Archive for September, 2007

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

The other day I read in one of my news alerts that a terrific book has just been adapted to make a movie. The Jane Austen Book Club, directed by Robin Swicord and starring Maria Bello, opened September 21. This would be an intriguing choice for a book club, if only because the theme is a book club! Six readers start a club to discuss the works of Jane Austen only to discover that their own lives resemble modern versions of her novels.

I don’t know what your opinion is about the audience for this book – women only? Perhaps we should be careful not to stereotype: men appreciate Jane Austen too, for her elegant writing and witty observation; and there is one (as a reviewer called him) “enigmatic” man in the book club of the title.

That same review (in Publisher’s Weekly 03/22/2004) suggests that Karen Joy Fowler is rather like Jane Austen herself, writing with sly wit and quirky characters. It strikes me that the characters and their “hangups” might be sources of some good discussion, and the humor might make it all rather fun!

You will find a Discussion Guide in Novelist. Find a link to Novelist on ReadersPlace Home page.

The book got two other “Starred Reviews” and was a New York Times Notable Book.

Click here to Find this book in our catalog.

Here are some suggestions of similar books:
Dinner With Anna Karenina by Gloria Goldreich
The Reading Group by Elizabeth Noble
Ten Days in the Hills by Jane Smiley

Click here for a list of books about Jane Austen in fact and fiction
Karen Joy Fowler’s Web Site : Fowler provides information about herself and her books.

In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant

Friday, September 21st, 2007

This is a book that I chose to bring to a librarians’ discussion of fiction about artists and the artistic life. In my opinion it is a versatile book that I could recommend equally to individuals who are looking for historical romance and intrigue and also for books that feature real artists in fictional settings.

The cover, featuring the cool and alluring gaze of the semi-clad and reclining Venus of Urbino by Titian signals very clearly what the book is about – a 16th century courtesan – and also by reproducing a real painting, places it among other titles such as Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier.

The plot is exciting and grabs your attention at once when Fiametta Bianchini, a beautiful, intelligent, and talented courtesan in the eternal city of Rome is forced to flee from the troops of the Holy Roman Emperor who are sacking the city. She flees with her major-domo, the dwarf Bucino, in whose disillusioned and bitter voice the story is narrated. Having between them swallowed the best jewels from Fiametta’s casket, they head for Venice, where Fiametta’s mother lives. They arrive in Venice after many harrowing adventures which have left them nearly penniless, to discover all is not well in Fiametta’s mother’s house. The pair of them set out to create a reputation for Fiametta which will enable her to set up a salon for gentlemen of power and culture such as she had had in Rome. As Bucino travels the Venetian canals and alleys, the reader gets a vivid picture of the 16th century city. Bucino has a hard task preserving Fiametta’s reputation and even her life, from violence, despair, and simply from starvation. His efforts are made more difficult by Fiametta’s relationship with a blind healer who insinuates herself into their lives and brings them into potential danger from the religious establishment. Fiametta’s path is smoothed to a degree by her patrons among the art intelligensia of Venice. Fiametta numbers among her friends the painter Titian, and the writer Aretino. Readers of Tracy Chavalier and Susan Vreeland will love this glimpse into the art world as they will appreciate this story of an independent and intelligent woman overcoming adversity.

This would be a good book club book since it has lots of discussible features:
Titian and the artistic/creative life

The role of courtesans

16th century Venice

an interesting relationship between Bucino and Fiametta

Fiammetta’s childhood and its effects

16th century medicine and superstition

religious bigotry and intolerance

16th century views on physical disabilities and illness

the cover art – what about the enigmatic look on the face of Venus? Suitable art for this book?

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson

Tuesday, September 18th, 2007

Bill Bryson’s memoir on growing up in Des Moines, Iowa in the 1950s is a humorous account of a special time and place, where a kid wears an old football sweater displaying a thunderbolt and thinks himself a superhero.

The Abingdon Lite at Night group read Bill Bryson’s memoir and had mixed feelings about it. There are some very humorous parts to the book and the authors take on being a small boy is very funny. There were comments from the group regarding the accuracy of some of Bryson’s dates. One reader had checked on a couple of things and found that the author may have got his facts wrong. He also felt that the book was rather contrived. That Bryson may have needed to write a book but this wasn’t his best work. In fact those of us who had read previous books by this author were disappointed. It was not as funny and did not flow as well as previous works. Overall, however, if you give Bryson the benefit of the doubt and are not a stickler for facts, the book is entertaining and certainly shows how life has changed since the Fifties. In fact the best line in the book, and the saddest, is right at the end “What a wonderful world it was. We won’t see its like again, I’m afraid.”

We do recommend you read this author. His book, in a Sunburned Country, about Australia, is hysterical & just magical if you listen to the author reading it himself on CD. He is an excellent raconteur & you feel he is sitting right next to you telling you his stories. A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, is also a good read. Two other titles featuring travels in America are, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America, & I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After Twenty Years. For any Anglophiles, Notes From a Small Island gives the reader wonderful insight into British culture and foibles and is another very funny book. Bryson is an excellent storyteller and gives the reader a real feel for the places he visits whether in the present or the past.

See Bill’s website at for a short biography and details of some of his books.
Some Praise for Bryson’s book from his website.

“Bill Bryson’s laugh-out-loud pilgrimage through his Fifties childhood in heartland America is a national treasure. It’s full of insights, wit, and wicked adolescent fantasies.”
—Tom Brokaw

“Bryson is unparalleled in his ability to cut a culture off at the knees in a way that is so humorous and so affectionate that those being ridiculed are laughing too hard to take offense.”
—The Wall Street Journal

“A cross between de Tocqueville and Dave Barry, Bryson writes about…America in a way that’s both trenchantly observant and pound-on-the-floor, snort-root-beer-out-of-your-nose funny.”
—San Franciso Examiner

“Bill Bryson could write an essay about dryer lint or fever reducers and still make us laugh out loud.”
—Chicago Sun-Times

“Bryson is…great company…a lumbering, droll, neatnik intellectual who comes off as equal parts Garrison Keillor, Michael Kinsley, and…Dave Barry.”
—New York Times Book Review

From Publishers Weekly
Though billed as memoir, Bryson’s follow-up to A Short History of Nearly Everything can only be considered one in the broadest sense. Sure, it’s filled with Bryson’s recollections of his Des Moines, Iowa, childhood. But it’s also a clear foray into Jean Shepherd territory, where nostalgia for one’s youth is suffused with comic hyperbole: “All sneakers in the 1950s had over seven dozen lace holes,” we’re told; though all the toys were crummy, it didn’t matter because boys had plenty of fun throwing lit matches at each other; and mimeograph paper smelled wonderful. The titular Thunderbolt Kid is little more than a recurring gag, a self-image Bryson invokes to lash out at the “morons” that plague every child’s existence. At other times, he offers a glib pop history of the decade, which works fine when discussing teen culture or the Cold War but falls flat when trying to rope in the Civil Rights movement. And sometimes he just wants to reminisce about his favorite TV shows or the Dick and Jane books. The book is held together by sheer force of personality—but when you’ve got a personality as big as Bryson’s, sometimes that’s enough. (Oct. 17)
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Jen Vido, Author, Columnist, and Book Reviewer Launches Website

Friday, September 14th, 2007

On September 1, Jen Vido, well known to Harford County readers in the Bel Air area as the leader of a book discussion group in the Bel Air branch and also the regular contributor of author interviews on ReadersPlace, launched her own website. Here is the link:

As you probably know, Jen is also the former Chairperson and now Vice Chairperson Representing the Bel Air Area on the Harford County Public Library Board of Trustees. A woman of many talents, she is also a French teacher, a book reviewer for, and an aspiring author.

If you like chick lit, romance, mystery or suspense, do look at her website for gossip and news from the publishing world. This is what Jen says on her home page:

“Welcome to your ultimate source of tidbits and tantalizing scoop happening in romance, chick-lit, mystery, and suspense! Aspiring author Jennifer Vido dishes the scoop with her right-off-the-press book reviews, up-close and personal interviews with popular authors, and even sizzling contests that you just can’t find anywhere else on the web. Add to your list of favorites so that you can stop by and see what’s happening. And, don’t forget to sign-up for her monthly newsletter so that Jen can keep you in the loop of what’s hot and what’s not in the world of publishing. Yesterday’s newcomer could be tomorrow’s star! You won’t want to miss it!”

1421: the Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menzies

Wednesday, September 5th, 2007

The other day I chanced to see part of a TV documentary, I think it was on The Discovery Channel, about a famous Chinese Ming dynasty admiral named Zheng He. This is what The Discovery Channel website has to say about him: “Zheng He, also known as Sanbao, lived during the Ming Dynasty. From a minority group in central Asia, he was taken captive and castrated when the Ming army conquered his native province of Yunnan. Zheng was appointed an admiral and an envoy, and visited more than 30 countries including Yemen, Iran, and even Mecca over a period of 28 years… On his first voyage, his fleet consisted of a huge ship which was probably the largest sea-going vessel of the day. It had nine masts and flew 12 sails, and was manned by more than 200 sailors. Zheng was an excellent navigator, keeping a logbook and used one of the first compasses in the world. He made nautical charts that were later called Zheng He’s Nautical Charts, the first of its kind in the world…”

The documentary tells in part about the building of a huge fleet for the Emperor, commanded by Zheng He, which conducted several voyages, going as far afield as Africa. Zheng He died on a voyage to Africa. The incredible fact that sticks in my mind is that some enthusiasts, go so far as to believe that Zheng He discovered America in 1421, before Columbus did!

If you want a book for your book group that will surely spark a great deal of controversy and discussion, you should consider 1421: the Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menzies. My husband read the book and was fascinated: he kept reading interesting bits out to me. I later read the book and was not completely convinced by all the arguments, but found in there lots to think about. If nothing else, it opened my eyes to a lot of Chinese history and culture I had known nothing of.

Menzies, who is a former Royal Navy officer, was doing some research on his passion, ancient maps, when he came across a map dated 1424, which indicated someone knew about the Americas before Columbus. I will leave you to read the book for yourself, but maps play a very important part in the book. The author has done an incredible amount of research, citing archaeological and architectural evidence in the Americas, evidence from shipwrecks, etc., to, in his view, prove the presence of the Chinese in America before Columbus.

The book was a best seller in 2003. Controversy still reigns about its assertions. Gavin Menzies has a website There is also an awful lot of sites debunking his theories, including

Read this book and tell me what you think.