Archive for April, 2007

$64 Tomato

Thursday, April 26th, 2007

THE $64 TOMATO BY William Alexander
April 2007

The Norrisville Book Discussion Group had a rollicking good time discussing the April 2007 selection, The $64 Tomato by William Alexander. Our resident (retired) Home Ec and Sex Education teacher provided the goodies this month: The famous “kiss me cake,” winner of the second ever Pillsbury bake-off. It seems that as the winner was preparing an orange cake, her husband came home in an amorous mood and distracted her from her project. With her mind on other things, she mixed the frosting in with the batter and created an instant classic.

Alexander’s more-or-less true account of his family’s move to a small town, and his subsequent obsession with creating the garden of his dreams is excruciating, instructive to the uninitiated, and laugh-aloud funny. Techie Alexander, his newly minted physician wife, and their two children move from Westchester County, New York to the perfect hamlet far from the madding crowd. Their new house, notorious in town for being dilapidated and uninhabitable, fails to smother their enthusiasm. But when the author sets out to wrestle a behemoth of a garden out of the untouched landscape, his neighbor Larry, his wife, and especially his two kids can only pity him. And even pity is difficult to muster, since Alexander willfully takes the wrong road at every fork-decision that he comes to. In fact, some readers will find his monumentally poor judgment a little irritating. Most of our group, however, appreciated the author’s self-deprecating tone and many disasters, not a few of which they themselves have experienced in the past. It felt good to see someone else get their lumps for a change, from unreliable and downright dishonest contractors to industrial strength weeds, to the shattering of the organic pipe dream, to the endless hours sucked up by this all-consuming hobby. Alexander’s story follows a path that is not entirely chronological and arrow-straight, which only seems to emphasize the atmosphere of out-of-control living described in the book. Yet our group never gave up wanting to know how it would all turn out, hoping for at least a partial victory over nature and human nature.

In Memoriam David Halberstam

Thursday, April 26th, 2007

In Memoriam David Halberstam

A few days ago Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author David Halberstam was killed in a car crash in California at the age of 73. According to his obituary by Jurek Martin of the Financial Times, Halberstam was on his way to interview ex-quarterback Y. A. Tittle for his recollections of “what is still considered the greatest American football game ever played, the championship match between the New York Giants and the then Baltimore Colts in 1958, the subject of Halberstam’s latest work in progress.”

David Halberstam was born in New York City. He attended Harvard, was editor of the student newspaper, the Crimson, and then went on to report on the civil rights movement in the south. He joined the New York Times in 1960 and, as Jurik Martin writes, “two years later was sent to Vietnam, where his first dispatches showed all his skepticism about official claims that the war was going well…”

“President John F Kennedy was so concerned, even outraged, by what he read that he asked Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, then publisher of the Times, if the reporter might not be transferred somewhere else. The request was rebuffed and the journalist won the Pulitzer Prize for his work, now generally acknowledged to be far ahead of its time.”

In 1968 The Best and the Brightest was published. The book refers to all the talented men in the JFK and LBJ administrations who were so wrong about Vietnam. In the book Halberstam demonstrates his analytical skills and the depth of his research.

It was David Halberstam’s insistence on copious research that made him so successful in writing powerfully and persuasively about diverse topics. The Reckoning, his account of the Japanese auto industry was again a book ahead of its time. It accurately predicted how the Japanese would challenge America to become world leaders in the industry.

Mr. Halberstam used to alternate his weightier books with forays into the world of sports. As Halberstam’s obituary says of these books, “Some considered them to be better written, and certainly shorter.” I would have enjoyed his projected book about the Baltimore Colts-New York Giants game, certainly a topic that would resonate in this area of the country! Let’s hope there is enough material already written for the book to be completed by another hand.

Here are some books by Halberstam available in the Harford County Public Library. These books also are featured in a booklist with reviews and notes called, “In Memoriam – David Halberstam” on the Recommended Booklists page of Readers Place.

The Best and Brightest

The Fifties

Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made

New York September 11 (by Magnum Photographers, introduced by David Halberstam)

War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals


Defining a Nation: Our America and the Sources of Its Strength (general editor David Halberstam)

Baby Proof by Emily Giffin

Thursday, April 26th, 2007

The Abingdon Book Group met on April 16, to read Baby Proof by Emily Giffin. Giffin was born in Baltimore, but moved several times. As an adult she lived in Manhattan, where she worked for a legal company. She then lived and worked in London before moving with her husband to Atlanta, Georgia.

This novel tells the story of Claudia and Ben. Before their marriage, Claudia and Ben have agreed that neither wants children. Claudia feels betrayed when Ben changes his mind and begins to pressure her to have a baby. Their conflict seems insurmountable and the couple separate and divorce. Then follows a period of heartache as Claudia begins to feel she may have lost her soul mate. Other characters with their own family problems add substance to the story. Jess, the friend, with her messy love life and desire for a baby; Maura, the sister, whose husband is unfaithful but a good father; Daphne, the other sister, who cannot get pregnant with her husband. These add greater depth to a chick lit type book.

Here’s what Publisher’s Weekly has to say about Baby Proof.

From Publishers Weekly Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman:

The bestselling author of Something Borrowed and Something Blue now tells the story of what happens after the “I do”s. As a successful editor at a Manhattan publishing house, Claudia Parr counts herself fortunate to meet and marry Ben, a man who claims to be a nonbreeding career-firster like she is. The couple’s early married years go smoothly, but then Ben’s biological clock starts to tick. A baby’s a deal breaker for Claudia, so she moves out and bunks with her college roommate Jess (a 35-year-old blonde goddess stuck in a series of dead-end relationships) while the wheels of divorce crank into action. Even after the divorce is finalized and Claudia embarks on a steamy love affair with her colleague Richard, she begins to doubt her decision when she suspects Ben has found a smart, young and beautiful woman willing to bear his children. Standard fare as far as chick lit goes, but there are strong subplots involving Claudia’s sisters (one is coping with infertility, the other with a cheating spouse) and the childless-by-choice plot line produces above-average tension.

The book group thought this was an easy read. Some liked it very much, others less so. If anything we thought it had a flat ending that did not resolve the issues raised by Claudia and Ben about whether they should have children or not. The book did provoke much discussion, especially regarding the pressures put on couples to have children (these may be pressures from both family and friends). We also discussed the question of being childless by choice and how such couples are regarded by their peers as well as family.

As you read this book, here are some questions you might consider:

Do women have to want children?

Can you love children but still not want your own?

Can men and women be satisfied in a childless marriage?

Is there such a thing as a soul-mate?

Did this book challenge any of your ideas of love, marriage and parenthood?

Did you find the book satisfying?

Did the trials of Claudia’s sisters add to the story?

Did you like Claudia?

As a point of interest Giffin has twin sons.

Her two previous bestsellers were Something Borrowed, and Something Blue. We have heard that these are both entertaining reads and you may like to check them out.

In Memoriam Kurt Vonnegut

Tuesday, April 17th, 2007


On April 12, 2007 it was reported in the news media that Kurt Vonnegut had died. He was 84. One edition of the New York Times called him a “writer of classics of the American counterculture,” and said that he had suffered “irreversible brain injuries as a result of a fall several weeks ago.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007) was an “American novelist known for works blending satire, black comedy, and science fiction, such as Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Cat’s Cradle (1963), and Breakfast of Champions (1973)” (Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia ).

Slaughterhouse-Five is considered by many to be the best novel of the 20th Century. The novel grew out of Vonnegut’s experiences in the fire-bombing of Dresden by the Allies at the end of World War II. Vonnegut had taken part in the Battle of the Bulge and was taken prisoner by the Germans. He was one of just seven American prisoners of war who survived the Dresden fire-storm and was then put to work burying the countless civilian dead. There were so many bodies they had to be disposed of by flame-throwers. This experience of “carnage unfathomable” formed the theme of the novel and at least six other works.

Vonnegut wrote for the 25th anniversary edition of Slaughterhouse-Five: “A fourth-generation German-American now living in easy circumstances on Cape Cod (and smoking too much), who, as an American infantry scout hors de combat, as a prisoner of war, witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, “The Florence of the Elbe,” a long time ago, and survived to tell the tale. This is a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore, where the flying sucers come from. Peace.”

Slaughterhouse-Five became a slogan of anti-Vietnam war protestors in the 1960s. Many of Vonnegut’s books resonated with the generation of the 60s and 70s, who resented the loss of control of their own destinies to government and authority, and who empathised with Vonnegut’s somewhat helpless and bumbling protagonists.

In the 21st century, the elements of science fiction found in Vonnegut’s work, the wild creative leaps and the irony, plus the simplicity, and the themes of rejection of enslavement to technology and the denunciation of the pursuit of affluence continue to appeal to fresh generations. Several of his books and have achieved almost cult status. Very often readers who otherwise prefer nonfiction, and would not normally consider ever cracking open a work of fiction, can be found reading these books for pure pleasure!

Here is a website with some quotes from Kurt Vonnegut:

Here is a link to a New York Times article about Kurt Vonnegut’s life:;=aa747f8e1cf65243&ei;=5087&excamp;=GGGNkurtvonnegut

Here is a link to a 1973 interview with Kurt Vonnegut:

These are Vonnegut titles available in Harford County Public Library (some are also available as audiobooks on CD or downloadable):

Cat’s Cradle (1963)

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: or, Pearls Before Swine (1965)

Slaughterhouse-Five (1965)

Welcome to the Monkey House: a Collection of Short Works (1968)

Breakfast of Champions, or, Goodbye Blue Monday (1973)

Jailbird (1979)

Galapagos: a Novel (1985)

Bluebeard: a Novel (1987)

Hocus Pocus (1990)

Timequake (1997)

Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (1999)

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian (1999)

A Man Without a Country (2005)

Your comments on any work by Vonnegut are welcome. Have you read anything by a current author who you think might be able to fill Vonnegut’s shoes?

Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella

Wednesday, April 11th, 2007

The Abingdon branch book discussion group (of Harford County Public Library) meets generally on the third Monday of each month. The group came into existence with the title Ladies Lite – Books with a Touch of Humor, then became Lite at Night. The readers who attend this group have decided that they prefer books on the lighter side, that the world is full of troubling news, that many of us are busy mothers and/or busy with careers and that discussion of books in a lighter or humorous vein offers us a lift and a laugh. We welcome new readers and can offer a fun and relaxed environment for a chat.

Our chosen book for May was Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella, published in 2006. The author has written a number of books and her most popular are those in the Shopaholic series.

Here is what Publisher’s Weekly had to say about the book.

From Publishers Weekly. Samantha Sweeting, the 29-year-old heroine of Kinsella’s latest confection (after Shopaholic Sister), is on the verge of partnership at the prestigious London law firm Carter Spink—the Holy Grail of her entire workaholic life. But when she finds she has made a terrible, costly mistake just before the partnership decision, she’s terrified of being fired. In a fog, she stumbles out of the building and onto the nearest train, which drops her in the countryside, where she wanders to a stately home. The nouveau riche lady of the house mistakes her for the new housekeeper—and Samantha is too astonished to correct her. Numb and unable to face returning to London, Samantha tries to master the finer points of laundry, cooking and cleaning. She discovers that the slow life, her pompous but good-hearted employers and the attentions of the handsome gardener, Nathaniel, suit her just fine. But her past is hard to escape, and when she discovers a terrible secret about her firm—and when the media learns that the former legal star is scrubbing toilets for a living—her life becomes more complicated than ever. If readers can swallow the implausible scenario, then Kinsella’s genuine charm and sweet wit may continue to win her fans. (July)

The group came up with these words to apply to the book – fluff, fun, love, romance. We thought it a modern day fairytale with aspects of the unbelievable. In general we enjoyed reading it, thinking it was good for beach or air travel reading.

Despite the fact that this was light reading, it did have some elements that provoked intense discussion. The humor in the novel stems from the fact that Samantha, the main character cannot cook or clean or even sew on a button. Yet, through a misunderstanding, she ends up becoming a housekeeper. Our discussion turned on the fact that many women today cannot do any of these things either. We talked about changes in priorities and changes in women’s lives.

When you read this book, here are some questions you might ask:
How have women’s domestic lives changed since the fifties?
How many women do you know who work and raise a family?
How many do you know who cannot or do not like to cook?
What changes have taken place in family meal times?
Can you have a high-powered career and raise a family? What might you have to sacrifice?

We hope you enjoy this novel for its easy reading and yet consider that even light reading can spur discussion.

Here are some other titles you might consider.
1. Every Boy’s Got One by Meg Cabot
2. Mr. Maybe by Jane Green
3. Sushi for Beginners by Marian Keyes
4. Can You Keep a Secret? by Sophie Kinsella
5. Goodnight Nobody : a novel by Jennifer Weiner
6. The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger

April 16th the group will be reading Baby Proof by Emily Giffin
To have a baby or not to have a baby – that is the question.

May 21st will be The Good Good Pig by Sy Montgomery (non-fiction)
Delightful and cheerful book about how a pig affects its family.

The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman

Wednesday, April 4th, 2007

The Edgewood Branch of Harford County Public Library has three book clubs – one that meets in the branch on the second Thursday of each month, one that meets at the senior center on the fourth Tuesday, and one that also meets on the fourth Tuesday in the branch, but features books by African American authors. Recently, the senior group and the Thursday group both read and discussed the same book: Elinor Lipman’s The Inn at Lake Devine.

I would be delighted if one or two of the Edgewood group members would add their comments to this post. How did you enjoy the book? Did anyone else at the discussion influence how you now think of the book?

Below is a short description of The Inn at Lake Devine, and then one or two discussion points that I hope will tempt new readers to try it.

The Inn at lake Devine was first published in 1998 and has become a classic example of Elinor Lipman’s gentle and romantic social commentaries. The story starts in 1962 and is a portrait of the social upheaval and prejudice of the 1960s and 1970s. The story deals with the serious subject of anti-Semitism, though Ms. Lipman handles it with a light touch: one reviewer called the book, “delightful,” and, “both entertaining and thought-provoking.” In fact, there is considerable humor in the book as well as some distinctly eccentric characters.

The main character, Natalie Marx is a sharp, sensitive teenager growing up in a tight-knit Jewish family. She is shocked, when in response to a query, her mother receives a note from a Vermont inn saying more or less that Jews are not welcome to stay there. Natalie becomes fixated on the people who could say such things, and she does all she can to see them face to face. She and her father use an assumed name and visit the inn from their vacation house the other side of the lake. Another year, Natalie enveigles an invitation to stay there with a friend, blending in as one of her family. A good ten years later, when Natalie is invited to her friend’s wedding at the inn, she can finally infiltrate the bastions as herself. Her professional and romantic life become hopelessly entangled with the rigidly prejudiced proprietor and her two sons when, despite a tragedy, Natalie falls in love. Will love triumph and put prejudice to rout?

Different reviewers have said the following things about The Inn at Lake Devine. Would you agree or disagree?…

“Skillfully interweaving the bittersweet narrative with threads of both tragedy and comedy, Lipman displays a healthy amount of empathy and affection for her flawed and slightly eccentric cast of characters.”

“…this very funny novel…”

“…skewering of assimilation and cultural diversity…”

“Natalie’s search for answers to unanswerable questions…”

For more information about Edgewood branch book groups, please call 410-612-1600.