYT ReviewJump to LA Weekly review.   Jump to Venola's Colby profileJump to Venola's CSM article.   See Scott BraxtonJump to Christian Science Monitor reviewJump to Book Magazine review.


Founding Mothers - (Cokie Roberts) - While the "fathers" were off founding the country, what were the women doing? Running their husband’s businesses, raising their children plus providing political information and advice. At least that’s what Abigail Adams did for John, starting when he went off to the Continental Congress, which eventually declared the independence of the American colonies from the British. While the men were writing the rebellious words, the women were living the revolution, with the Redcoats on their doorsteps. John’s advice to Abigail as the soldiers approached Braintree: if necessary "fly to the woods with our children." That was it, she was on her own, as she was for most of the next ten years while Adams represented the newly independent nation abroad. Abigail Adams is the best known of the women who influenced the founders, but there are many more, starting with Martha Washington, who once referred to herself as a “prisoner of state” for the constraints placed on her as the first First Lady. She was the one charged with balancing the demands of a Republic of the "common man" on the one hand, while insisting on some modicum of courtliness and protocol so that the former colonies would be taken seriously by Europe. She also took political heat in the press from the president’s political opponents when he was too popular to criticize. And there are women like Esther Reed, married to the president of Pennsylvania, who, with Benjamin Franklin’s daughter Sarah Bache, organized a drive to raise money for Washington’s troops at Valley Forge. In 1780 the women raised more than three hundred thousand dollars. Reed wrote a famous patriotic broadside titled The Sentiments of an American Woman, calling on women to wear simpler clothing and hairstyles in order to save money to contribute to the cause. It worked! The women who ran the boarding houses of Philadelphia where the men stayed while writing the now sacred documents of America had their quite considerable say about the affairs of state as well. This will be the story of some of those women, as learned through their seldom seen letters and diaries, and the letters from the men to them. It will be a story of the beginnings of the nation as viewed from the distaff side.


Carolyn:  In just the first few chapters I learned things about the reality of the Revolutionary War I haven't picked up in decades of interest in reading biographies of the founding fathers.  Women's writing shares more about feelings and daily life.  At Lexington and Concord, families took to the woods to hide for days among the trees - with just the clothes on their backs.   Jump to the NYT ReviewSecond review. 

The Rule of Four - (Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomanson) - "Princeton. Good Friday, 1999. On the eve of graduation, two students are a hairsbreadth from solving the mysteries of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a Renaissance text that has baffled scholars for centuries. Famous for its hypnotic power over those who study it, the five-hundred-year-old Hypnerotomachia may finally reveal its secrets - to Tom Sullivan, whose father was obsessed with the book, and Paul Harris, whose future depends on it. As the deadline looms, research has stalled - until an ancient diary surfaces. What Tom and Paul discover inside shocks even them: proof that the location of a hidden crypt has been ciphered within the pages of the obscure Renaissance text." Armed with this final clue, the two friends delve into the bizarre world of the Hypnerotomachia - a world of forgotten erudition, strange sexual appetites, and terrible violence. But just as they begin to realize the magnitude of their discovery, Princeton's snowy campus is rocked: a longtime student of the book is murdered, shot dead in the hushed halls of the history department.


Carolyn:  Pretty predictable, amateur writing.  Some interesting, suspenseful bits.  Not the interest that had been recommended.   Jump to the NYT ReviewSecond review. 

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim - (David Sedaris) - "My writing is just a desperate attempt to get laughs. If you get anything else out of it, it's an accident," claims author and playwright Sedaris. That may be, but one can't help but notice that this collection of essays about his childhood, his first major collection in four years, features a "kinder, gentler" Sedaris ("The End of the Affair" is an especially touching tribute to his partner Hugh). But make no mistake; Sedaris is still the master of the well-delivered scathing punch line-even if it is directed at himself. Fans of his previous work will find that this collection contains much of the snappy (and sometimes snippy) writing that has become his trademark. He is particularly skilled at creating grossly unflattering yet affectionate portraits of family members, as when Sedaris's brother presses the rewind button during the video of his daughter's first bowel movement. With Me Talk Pretty optioned for film treatment, Sedaris's star will only continue to rise. And he will undoubtedly have something both poignant and side-splitting to say about that as well. Highly recommended. [Library Journal].


Carolyn:  Comment pending   Jump to the NYT ReviewSecond review. 

Colored dot icon. The Kite Runner - (Khaled Hosseini) - An epic tale of fathers and sons, of friendship and betrayal, that takes us from the final days of Afghanistan’s monarchy to the atrocities of the present. The unforgettable, heartbreaking story of the unlikely friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father’s servant, The Kite Runner is a beautifully crafted novel set in a country in the process of being destroyed. It is about the power of reading, the price of betrayal, and the possibility of redemption. And it is also about the power of fathers over sons -- their love, their sacrifices, their lies. The first Afghan novel to be written in English, The Kite Runner tells a sweeping story of family, love, and friendship against a backdrop of history that has not been told in fiction before, bringing to mind the large canvasses of the Russian writers of the nineteenth century. But just as it is old-fashioned in its narration, it is contemporary in its subject -- the devastating history of Afghanistan over the past thirty years. As emotionally gripping as it is tender, The Kite Runner is an unusual and powerful debut. Author Biography: Khaled Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, the son of a diplomat whose family received political asylum in the United States in 1980. He lives in northern California, where he is a physician. The Kite Runner is his first novel.


Carolyn:  Couldn't put this book down - almost 400 pages in three days.  It is not so much a novel as a full-length parable.  This is a powerful portrayal of Amir, our central character, and Hassan, Amir's boyhood companion/servant/blood brother and 'Baba', Amir's father who clearly prefers Hassan to his own son.   Like many parables, this book has pure good and pure evil where the sins of the fathers are visited on the sons.  God as mentor is played by Baba's best friend, Rahim Khan - always loving and nurturing, influencing Amir with a light touch behind the scenes - but always providing him free choice.  Khan knows all, understands all.  Hassan,  is Christ-like; pure good, genuinely pious, always forgiving and humble.  Aching jealousy consumes Amir, in the face of his father's preference for Hassan, the son of Baba's old servant.  Hassan sacrifices himself for love of his friend even after Amir has betrayed him.  Assef is the abusive bully turned Satin. 

Afghanistan goes from civilized independence to Russian occupation to oppressive rule by the  Taliban  in just 8 years.  This period begins in 1981 when Amir and his dad become expatriates, first in Pakistan, then rapidly fleeing to the US for safety during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan.  America is "one last gift for Amir", a place with "no ghosts, no memories, and no sins."  1989 was the year the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan.  It was also the year the Berlin Wall came down and the year of Tiananmen Square.  And it's also the year Amir begins to plan a family with his bride Soraya.  Soraya tells her most shameful secret to Amir, who envies her.  She has the great relief of a clean slate. 

One of the more interesting facets of the book is Hassan's changing social status and growth as his homeland careens from colonial pre-war Afghanistan through the chaos of the Russian invasion, and finally, fatally to the rule of the Taliban.    Hazara is the pejorative term for the Shi'a in Sunni-dominated Afghanistan.  Hassan is devout Shi'a - a despised minority.  As such, the talented Hassan can not be educated or rise above servant in colonial Afghanistan.  He is like so many servants in the South, beloved by the family, but nonetheless, kept firmly in place.  But during the freedom of the chaos created by war with the Russians, Hassan moves to a community of peers, finds education for himself, marries his true love and raises a sensitive, talented son of his own. He has the leeway to become the man he was meant to be.  By the time the Taliban take power, Hassan is left dreaming that someday kites will fly again in the skies of the Kabul of his youth.  At the aging Rahim Khan's request, once again Hassan sacrifices himself -  this time protecting Amir's family homestead from racist, greedy Taliban.  


The civilized Kabul of Amir's boyhood echos Sarajevo before the Balkans exploded in a like racist clash of neighbor against neighbor.   We can't believe how rapidly the veneer of civilization can disappear when bigotry is allowed to tip towards power.  These periods leave just enough space for the power-hungry abusers to dehumanize us.  Read this book for the perspective, read it for the modern history, read it for the heart-rending relationships.  It spoke to me.  I loved it, clichéd flaws and all.   Jump to the NYT ReviewInterview with the Author.  Interview.

Colored dot icon. The Known World - (Edward P. Jones) - Henry Townsend, a black farmer, bootmaker, and former slave, has a fondness for Paradise Lost and an unusual mentor - William Robbins, perhaps the most powerful man in antebellum Virginia's Manchester County. Under Robbins's tutelage, Henry becomes proprietor of his own plantation - as well as of his own slaves. When he dies, his widow, Caldonia, succumbs to profound grief, and things begin to fall apart at their plantation: slaves take to escaping under the cover of night, and families who had once found love beneath the weight of slavery begin to betray one another. Beyond the Townsend estate, the known world also unravels: low-paid white patrollers stand watch as slave "speculators" sell free black people into slavery, and rumors of slave rebellions set white families against slaves who have served them for years. An ambitious, luminously written novel that ranges seamlessly between the past and future and back again to the present, The Known World weaves together the lives of freed and enslaved blacks, whites, and Indians - and allows all of us a deeper understanding of the enduring multidimensional world created by the institution of slavery.


Carolyn:  This one pulls you in to a much more complex world of slavery than ever presented.     Pulitzer.  Jump to the NYT Review.  Second Review.  Article.

Life of Pi - (Yann Martel) - Growing up in Pondicherry, India, Piscine Molitor Patel -- known as Pi -- has a rich life. Bookish by nature, young Pi acquires a broad knowledge of not only the great religious texts but of all literature, and has a great curiosity about how the world works. His family runs the local zoo, and he spends many of his days among goats, hippos, swans, and bears, developing his own theories about the nature of animals and how human nature conforms to it. Pi’s family life is quite happy, even though his brother picks on him and his parents aren’t quite sure how to accept his decision to simultaneously embrace and practise three religions -- Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam. But despite the lush and nurturing variety of Pi’s world, there are broad political changes afoot in India, and when Pi is sixteen his parents decide that the family needs to escape to a better life. Choosing to move to Canada, they close the zoo, pack their belongings, and board a Japanese cargo ship called the Tsimtsum. Travelling with them are many of their animals, bound for zoos in North America. However, they have only just begun their journey when the ship sinks, taking the dreams of the Patel family down with it. Only Pi survives, cast adrift in a lifeboat with the unlikeliest oftravelling companions: a zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena, and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Thus begins Pi Patel’s epic, 227-day voyage across the Pacific, and the powerful story of faith and survival at the heart of Life of Pi. Worn and scared, oscillating between hope and despair, Pi is witness to the playing out of the food chain, quite aware of his new position within it. When only the tiger is left of the seafaring menagerie, Pi realizes that his survival depends on his ability to assert his own will, and sets upon a grand and ordered scheme to keep from being Richard Parker’s next meal. As the days pass, Pi fights both boredom and terror by throwing himself into the practical details of surviving on the open sea -- catching fish, collecting rain water, protecting himself from the sun -- all the while ensuring that the tiger is also kept alive, and knows that Pi is the key to his survival. The castaways face gruelling pain in their brushes with starvation, illness, and the storms that lash the small boat, but there is also the solace of beauty: the rainbow hues of a dorado’s death-throes, the peaceful eye of a looming whale, the shimmering blues of the ocean’s swells. Hope is fleeting, however, and despite adapting his religious practices to his daily routine, Pi feels the constant, pressing weight of despair. It is during the most hopeless and gruelling days of his voyage that Pi whittles to the core of his beliefs, casts off his own assumptions, and faces his underlying terrors head-on.


Carolyn:  One hundred pages in, I can't connect with Life of Pi.   Never finished it. Jump to the NYT Review.  

Colored dot icon. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay - (Michael Chabon) - It is New York City in 1939. Joe Kavalier, a young artist who has also been trained in the art of Houdiniesque escape, has just pulled off his greatest feat to date: smuggling himself out of Nazi-occupied Prague. He is looking to make big money, fast, so that he can bring his family to freedom. His cousin, Brooklyn's own Sammy Clay, is looking for a collaborator to create the heroes, stories, and art for the latest novelty to hit the American dreamscape: the comic book. Out of their fantasies, fears, and dreams, Joe and Sammy weave the legend of that unforgettable champion the Escapist. And inspired by the beautiful and elusive Rosa Saks, a woman who will be linked to both men by powerful ties of desire, love, and shame, they create the otherworldly mistress of the night, Luna Moth. As the shadow of Hitler falls across Europe and the world, the Golden Age of comic books has begun.


Carolyn:  A genuine page-turner.  Great writing - great characters - great plot.  The nearly 700 pages are a little much, but easy to skim over the bits of less interest, if you're not a die-hard comics aficionado.  The circuit of Joe Kavalier's  life drives the lives of all the other characters.  He's a master escapist who ultimately teaches his loved ones how not to have to escape anymore.  This is a real New York book  Jump to the NYT Arts and Culture Review. Jump to the NYT ReviewInterview with the author for purchase

Colored dot icon. Mountains Beyond Mountains - (Tracy Kidder) - When a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner stumbles upon a crusading Harvard physician and medical anthropologist battling TB and crushing poverty in Haiti ("the most disease-ridden country in the hemisphere"), the result is nothing short of a defining moment in publishing. For his first foray into biography, Tracy Kidder, a master of the nonfiction narrative (Hometown, Old Friends, Among Schoolchildren, House, The Soul of a New Machine), applies his journalistic expertise and gentle storytelling skills to the life of Dr. Paul Farmer, an infectious-disease expert who's made the world's poorest and sickest his life work. Kidder weaves a tale that is full of drama, hope, and triumph, as he accompanies the pale, skinny, disheveled doctor from the mud huts of rural Haiti and the slums of Peru to Siberia's prisons, where drug-resistant strains of TB thrive. Writing in the first person but only occasionally interjecting himself into the story, the author recounts Farmer's unconventional childhood and describes his grueling travel schedule on behalf of his nonprofit organization, Partners in Health, and his saintly devotion to his cause. More than a biography of Dr. Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains is a chilling head-on look at global public health care. Trite as it sounds, this is a book that has the power to change everyone who reads it. Sallie Brady, Barnes and Noble review.   Jump to the New York Times Review.   Second Review.


Carolyn:  Farmer isn't possible, and if he is, if he can do the impossible, then the burden is ever greater on the rest of us for not trying more.   

Colored dot icon. Three Junes - (Julia Glass) - Three Junes is a vividly textured symphonic novel set on both sides of the Atlantic during three fateful summers in the lives of a Scottish family. In June of 1989, Paul McLeod, the recently widowed patriarch, becomes infatuated with a young American artist while traveling through Greece and is compelled to relive the secret sorrows of his marriage. Six years later, Paul's death reunites his sons at Tealing, their idyllic childhood home, where Fenno, the eldest, faces a choice that puts him at the center of his family's future. A lovable, slightly repressed gay man, Fenno leads the life of an aloof expatriate in the West Village, running a shop filled with books and birdwatching gear. He believes himself safe from all emotional entanglements--until a worldly neighbor presents him with an extraordinary gift and a seductive photographer makes him an unwitting subject. Each man draws Fenno into territories of the heart he has never braved before, leading him toward an almost unbearable loss that will reveal to him the nature of love. Love in its limitless forms--between husband and wife, between lovers, between people and animals, between parents and children--is the force that moves these characters' lives, which collide again, in yet another June, over a Long Island dinner table. This time it is Fenno who meets and captivates Fern, the same woman who captivated his father in Greece ten years before. Now pregnant with a son of her own, Fern, like Fenno and Paul before him, must make peace with her past to embrace her future. Elegantly detailed yet full of emotional suspense, often as comic as it is sad, Three Junes is a glorious triptych about how we learn to live, and live fully, beyond incurable grief and betrayals of the heart--how family ties, both those we're born into and those we make, can offer us redemption and joy.  Jump to the New York Times Review.


Carolyn:  Julia Glass's first novel.  It seems a standard enough tale, but Julia Glass draws you in and makes you care about the lives of her characters.  A parable.  A roadmap.  Poignant, personal, achievable, hopeful.  We need more hope.  National Book Award. 

The Stone Diaries - (Carol Shields) - Canadian writer Shields's novels and short stories ( Swann ; The Republic of Love , etc.) are intensely imagined, humanely generous, beautifully sustained and impeccably detailed. Despite rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, she has yet to achieve an audience here; one hopes this latest effort, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, will be her breakthrough. It is at once a playful sendup of the art of biography and a serious exploration of the essential mystery of human lives; the gist of this many-faceted story is that all biographies are only versions of the facts. Shields follows her heroine, Daisy Goodwill Hoad Flett, from her birth--and her mother's death--on the kitchen floor of a stonemason's cottage in a small quarry town in Manitoba through childhood in Winnipeg, adolescence and young womanhood in Bloomington, Ind. (another quarry town), two marriages, motherhood, widowhood, a brief, exhilarating career in Ottawa--and eventually to old age and death in Florida. Stone is the unifying image here: it affects the geography of Daisy's life, and ultimately her vision of herself. Wittily, ironically, touchingly, Shields gives us Daisy's version of her life and contrasting interpretations of events from her friends, children and extended family. (She even provides ostensible photographs of Daisy's family and friends.) Shields's prose is succint, clear and graceful, and she is wizardly with description, summarizing appearance, disposition and inner lives with elegant imagery. Secondary characters are equally compelling, especially Daisy's obese, phlegmatic mother; her meek, obsessive father, who transforms himself into an overbearing executive; her adoptive mother, her stubborn father-in-law. 


Carolyn:  Interesting to see Shields' notion of a woman's life - from inception to her legacy through her descendants, and all the people who make up the fabric of her long life.  Loved her best friends - often - each with different perspectives of each other.  How she takes in her dead husband's pregnant niece.  Especially how she is devastated when her achievement of creating a notable  garden column is snatched from her by the weasel with the full-time job (ever the part-time woman's lot).    Most poignant is how her depressive reaction is discussed by all - each with their own interpretation.  No matter how wonderful the writing, Daisy and her family remained outsiders to me. 

Colored dot icon. Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women - (Geraldine Brooks) - Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women is the story of Brook's intrepid journey toward an understanding of the women behind the veils, and of the often contradictory political, religious, and cultural forces that shape their lives. In fundamentalist Iran, Brooks finagles an invitation to tea with the ayatollah's widow - and discovers that Mrs. Khomeini dyes her hair. In Saudi Arabia, she eludes the severe segregation of the sexes and attends a bacchanal, laying bare the hypocrisy of this austere, male-dominated society. In war-torn Ethiopia, she watches as a female gynecologist repairs women who have undergone genital mutilation justified by a distorted interpretation of Islam. In villages and capitals throughout the Middle East, she finds that a feminism of sorts has flowered under the forbidding shroud of the chador as she makes other startling discoveries that defy our stereotypes about the Muslim world. Nine Parts of Desire is much more than a captivating work of firsthand reportage; it is also an acute analysis of the world's fastest-growing religion, deftly illustrating how Islam's holiest texts have been misused to justify the repression of women. It was, after all, the Shiite leader Ali who proclaimed that "God created sexual desire in ten parts, then gave nine parts to women." Jump to a review of:  Geraldine Brooks: YEAR OF WONDERS: A NOVEL OF THE PLAGUE


Carolyn:  It's almost 10 years old, but Nine Parts of Desire is still the best overview of women's treatment in various Muslim countries.  Excellent background on the history of the various sects and range of fundamentalism middle eastern countries.  Loved every page.

Middlemarch - (George Eliot aka Mary Anne Evans) - Strangled by the confining terms of her late husband's will, an idealistic young woman throws herself into the struggle for medical reforms advocated by a visionary doctor. Considered by many to be Eliot's finest work and one of the best novels in English ever written. Jump to a review of:  GEORGE ELIOT: The Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes.


Carolyn:  With sentences the size of paragraphs, my summer brain just couldn't handle the work.  When full attention was applied, Elliot cuts sharper than Austen in satirically describing  her mid-eighteenth century characters that make up the community inhabited by the Brooke girls. 

Middlesex - (Jeffrey Eugenides) - In the spring of 1974, Calliope Stephanides finds herself drawn to a classmate at her girls' school in Grosse Point, Michigan. That passion -- along with her failure to develop -- leads Callie to suspect that she is not like other girls. The explanation for this is a rare genetic mutation -- and a guilty secret -- that have followed Callie's grandparents from the crumbling Ottoman Empire to Prohibition-era Detroit and beyond, outlasting the glory days of the Motor City, the race riots of 1967, and the family's second migration, into the foreign country known as suburbia. Thanks to the gene, Callie is part girl, part boy. And even though the gene's epic travels have ended, her own odyssey has only begun.   Jump to the New York Times Review. 


Carolyn:  This is two books in one - the history of one family of Greek immigrants to America - settled finally in Detroit, and the personal saga of the youngest of the family, Calliope, raised as a girl, but discovered to be genetically male at the age of 14.  It's an interesting device, a paragraph at the beginning of each chapter is the running tale of this child, Cal in full adulthood - at the age of 41.  The Greek immigrant tale is the fully developed side.


A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance - (Jane Juska) - “Round-heeled” is an old-fashioned label for a woman who is promiscuous—someone who nowadays might be called “easy.” It’s a surprising way for a cultured English teacher with a passion for the novels of Anthony Trollope to describe herself, but then that’s just the first of many surprises to be found in this poignant, funny, utterly unique memoir. Jane Juska is a smart, energetic divorcée who decided she’d been celibate too long, and placed the following personal ad in her favorite newspaper, The New York Review of Books: Before I turn 67—next March—I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me. This closing reference was a nod to her favorite author, of course. The response was overwhelming, and Juska took a sabbatical from teaching to meet some of the men who had replied. And since her ad made it clear that she wasn’t expecting just hand-holding, her dates zipped from first base to home plate in record time. Juska is a totally engaging, perceptive writer, funny and frank about her exploits. It’s high time someone revealed the fact that older single people are as eager for sex and intimacy as their younger counterparts. Jane Juska’s brave, honest memoir will probably raise eyebrows and blood pressure, but it will undoubtedly appeal to the very large audience of grown-up readers who will be fascinated and inspired by her daring adventure. Jump to the NYT article.


Carolyn:  Wow!.  This is guts no amount of therapy would uncover in me.  But don't be fooled, in between the juicy bits, most of the content of the book is Juska's life commentary on literature and what it means to her and those she has touched.  It seems an honest rendition of her life - from a certain, and unusual perspective.  Food for thought.

The Devil in the White City - (Erik Larson) - "Two men, each handsome and unusually adept at his chosen work, embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized America's rush toward the twentieth century. The architect was Daniel Hudson Burnham, the fair's brilliant director of works and the builder of many of the country's most important structures, including the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C. The murderer was Henry H. Holmes, a young doctor who, in a malign parody of the White City, built his "World's Fair Hotel" just west of the fairgrounds - a torture palace complete with dissection table, gas chamber, and 3,000-degree crematorium. Burnham overcame tremendous obstacles and tragedies as he organized the talents of Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles McKim, Louis Sullivan, and others to transform swampy Jackson Park into the White City, while Holmes used the attraction of the great fair and his own satanic charms to lure scores of young women to their deaths. What makes the story all the more chilling is that Holmes really lived, walking the grounds of that dream city by the lake." The Devil in the White City draws the reader into a time of magic and majesty, made all the more appealing by a supporting cast of real-life characters, including Buffalo Bill, Theodore Dreiser, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and others. In this book the smoke, romance, and mystery of the Gilded Age come alive as never before.   Jump to the New York Times Review.  


Carolyn:  Half this book sets the stage for it's heart-stopping build, careening towards the end.  You have to get through the interesting set-up to reach the pay-off at the end.  Most fascinating for me was the description of recession in 1893, ignored for awhile during the magic of the fair and exacerbated at it's close.  The descriptions of the now-closed magnificent dream-city crumbling and occupied by the homeless touched me.  Understandable, Burnham's view of its fitting ending in a fireball of cinders to preserve it's mighty memory.

Colored dot icon. Morality for Beautiful Girls - (Alexander McCall Smith) - In Morality for Beautiful Girls, Ramotswe tangles with a feral child, the finalists in a beauty pageant and a suspicious cook.   Jump to the New York Times Review.  


Carolyn:  Another fast read.  McCall Smith focuses on Mma Ramotswe's discovery that her fiancé has depression.  Her skillful manner of sliding solutions on the right path is skillful and fascinating to American sensibility - where we are taught to address everything head-on.  Yes, there is much to learn from these seemingly simple books.  Her assistant, 28 year old Mma Makutsi, proves to be a surprisingly talented manager of the auto shop in Mr. Matekoni's absence.  All problems are satisfyingly solved in McCall Smith's world- so tempting for those of us requiring a little book-candy.


Iron and Silk - (Mark Salzman) - Salzman captures post-cultural revolution China through his adventures as a young American English teacher in China and his shifu-tudi (master-student) relationship with China's foremost martial arts teacher.


Carolyn:  "There's a regulation."  This book was written in 1986 - a world away from the China I visited in 2004.  Read as I was on a 14 hour, non-stop flight to Beijing, I laughed as I saw a hotel rent-a cop, refusing our motor coach access to the back entrance of our luxury hotel.  Our diminutive female tour-guide jumps out for the confrontation - which always came in China - each touting the credentials of their authority over even the smallest of activities. There is still a regulation, but most of them are designed to propel China on the fast-track to world economic domination.  The tour guide trumped the rent-a-cop, each impacably dressed to indicate maximum authority.  

I loved this fast-read, written in 1986.  Most notably, the 9 year old runaway we meet - bound for Hong Kong.  This kid's basic nature bucks everything conformist Chinese society requires.  All the young Chinese disapprove of him - he needs re-education.  One older educator's assessment: "He has imagination".   China has everything it needs to takeover the world - imagination seems to be only an impediment.

Madame Secretary: A Memoir - (Madeline Albright) - "It was a quarter to ten. I was sipping coffee, but by then my body was manufacturing its own caffeine. I still couldn't allow myself to believe. Finally, at 9:47, the call came. 'I want you to be my Secretary of State.' These are his first words. I finally believed it." For eight years, during Bill Clinton's two presidential terms, Madeleine Albright was an active participant in the most dramatic events of recent times—from the pursuit of peace in the Middle East to NATO's humanitarian intervention in Kosovo. Now, in an outspoken memoir, the highest-ranking woman in American history shares her remarkable story and provides an insider's view of world affairs during a period of unprecedented turbulence. 

The story begins with Albright's childhood as a Czechoslovak refugee, whose family first fled Hitler, then the Communists. Arriving in the United States at the age of eleven, she grew up to be a passionate advocate of civil and women's rights and followed a zigzag path to a career that ultimately placed her in the upper stratosphere of diplomacy and policy-making in her adopted country. She became the first woman to serve as America's secretary of state and one of the most admired individuals of our era. Refreshingly candid, Madam Secretary brings to life the world leaders Albright dealt with face-to-face in her years of service and the battles she fought to prove her worth in a male-dominated arena. There are intriguing portraits of such leading figures as Vaclav Havel, Yasser Arafat, Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu, King Hussein, Vladimir Putin, Slobodan Milosevic, and North Korea's mysterious Kim Jong-Il, as well as Bill and Hillary Clinton, Colin Powell, and Jesse Helms. Besides her encounters with the famous and powerful, we get to know Albright the private woman: her life raising three daughters, the painful breakup of her marriage to the scion of one of America's leading newspapers families, and the discovery late in life of her Jewish ancestry and that her grandparents had died in Nazi concentration camps.   Jump to the New York Times Review.    Jump to the New York Times Review #2


Carolyn:  Comment Pending.

Colored dot icon. The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home - (George Howe Colt) -  In this intimate and poignant history of a sprawling century-old summer house on Cape Cod, George Howe Colt reveals not just one family's fascinating story but a vanishing way of life. Faced with the sale of the treasured house where he had spent forty-two summers, Colt returned for one last August with his wife and young children. The Big House, the author's loving tribute to his one-of-a-kind family home, interweaves glimpses of that elegiac final visit with memories of earlier summers spent at the house and of the equally idiosyncratic people who lived there over the course of five generations. Built by Colt's great-grandfather one hundred years ago on a deserted Cape Cod peninsula, the house is a local landmark (neighboring children know it as the Ghost House): a four-story, eleven-bedroom jumble of gables, bays, sloped roofs, and dormers. The emotional home of the Colt family, the Big House has watched over five weddings, four divorces, and three deaths, along with countless anniversaries, birthday parties, nervous breakdowns, and love affairs. Beaten by wind and rain, insulated by seaweed, it is both romantic and run-down, a symbol of the faded glory of the Boston Brahmin aristocracy. With a mixture of amusement and affection, Colt traces the rise and fall of this tragicomic social class while memorably capturing the essence of summer's ephemeral pleasures: sailing, tennis, fishing, rainy-day reading. Time seems to stand still in a summer house, and for the Colts the Big House always seemed an unchanging place in a changing world. But summer draws to a close, and the family must eventually say good-bye.  Jump to the New York Times Review.  


Carolyn:  For me, two of the most striking vignettes of this family's saga seen through the window of their homestead: "Is there a history of mental illness in the family?...No.. and then I remembered my grandmother.  And my great-grandmother.   And my great-great uncle.  And an aunt.  And two cousins."  You would think mental illness in the family would be self-evident - but it isn't - not unless some thing outside yourself makes you stop and count.  The interesting thing: the women seemed to be able to get through it and resume normality.  


The other vignette: "A few years after that party, Mum learned that Dad had been unfaithful.  Indeed after she found out, she had driven to Wings Neck, knowing it would likely be the last time she'd ever see the Big House.  ...she eventually decided that if they could intersect again, she wanted to stay with him.  She told Dad her conditions: he must stop drinking, he must never see the woman again, and he must tell every member of the family what he had done.  (My mother had long believed that secrecy had only compounded the family's problems.)  ...My father agreed to my mother's conditions...he consented to enter couples therapy.  Slowly, painfully, they began to change...When Mum...returns from a poetry reading or a weeklong silent meditation, dad wants to hear all about it; when he returns from a football game or a lunch with a newly widowed friend, she wants to hear all about it....Mum and Dad didn't need us anymore, at least not in the intense, everyday way they once had.  They had each other.

So much is familiar - the pull of the seaside place - the family drawing card - the odd and strong family members, the third generation slide to middle-class, the attempts of solving the search to keep the property no one member can really afford anymore.  The disposition of the stuff collected down the generations.  Here it is recounted as a more civilized process - but I think it just seems so in the re-telling.  A very good and honest family history with a resolved and happy ending.  Cheers to George Howe Colt.

Colored dot icon. Tears of the Giraffe - (Alexander McCall Smith) -  From Publisher's Weekly: Alexander McCall Smith (The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency) offers the second .... installment of his dignified, humorous Botswanan series. In Tears of the Giraffe, PI Precious Ramotswe tracks a missing American man whose widowed mother appeals to Ramotswe; meanwhile, the imperturbable detective is endangered at home by her fiance's resentful maid. Jump to the New York Times Review. 


Carolyn:  I have a tender spot in my heart for Mma Precious Ramotswe and the recurring characters that fill her world.  To me these are like book candy - consumed non-stop until the last page.  Each reserved to be read when there is need for sweet.  

Incidents in the Rue Laugier - (Anita Brookner) - Anita Brookner tells of Maud Gonthier, a demure and serious young woman from Dijon, who is introduced to desire by the fascinating, rich David Tyler. They meet one summer at her aunt's comfortable country home; the innocent Maud falls instantly and passionately in love. She follows Tyler to Paris, and when he abruptly disappears, Maud is left with his friend Edward to pick up the pieces of her life.  Jump to the New York Times Review. 


Carolyn:  Audio.  Read by Lindsay Sandison.  Story out of the early 60's, but set in 1971.  Boy meets girl, girl bedded by boy's flashy fickle friend who dumps girl.  Girl gets pregnant.  Boy marries girl to save her honor.  Both live a life surrounded by misunderstandings and barriers, knowing they are a mismatch.  He loves her, she finds no chemistry with him, but settles because he is kind and she is content enough.  He suffers, wanting her to love him, knowing she is only content.  The narrator turns out to be the couple's only child, who has written this account to fill in an explanation of the meager evidence of her parent's life.  Mildly engaging, but not a grabber.

Colored dot icon. The Namesake - (Jhumpa Lahiri) -  In The Namesake, Lahiri enriches the themes that made her collection an international bestseller: the immigrant experience, the clash of cultures, the conflicts of assimilation, and, most poignantly, the tangled ties between generations. ... The Namesake takes the Ganguli family from their tradition-bound life in Calcutta through their fraught transformation into Americans. On the heels of their arranged marriage, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli settle together in Cambridge, Massachusetts. An engineer by training, Ashoke adapts far less warily than his wife, who resists all things American and pines for her family. When their son is born, the task of naming him betrays the vexed results of bringing old ways to the new world. Named for a Russian writer by his Indian parents in memory of a catastrophe years before, Gogol Ganguli knows only that he suffers the burden of his heritage as well as his odd, antic name. Lahiri brings great empathy to Gogol as he stumbles along a first-generation path strewn with conflicting loyalties, comic detours, and wrenching love affairs. With penetrating insight, she reveals not only the defining power of the names and expectations bestowed upon us by our parents, but also the means by which we slowly, sometimes painfully, come to define ourselves.   Jump to the New York Times Review.    Jump to the New York Times Review #2.  


Carolyn:  Stunningly poignant.  The last pages as clutching as the beginning is slow to build.  We pull meaning for our lives from many sources: what we are meant to be,  how we pull away  in search of self,  how loss and return come together at mid-life.  From time to time, Lahiri's chapters make a life jump for her characters that we are not yet ready to make for them.  It reminds us of moments in our own lives that we are not prepared for either.  But change sometimes comes willy-nilly, and life is put on a fast track while we try to adapt.  There is a  bitter-sweet agony of growing older and wiser - of growing into the unknown that is ourselves.  Lahiri's only miss is assuming that the immigrant experience is unique in this self-definition journey - it's only intensified.  A timeless, beautiful book.  I cried.

The Human Stain - (Philip Roth) -   Audio tape, read by Arliss Howard and Debra Winger.  It is 1998, the year in which America is whipped into a frenzy of prurience by the impeachment of a president, and in a small New England town, an aging classics professor, Coleman Silk, is forced to retire when his colleagues decree that he is a racist. The charge is a lie, but the real truth about Silk would have astonished even his most virulent accuser. Coleman Silk has a secret, one which has been kept for fifty years from his wife, his four children, his colleagues, and his friends, including the writer Nathan Zuckerman. It is Zuckerman who stumbles upon Silk's secret and sets out to reconstruct the unknown biography of this eminent, upright man, esteemed as an educator for nearly all his life, and to understand how this ingeniously contrived life came unraveled. And to understand also how Silk's astonishing private history is, in the words of The Wall Street Journal, "magnificently" interwoven with "the larger public history of modern America."   Jump to the New York Times Review.    Jump to the New York Times Review #2.  


We are all affected by our experiences.  The human stain isn't just a black man trying to pass - it isn't the stain of the color of his skin - it's the human condition - our world stains the child - every child.  The premise is so good, but there is so much about this book I railed against - was it just because it is a guy's book, or was there too much anti-liberal cheap trickery, designed to look cleaver?   


Two brothers: one is followed in too much minutia, the other a shadow, only alluded to in order to make the counter-point.  Coleman is born, lives a wonderful, protected, easy childhood, then suddenly flips 180 degrees over one racial epithet and an isolation experience at a Black college.  He decides to "pass".  Walt experiences the same childhood, but he becomes the angry Black man, isolating himself from Whites.  Where does Walt get his anger and Coleman his acquiescence?  The only explanation, offered off-hand, is innate personality differences between the two.    Black women are the only ones who seem to be able to live with themselves in a combined world - combined, except for the sons who make integration within the family impossible.  Coleman's sister who is a teacher, politely chastises the narrator for not being aware of  famous men of color who have achieved great things - all the while protesting that you shouldn't need a special month to teach people these things.    


Coleman rises to his potential in a lifetime of achievement - only to sustain a knock-out over political correctness at the end.  Can small-college politics really pull down a perfectly honorable man?  The book really seems to favor separate worlds.   - just when you begin to sympathize with the sadistic Vietnam vet, the author jerks you back.  Why the thread over the French professor?  Life makes her vindictive, too.  We had to understand all the players.  Why did the narrator go out on the iced-over lake - to push that guy in?  Only to become another one on his list to stalk?  I didn't care about the protagonist - He was a boxer - a guy thing.  It was the sports that raised him up - not his other abilities.   The lover who worked as a janitor and pretended to be illiterate could have re-connected with her real father - she didn't have to choose a life of poverty and hiding.  What is her life-choice trying to say?  -That degradation did that to her.  So much minutia is explored, but not the right minutia.  


This book has a huge theme.  It spotlights the dilemma of our century - it just doesn't offer any solutions.  In the end, it becomes a long book of loose ends, supremely frustrating.  

Colored dot icon. The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency - (Alexander McCall Smith) -   The No.1 Ladies´ Detective Agency, located in Gaborone, Botswana, consists of one woman, the engaging Precious Ramotswe. A cross between Kinsey Millhone and Miss Marple, this unlikely heroine specializes in missing husbands, wayward daughters, con men and imposters. When she sets out on the trail of a missing child she is tumbled headlong into some strange situations and not a little danger. Deftly interweaving tragedy and humor to create a memorable tale of human desires and foibles, the book is also an evocative portrait of a distant world. Jump to the New York Times Review. 


Carolyn:  Clever wisdom beguilingly practical and simple - because it comes from a women.  Nice African life, situations and settings.  I loved this book, and will probably read the entire series.  This is a book that isn't work - it's satisfying, and makes you smile.

Better Than Prozac: Creating the Next Generation of Psychiatric Drugs - (Samuel H. Barondes) -   Every day millions of people take psychiatric drugs. In Better Than Prozac Samuel Barondes considers the benefits and limitations of Prozac, Ritalin, Valium, Risperdal, and other widely used medications, and the ways that superior ones are being created. In tracing the early history of these drugs Barondes describes the accidental observations that led to their discovery, and their great impact on our view of mental illness. He goes on to show how their unexpected therapeutic effects were attributed to their influence on neurotransmitters that carry signals in the brain, and how this guided their improvement. But Barondes reminds us that, like the originals, current psychiatric drugs don't always work, and often have negative side effects. Furthermore, none were crafted as remedies for known brain abnormalities. In contrast, the design of the drugs of the future will be based on a different approach: an understanding of the molecular mechanisms that give rise to specific patterns of mental symptoms. Using colorful examples of contemporary research, he shows how it is gradually leading to a new generation of psychiatric medications. A lucid evaluation of psychopharmacology, Better Than Prozac offers a deep understanding of psychiatric drugs for people who take them, those who are considering them, and those who are just fascinated by the powerful effects of these simple chemicals on our thoughts and our feelings. 


Carolyn:  Deciding what to prescribe is as much art as it is science.  Someday we will all be routinely genetic-tested to customize our prescriptions.  We will do it to avoid becoming the rare bad reaction that ends up in the emergency room.  In the meantime it is cheaper for the drug companies to roll out variations of the same discoveries from decades before, better yet, capitalize off of drugs they have already developed for other purposes.  

Letters to a Young Therapist - (Mary Pipher) -   "Letters to a Young Therapist gives voice to Mary Pipher's practice with a mix of storytelling and sharp-eyed observation. Much of what she tells us is profound in its simplicity: "Good therapy helps people be kinder, calmer and more authentic. They become more awake, more tolerant and altruistic."" Mary Pipher takes a refreshingly inventive approach to therapy - fiercely optimistic, free of dogma or psychobabble, and laced with generous wisdom. In an increasingly stressful world, she offers "therapy for our times," showing us how to revitalize our emotional landscapes and get back to basics. Whether she's recommending daily swims for a sluggish teenager, encouraging a timid husband to become bolder, or simply bearing witness to a bereaved parent's sorrow, Pipher's warmth and insight shine from every page of this powerfully engaging guide to living a healthy life.  


Carolyn:  At 56, Mary Pipher has packaged everything she knows about surviving and celebrating life in one quick read.  For her, less is more.  The simple solution, the best.  Live your life on purpose.  It goes by very quickly.

Colored dot icon. A Mighty Heart - (Mariane Pearl) -   In A Mighty Heart, a courageous woman tells us the terrifying and unforgettable story of her husband's life and death. For five weeks the world watched and worried about Danny Pearl, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, kidnapped in Karachi, Pakistan. And then came the news of his shocking and brutal murder. Danny's reasons for being in Karachi, the complete story of his abduction, and the intense effort to find him are told here for the first time. Mariane and Danny Pearl were working in South Asia, as they had been elsewhere in the world, because they believed that good reporting is essential to our understanding of ethnic and religious conflict around the globe. They knew the risks inherent in the life they chose and took conscientious precautions. The courage of Danny and Mariane is extraordinary, yet we are dependent on brave journalists everywhere to produce news coverage that educates us. There are many mighty hearts in the Pearl story, many brave people who helped Mariane in her search for her abducted husband. We learn, through the urgent tracing of Danny's last movements, about the terrorists' methods, ideologies, and ruthless violence. As soon as Pearl was discovered missing, a global effort began to locate him and identify his captors - a race against the clock that spanned the dangerous fissures of culture and politics and language that separate Islamic terrorists and America.  Jump to the New York Times Review.


Carolyn:  Compelling.  Real.  Couldn't put it down.  A seemingly depressing topic, and yet uplifting and hopeful.  There's a life-message here.

Colored dot icon. The Fortress of Solitude - (Jonathan Lethem) -   This is the story of two boys, Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude. They are friends and neighbors, but because Dylan is white and Mingus is black, their friendship is not simple. This is the story of their Brooklyn neighborhood, which is almost exclusively black despite the first whispers of something that will become known as "gentrification." This is the story of 1970s America, a time when the most simple human decisions—what music you listen to, whether to speak to the kid in the seat next to you, whether to give up your lunch money—are laden with potential political, social and racial disaster. This is the story of 1990s America, when no one cared anymore. This is the story of punk, that easy white rebellion, and crack, that monstrous plague. This is the story of the loneliness of the avant-garde artist and the exuberance of the graffiti artist. This is the story of what would happen if two teenaged boys obsessed with comic book heroes actually had superpowers: They would screw up their lives. This is the story of joyous afternoons of stickball and dreaded years of schoolyard extortion. This is the story of belonging to a society that doesn't accept you. This is the story of prison and of college, of Brooklyn and Berkeley, of soul and rap, of murder and redemption. This is the story Jonathan Lethem was born to tell. This is The Fortress of Solitude.  Jump to the New York Times Review.


Carolyn:  Lethem's writing is so rich, each sentence must be read with care for fear of loosing multi-layered allusions plucked from decades past.  This is a book about a boy struggling to make sense of his unusual life as he grows to manhood.  Rachel is Dylan's mom, born and raised in Brooklyn.  She has moved her family to Dean Street - virtually next door to the projects.  The neighborhood is Gowanus, but Isabel Vendle, the neighborhood booster has renamed it Boerum Hill, more in keeping with it's potential as an upscale area.  Dylan remembers his mother as being "wild with information he couldn't yet use...  She was too full for the house, had to vent herself constantly into the telephone while Dylan worked Rachel's margins..."  Eventually she would "usher Dylan to the front door, point out the children playing on the sidewalk, insist that he join them."  The gang on the street featured kids one step up from the projects, playing a magical version of stickball with a newborn pink spaldeen.  


One day the Solver girls moved in - proof that the revitalization was working.  "The girls on wheels were the new thing, spotlit to start the show: white people were returning to Dean Street.  A few.   Dylan had to consider forever whether to grasp that he'd felt a yearning preference already then, that before years of seasons, the years of hours to come on the street, before Robert Woolfolk or Mingus Rude, before "Play  That Funky Music, White Boy" before Intermediate School 293 or anything else, he'd wished, against his mother's vision, for the Solver girls to sweep him away into an ecstasy of blondness and matching outfits, tightened laces, their wheels barely touching the slate, or only marking it with arrows pointing elsewhere, jet trails to escape."  The Solver girls moved away.  


When Rachel is quizzed on her decision to send Dylan to PS 38, she says, "I believe in public school."  In response to the usual protest, "He'll be with children who never learn", she responds, "It's a problem for him to solve, school.  I did it, so can he... Dylan is one of three white children in the whole school."  He is six, and the year is 1969.  Thirty years later, Dylan describes his school experience as being "pushed out like a blind finger, to probe a nonexistent space, a whiteboy integrating public schools which were just then being abandoned, which were becoming only rehearsals for prison."  

Dylan's journey to solve his life is entwined with his best boyhood friend: Mingus, and his boyhood taunter: Robert Woolfolk.  Mingus protects Dylan and Dean Street in ways no one ever recognized.  Even the bullies have stories, faces, and so engender sympathy.   Robert, the neighborhood bully gives Dylan a warning, and one free chance, "If  you come around here with that old lady's money next time I might have to take it off you." Just about Dylan's mother's last act before leaving is to intimidate Robert.  "Your mother kicked his ass, right out on Bergen Street.  He was crying and everything."  Ultimately, Mingus becomes savior to even Robert Woolfolk who can never seem to help himself.    

Fifth grade - Dylan's mom walks out on the family.  Dylan's oblivious dad, Abraham, spends his days upstairs, working every day on a piece of art that will never be finished - by design.  Dylan isn't just forced to solve school on his own - he has to solve his life on his own.  Rachel's middle space of hope became Dylan's daily yoking - a form of urban intimidation to shake you down for your lunch money. 

'Middle space' is Lethem's term for the most minute slice of hope when things are momentarily right against all odds of culture - a minimalist expectation of life.  "We all pined for those middle spaces, those summer hours when Josephine Baker lay waste to Paris...  A middle space opened and closed like a glance, you'd miss it if you blinked."   Rachael's middle space was built on faith in the commonality of humans - even poor ones.  Dylan calls it her mistake,  "so beautiful, so stupid, so American.  It terrified my small mind, it always had.  Abraham had the better idea, to try to carve the middle space on a daily basis, alone in his room."   - no wonder Dylan prizes his father's distance - his fortress of solitude - a way to cope.  


The women easily connect with others - orchestrate connections for others.  The men cope through solitude, and if they're lucky, find a woman to help them connect.  Abraham stumbles onto such a woman: Francesca who orchestrates everybody's life.  Dylan tries to connect with Abby, his middle-class black girlfriend.   She describes his obsession with black singers as, "a million whining moaning singers, ten million depressed songs, and five or six happy songs - which remind you of being beaten up when you were thirteen years old.  You live in the past, Dylan.  I'm sick of your secrets. What happened to you?  Your childhood is some privileged sanctuary you live in all the time, instead of here with me.  You think I don't know that? But I was never willing to be collected for my moods, man.  You collected my depression, you cultivated it like a cactus, like a sulky cat you wanted around to feel sorry for.  I never expected that. I never did."  But Dylan makes a mistake during their reconciliation phone conversation: he mentions he's had a revelation - the Four Tops stayed together -they were Jewish.  She sees it as the race card, again and hangs up on him.  Life is very delicate in Lethem's world.  Perhaps he'll find it with Katha - sturdy hips and a Drew Barrymore smile.  Katha who keeps an alcove bed just in case she can get her sister out of foster care.   Finding middle spaces is too rare for real satisfaction.   


 As the mother of a grown son influenced forever by his urban gentrifying upbringing, I'm still processing the middle space I provided in the lives of my family - the influences have been powerful - mostly positive.  Thirty years later - for us, a good decision. But who knows if my middle space will prove to be as nurturing for my son as it has been for me?  I can't stop thinking about this powerful work.

Looking for Spinoza; Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain - (Antonio Damasio) -   "Here, in a humane work of science, Damasio draws on his innovative research and on his experience with neurological patients to examine how feelings and the emotions that underlie them support the human spirit's greatest creations." Damasio's new book focuses on what feelings are and reveals the biology of our survival mechanisms. It rediscovers a thinker whose work prefigures modern neuroscience, not only in his emphasis on emotions and feelings, but also in his refusal to separate mind and body. Together, the scientist and the philosopher help us understand what we are made of and what we are here for. Based on laboratory investigations but mindful of society and culture, Looking for Spinoza offers unexpected grounds for optimism about the human condition and is a masterwork of science and writing.  Jump to the New York Times Review.


Carolyn:  Details of Spinoza's life and philosophy fascinating.  Want to know much more about him and his impact.  Everything else impossibly dense and obscure. 

Colored dot icon. The Piano Shop on the Left Bank - (Thad Carhart) -   Walking his two young children to school every morning, expatriate Thad Carhart passes an unassuming little storefront in his Paris neighborhood that seems to hide rather than advertise its wares. One day, intrigued by its simple sign--Desforges Pianos--and the arcane collection of repair tools in its curtained window, he enters, only to have his way barred by the atelier's imperious owner. But, unable to stifle his curiosity, he finally lands the proper introduction and the doors open to the quartier's most intriguing hangout. On Fridays the hidden back of the shop, crammed full of dismantled pianos, becomes an improbable cafe, where locals--from university professors to car mechanics--gather to discuss music, love, and life over a glass of wine.  Jump to the New York Times Review.


Carolyn:  This sweet book takes you roaming through Carhart's discovery of the real Paris and the rediscovery of his lost love of music. When he's finally admitted into the society of the piano shop, you are treated to the journey into a world known by only a very few.   To Luc, the shop's proprietor, pianos are living, breathing icons, representing both their creator's care and their nations'  persona.   Luc repairs and resells dozens of pianos a week.  A magnificent rosewood American Steinway, a harpsichord-shaped French Pleyel, a Gaveau with a lemonwood cabinet, a Charles X Erard, Beethoven's piano - a dusty hulk by Gotting and an Eavestaff, an English mini-piano are each in turn Luc's dream piano.   "You can never have too many dream pianos." Gradually, Luc lets Carhart into his world, and they become friends.


The quartier is filled with secret places, high, ceilinged and dusty with the ages. Carhart finds his daughter's music school through word of mouth.  The school began as a convent- a refuge for Stuart loyalists in the late 17th century - the body of James the II was interred there - it housed Benjamin Franklin, writing the pre-amble of the Constitution, it was a prison during the French Revolution, a cotton mill, a prep school and finally a private school for music, dance and theater.   In Paris, history is an infusion.


Carhart is casually looking for a tuck-away upright piano for his small French apartment when he first enters the atelier, but learns that finer grand pianos are a bargain in Paris because everyone is short on space.  He falls for a baby grand Stingl made in the 1930's in Vienna and he and his wife find the perfect corner for it.  We are introduced to a cast of characters surrounding Carhart's purchase of a piano: Jos, the drunken piano tuner, Miss Pemberton who took the joy out of playing for eight-year old Carhart, Anna and her German-made Bechstein , his teacher who reintroduces him to the pleasure of playing, Jean-Paul, neighbor and gifted accompanist, Paolo Fazioli, maker of contemporary pianos of perfection, and Mathilde, who becomes Luc's love.  In the process, you learn the intricacies of piano innards, the theory of music, playing techniques and something about people.  Luc's wisdom - never fully tighten anything on a piano, and above all - a piano needs to be played.  It is the living, breathing interaction of the parts that keep it fit.  Somehow, you feel it's true of other relationships - they need to be played to keep them fit.  

The Da Vinci Code - (Dan Brown) -   While in Paris on business, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon receives an urgent late-night phone call: the elderly curator of the Louvre has been murdered inside the museum. Near the body, police have found a baffling cipher. While working to solve the enigmatic riddle, Langdon is stunned to discover it leads to a trail of clues hidden in the works of Da Vinci -- clues visible for all to see -- yet ingeniously disguised by the painter. Langdon joins forces with a gifted French cryptologist, Sophie Neveu, and learns the late curator was involved in the Priory of Sion -- an actual secret society whose members included Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Da Vinci, among others. In a breathless race through Paris, London, and beyond, Langdon and Neveu match wits with a faceless powerbroker who seems to anticipate their every move. Unless Langdon and Neveu can deipher the labyrinthine puzzle in time, the Priory's ancient secret -- and an explosive hysterical truth -- will be lost forever.  Jump to the New York Times review.


Carolyn:  Fast and utterly compelling at the beginning - becomes more predictable toward the end.  It's a nice conjunction of  little-known history and scholarship wound around a mystery set in Paris and London.  

A Patriot's Handbook - (ED: Caroline Kennedy) -   Caroline Kennedy shares an inspiring collection of patriotic poems, song lyrics, historical documents, and speeches. The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was a blockbuster success, remaining on the New York Times bestseller list for 15 weeks with more than 500,000 copies in print. Now, Caroline Kennedy shares with readers an assortment of her own favorite American writings. The works collected here -- which span centuries and styles -- have one thing in common: all are emblematic of our country's patriotism and pride. Caroline Kennedy researched all of the selections included in A Patriot's Handbook, wrote the introduction, and added personal commentary to each section. This elegantly packaged collection is the perfect gift for anyone in search of a reminder of what our country's spirit is made of. "Over the past year we have all thought about what it means to be an American. I realized that I want my own children to know more about the ideals upon which this country was founded and the sacrifices that have been made to pass them on to us. This book is intended to help families explore the foundations of our freedom and to celebrate our heritage."(Caroline Kennedy)  Jump to the New York Times review.


Carolyn:  This is a keeper - a reference for all Americans. 

The Thief Lord - (Cornelia Funke) -  Prosper and Bo are orphans on the run from their cruel aunt and uncle. The brothers decide to hide out in Venice, where they meet a mysterious thirteen-year-old boy who calls himself the "Thief Lord." Brilliant and charismatic, the Thief Lord leads a ring of street children who dabble in petty crimes. Prosper and Bo delight in being part of this colorful new family. But the Thief Lord has secrets of his own. And soon the boys are thrust into circumstances that will lead them to a fantastic, spellbinding conclusion.


Carolyn:  A child's fantasy, where the impossible has a happy ending - perfect for vegging out on a return trip to Venice.

Colored dot icon. Why Is It Always About You - (Sandy Hotchkiss) -   If you pick up this book hoping to understand or deal with the narcissist(s) in your life, more than likely you'll walk away figuring you're one yourself. You know the old adage: "It takes one to know one." And guess what, after reading this book, you'll know even more about yourself! Sound narcissistic? According to Hotchkiss, we've all got a touch of that ancient Greek god in us, but some of us, unfortunately, might have an extra helping of some of the characteristics associated with narcissism -- egomania, greediness, insensitivity, etc., etc., etc. Well, now you can learn to keep those darned navel-gazers at bay with the tips and information in this guide. And, just for good measure, you might learn a thing or two about improving the way you relate to others. (Barnes and Nobel Editors)  


Carolyn:  Frightenly  descriptive picture of a narcissist.  Misses on just a few points, and lacks some sympathy for the narcissist.  If you've ever been touched by one, provides practical survival techniques, and the disappointing message, "They're never going to get better".  Almost twelve of my friends have bought it on my recommendation.  An increasingly necessary book for the times. 

The Language of Feelings - (David Viscott) -   


Carolyn:  Written in the late 1970's, this is a view of healthy relationships based on honest assertiveness - i.e. if you're angry, show the anger.  In healthy relationships, both parties are whole as separate entities, and therefore learn to handle the honest emotions and desires of the other, and work together towards a solution that provides both satisfaction.  Currently out-of-print.

Q is for Quarry - (Sue Grafton) -   "She was a "Jane Doe," an unidentified white female whose decomposed body was discovered near a quarry off California's Highway 1. The case fell to the Santa Teresa County Sheriff's Department, but the detectives had little to go on. The woman was young, her hands were bound with a length of wire, there were multiple stab wounds, and her throat had been slashed. After months of investigation, the case remained unsolved." "That was eighteen years go. Now, the two men who found the body, both nearing the end of long careers in law enforcement, want one last shot at the case. Old and ill, they need someone to do the legwork for them, and they turn to Kinsey Millhone. They will, they tell her, find closure if they can just identify the victim. Kinsey is intrigued with the challenge and agrees to work with them." But revisiting the past can be a dangerous business, and what begins with the pursuit of Jane Doe's real identity ends in a high-risk hunt for her killer.


Carolyn:  More of the Kinsey Family secrets revealed - makes this one special. Began to wonder how Grafton would wrap up her famous character when she gets to 'Z' - Z is for zelot? 

Self-Esteem - (Matthew McKay) -   Are you your own worst enemy? Are you devastated by criticism? Do you have trouble telling your loved ones what you really need? If you said yes, you're a victim of low self-esteem. Learn to be your own best friend! This easy, step-by-step program can start changing that today! You can radically improve the way you feel about yourself and discover an attractive, confident, and happier you.


Carolyn:  Comment pending 

Colored dot icon. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - (J. K. Rowling) -   There is a Door at the end of a silent corridor. And it's haunting Harry Potter's dreams. Why else would he be waking in the middle of the night, screaming in terror? Here are just a few things on Harry's mind: A Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher with a personality like poisoned honey. A venomous, disgruntled house-elf. Ron as keeper of the Gryffindor Quidditch team. The looming terror of the end-of-term Ordinary Wizarding Level exams ... and of course, the growing threat of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. In the richest installment yet of J. K. Rowling's seven-part story, Harry Potter is faced with the unreliability of the very government of the magical world and the impotence of the authorities at Hogwarts. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), he finds depth and strength in his friends, beyond what even he knew; boundless loyalty; and unbearable sacrifice. Though thick runs the plot (as well as the spine), readers will race through these pages and leave Hogwarts, like Harry, wishing only for the next train back.


Carolyn:  Read it once, fast to catch the story, then skimmed it again for the details.  Harry's world slowly expands to reveal more of the wizarding world, and his reputation is vindicated, but not without serious cost, and just in time to reveal Harry's destiny.

The Metaphysical Club - A Story of Ideas in America - (Louis Menand) -   The Civil War made America a modern nation, unleashing forces of industrialism and expansion that had been kept in check for decades by the quarrel over slavery. But the war also discredited the ideas and beliefs of the era that preceded it. The Civil War swept away the slave civilization of the South, but almost the whole intellectual culture of the North went with it. It took nearly half a century for Americans to develop a set of ideas, a way of thinking, that would help them cope with the conditions of modern life. That struggle is the subject of this book. The story told in The Metaphysical Club runs through the lives of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a Civil War hero who became the dominant legal thinker of his time; his best friend as a young man, William James, son of an eccentric moral philosopher, brother of a great novelist, and the father of modern psychology in America; and the brilliant and troubled logician, scientist, and founder of semiotics, Charles Sanders Peirce. Together they belonged to an informal discussion group that met in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1872 and called itself the Metaphysical Club. The club was probably in existence for only nine months, and no records were kept. The one thing we know that came out of it was an idea an idea about ideas, about the role beliefs play in people's lives. This idea informs the writings of these three thinkers, and the work of the fourth figure in the book, John Dewey -- student of Peirce, friend and ally of James, admirer of Holmes. The Metaphysical Club begins with the Civil War and ends in 1919 with the Supreme Court decision in Abrams v. U.S., the basis for the modern law of free speech. It tells the story of the creation of ideas and values that changed the way Americans think and the way they live.   Jump to the New York Times review.


Carolyn:  Comment pending 

Inventing Wonderland - Victorian Childhood as Seen Through the Lives and Fantasies of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame and A.A. Milne - (Jackie Wullschlager) -   In creating Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, girl-obsessed loner Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) achieved a breakthrough in children's literature, a work unparalleled in its freedom of thought and spirit, observes Wullschlager. In her judgment, Edward Lear's fantastical poems celebrate his escape from Victorian narrow-mindedness but also hint at a sense of alienation heightened by his secret homosexuality. Peter Pan- the naughty boy who refuses to grow up - mirrors his creator, James M. Barrie, an "emotional outsider" who idealized his mother, was unable to relate to his wife and compulsively played with other people's children. Frustrated banker Kenneth Grahame poured into The Wind in the Willows his disappointments, fears and hopes, partly reflecting his inability to accept his disabled, semi-blind son Alastair, who committed suicide at 19. For Financial Times feature writer Wullschlager, A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh series crystallizes the 1920s' desire for escape, light-headedness and nostalgia. A joy to read, the author's delightfully illustrated study revises our understanding of children's literature as a cultural barometer mirroring adult anxieties and aspirations. -- From Publishers Weekly  Jump to the New York Times Review.


Carolyn:  Reads like a dissertation, but lots of fascinating bits about the development of English children's literature unique to Victorian and Edwardian times, and the commonalities of the lives of these men who created a new type of literature which strongly influences us today.  All of them required escape into childhood for various reasons, and all lost a parent at a young age.  Interesting to see it all in one comparison.  As much a commentary on society as it is the men she analyses.  A very quick book to skim. Published in 1995, it just misses the Harry Potter phenomenon. 

The Professor and the Madman - A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary - (Simon Winchester) -   The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary began in 1857, took seventy years to complete, drew from tens of thousands of brilliant minds, and organized the sprawling language into 414,825 precise definitions. But hidden within the rituals of its creation is a fascinating and mysterious story - a story of two remarkable men whose strange twenty-year relationship lies at the core of this historic undertaking. Professor James Murray, an astonishingly learned former schoolmaster and bank clerk, was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon from New Haven, Connecticut, who had served in the Civil War, was one of thousands of contributors who submitted illustrative quotations of words to be used in the dictionary. But Minor was no ordinary contributor. He was remarkably prolific, sending thousands of neat, handwritten quotations from his home in the small village of Crowthorne, fifty miles from Oxford. On numerous occasions Murray invited Minor to visit Oxford and celebrate his work, but Murray's offer was regularly - and mysteriously - refused. Thus the two men, for two decades, maintained a close relationship only through correspondence. Finally, in 1896, after Minor had sent nearly ten thousand definitions to the dictionary but had still never traveled from his home, a puzzled Murray set out to visit him. It was then that Murray finally learned the truth about Minor - that, in addition to being a masterful wordsmith, Minor was also a murderer, clinically insane - and locked up in Broadmoor, England's harshest asylum for criminal lunatics..  Jump to the New York Times Review.


Carolyn:  This is a meticulously researched and fascinating tale, weaving together tidbits on missionary life in Indonesia in the 1830's, Civil War disciplinary practice, boarding houses in the slums of Victorian London, the history of dictionaries and frightening glimpses of a life lived in paranoia.  The most impressive realization is that someone completely debilitated by mental illness can make a serious contribution over 20 years to as monumental an achievement as the development of the OED.  Not surprising that Minor's contribution involved a compulsive cataloguing of every word that he found in his rare collection of 16th and 17th century books, delivered from imprisonment.  We seek to beat away our demons by carefully controlling our world - by literally putting every word in its place. Minor's insight was in determining he could deliver the one thing the editor of the OED had forgotten - a just-in-time ready list of words to be documented as they were needed.  Since the first volume (A-B) took 9 years to complete, Minor's contribution probably saved the early project from dying under its own weight.  I identified with with the compulsion, the insight and the desire to contribute to something important anonymously.  All Minor needed was validation from one person who knew the import of his contribution.  I understood that, too.  This very compelling and quick read barely lost it's four-star rating over a couple of slightly annoying sections - It also didn't help that I read it just after Graham Greene.  Tough act to follow.  

Colored dot icon. John Adams - (David McCullough) -   One of America's greatest storytellers has turned to one of America's greatest stories as the source for his most recent inspiration: a tale of one of the most influential, and often the most misunderstood, Founding Fathers: John Adams. The result is a tour de force and pure joy for the reader. Pulitzer.  Jump to the New York Times Review.


Carolyn:  A man of accurate insight and the courage to buck public opinion.  Always spoke his mind - on occasion in a flash of temper (which got him into trouble on more than one occasion and damaged his reputation).  A man of integrity and faith and love of a simple life.  A great man, if only for the reason that he engendered the true love of America's most remarkable woman, his wife and soul mate, Abigail.  He was the voice of the Constitution, while Jefferson was the pen.  It was Adams who was the earliest of advocates and convinced the Continental Congress to act.  As the nation's second president, Adams' foresight saved the nation in establishing peace with Napoleon against all forces in his own party pressing for war, at the same time pressuring Congress to vote money for a strong US navy (while undercutting the US army - and Hamilton's ambitions to create an independent military power in this country).  Like so many presidents to follow, his successor reaped the credit for his unpopular actions, enabling Jefferson to make a deal with the French for the Louisiana territory, and stave off British aggression.  Adams comes off as a much more admirable man than Jefferson, whom McCullough reveals on many occasions as a two-faced, back-stabbing schemer.  


McCullough doesn't just recount the stirring details of this memorable life, John Adams is a real man, revealed.  Someone you know.  He and Abigail raised a future president in the remarkable John Quincy Adams, their first-born.  The other three living children did not fare so well in adulthood.  Nabby, their beloved daughter, fell for an ambitious gad-about who neglected her.  At 47, she endured a painful mastectomy (without anesthesia), and died two years later from the cancer.  Their younger sons both became alcoholics, Charles abandoning his family and dying of the disease.  Abigail took in all the grandchildren, and raised her niece, as well.  Despite his trials -  Adams was an optimistic man.  Interesting to note that all of the first group of US presidents left office much poorer than than they entered.  They knew service to the country would keep them from earning a regular living.  (It was Abigail who stepped in to run the Adams farm -while giving birth to 5 children and raising them.)  My, how times have changed in this respect - seems we elect men who only gain personal benefit from power.   


It was comforting to read this inspiration from the country's birth when our country is now at war again - a way to both hide from today's  oppressive rhetoric and as a reminder that the US began this way with warts and all and still managed greatness in the concept of a government by the people.   Adams walked miles every day almost through the end of his 91 years, and was a joyful man.  Having outlived his wife, all his close friends, and three of his children, he wrote: "Griefs upon griefs!  Disappointments upon disappointments.  What then?  This is a gay, merry world notwithstanding." 

The Red Tent - (Anita Diamant) -   Her name is Dinah. In the Bible, her life is only hinted at in a brief and violent detour within the more familiar chapters of the Book of Genesis that are about her father, Jacob, and his dozen sons. Told in Dinah's voice, this novel reveals the traditions and turmoils of ancient womanhood - the world of the red tent. It begins with the story of her mothers - Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah - the four wives of Jacob. They love Dinah and give her gifts that are to sustain her through a damaged youth, a calling to midwifery, and a new home in a foreign land. Jump to the New York Times Review.


Carolyn:  Immersion into another world  - a world of women and another time and place - the ancient desert.  Quick reading, but feels sensual and languorous - for a while, you feel you're living at a slower pace - noticing the patterns of the sun in the sand, the touch of homespun in your fingers.  You care about the characters, but the biblical account jars the tale - a disconnect to the story and characters. Thought-provoking and affirming.

On Writing - (Stephen King) -   Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer's craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have. King's advice is grounded in his vivid memories from childhood through his emergence as a writer, from his struggling early career to his widely reported near-fatal accident in 1999 -- and how the inextricable link between writing and living spurred his recovery. Brilliantly structured, friendly and inspiring, On Writing will empower and entertain everyone who reads it -- fans, writers, and anyone who loves a great story well told.. Jump to the NY Times Review


Carolyn:  The most powerful image of King's memoir is of his wife, pulling a crumpled few paragraphs of Carrie out of the garbage, saying she wanted to know more about these characters.  King credits his talented wife with a large part of his success - very sweet.  You wonder how she feels about sticking it out - over 25 years of life with an alcoholic and addict.  It seems as if his passion for writing saved King - he never had self-doubts about whether writing was his life's work.  No self doubts - that's a gift.  King is a blunt writer, and his rules on writing are simple and good for any genre - not just suspense-thrillers.  

 Bridget Jones's Diary - (Helen Fielding) -   Bridget struggles to keep her life on an even keel — or at least afloat. Whenever her plans meet with disaster, she manages to pick herself up, go out on the town, and tell herself it will be all right in the morning, when life will definitely be different this time and totally alcohol, calorie, and perverted-misogynist free. Jump to the NY Times Review


Carolyn:  A lark.  A fluffy, funny, quick read with much painful truth about the reality of many lives of single 30-somethings.  Fielding gives a nod to Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice with a loose association to the plot.  Unlike in Austin's time, her characters have total social freedom - but not much substance. Truer to Austin's plot than the movie, but the book is all over the lot - not as tightly woven.  Had I been in a better mood, it would have been funnier.

Colored dot icon. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage - (Alice Munro) -   Nine stories draw us immediately into that special place known as Alice Munro territory–a place where an unexpected twist of events or a suddenly recaptured memory can illumine the arc of an entire life. The fate of a strong-minded housekeeper with a “frizz of reddish hair,” just entering the dangerous country of old-maidhood, is unintentionally (and deliciously) reversed by a teenaged girl’s practical joke. A college student visiting her aunt for the first time and recognizing the family furniture stumbles on a long-hidden secret and its meaning in her own life. An inveterate philanderer finds the tables turned when he puts his wife into an old-age home. A young cancer patient stunned by good news discovers a perfect bridge to her suddenly regained future. A woman recollecting an afternoon’s wild lovemaking with a stranger realizes how the memory of that encounter has both changed for her and sustained her through a lifetime. Men and women are subtly revealed. Personal histories, both complex and simple, unfold in rich detail of circumstance and feeling. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage provides the deep pleasures and rewards that Alice Munro’s large and ever- growing audience has come to expect.  Jump to the NY Times ReviewOriginal NYT Review.


Carolyn:  Few can rival Alice Munro's ability to tell a story that's powerful and with complete characters - and Alice Munro accomplishes this in a matter of pages in each short story.  These stories are gems that speak the truth.   A soft-edged Margaret Drabble.


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Unless otherwise attributed, all summaries are taken from the publisher's summary.  All linked comments are original material.

Rating (1-5)
5- Life changing book or reread it frequently.
4- Great book, speaks to me.
3- Liked reading this book, recommend it.
2- Just OK, could have skipped it.
1- Disliked it or couldn't finish it.

Colored dot icon.=Rating of 4 or 5

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