Archive for October, 2007

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

The Norrisville Book Discussion Group met on October 23, 2007 and discussed Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick. The following was submitted to me by Alan Zuckerman, moderator of the book group.

Reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s book on the Mayflower is like eating lasagna for Thanksgiving dinner: It tastes good and everybody likes it, but it feels strangely out of place on that particular day. At least that’s what the Norrisville book discussion group thought. The members are not naïve, and they knew from the outset that they would have some of their beliefs about the Pilgrims exploded in their faces. Yet it still felt disorienting to learn that Squanto was a two-faced manipulator out for his own gain, Miles Standish was a war-mongering martinet who needed to be tightly controlled to avoid serious diplomatic mistakes vis-à-vis the Native Americans living in eastern Massachusetts, and the friendly and generous behavior of the area’s natives was at least partly due to the breakdown of the region’s social structure as a result of devastating diseases brought to America’s shores by the very first wave of Europeans (since the natives themselves were not doing too well and were vying with each other for allies to help them gain regional dominance).

Mayflower was a book that everyone liked for what they learned about that historic time and place. It proved highly effective both in telling an exciting adventure story about some very brave and committed people and in demonstrating how rich the larger context of the tale is compared to the oft-repeated mythical story of turkey dinner, blunderbusses, and silver buckles. Especially fascinating were:

the critical importance of disease in determining how interactions between Europeans and Native North Americans would unfold,
the surprisingly long history of contact between these two groups before the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, and
the key role of individual personalities in determining the course of history.

There were some negative notes to go with the mostly positive reception the book received. One group member felt that the author had a bias against the pilgrims as a religious group. Several participants were almost turned back by the book’s slow start (much as the Pilgrims themselves were on the verge of being turned back by their own slow start in attempting to migrate from Europe to the New World). In addition, the book’s somewhat challenging vocabulary prompted one reader to comment that whenever she picked up the book, she grabbed her dictionary at the same time.

Potential readers daunted by the apparent size of this book should take heart in recognizing that at least a quarter of the pages, if not more, consist of the endnotes and index.

How to Find Your Next Good Book in Genre Fiction

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

The October 2007 edition of Novelist Notes, which is an online newsletter that goes with our subscription to Novelist, had these excellent tips to finding genre fiction booklists.

I have recommended Novelist before. It’s a great tool, particularly for finding similar books to one you have just read and liked. A drawback to Novelist that I have encountered is that the categories they assign to books are often too general to be meaningful. You have to be really clever to identify and choose the aspects of a particular book that you would like duplicated in your next read. I feel when I am using the “find similar books” feature that I need a human to intervene and describe the essence of the book in a more focused way. Novelist mitigates against this drawback by providing an increasing amount of editorial comment and expert articles. One such editorial feature is “Explore Fiction Lists.”

Explore Fiction Lists has just been updated. This article explains how to use it. The article is directed to librarians, but I have quoted here only the parts that would be relevant to readers and book groups:

“NoveList and NoveList K-8′s ready-made book lists are great sources for eager patrons and busy librarians. NoveList is now pleased to announce that all of our genre-based Explore Fiction lists have been completely revamped and updated. In addition to the updated lists, we have added several new genre lists, including Historical Fiction and Graphic Novels at the Adult level, based on requests from our users.
All of the popular genres, including Mysteries, Romance, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Historical Fiction, are covered in the Explore Fiction lists. Each genre contains a number of lists covering popular sub-genres, for example “Contemporary Romances” and “Romantic Suspense” under the Romance genre. Each list contains 15 to 20 titles, carefully selected by experienced librarians…
Here’s how to access NoveList’s Explore Fiction lists:
Select the Browse Lists tab.
Under the Explore Fiction heading, select the appropriate reading level link. To find the new Adult Historical Fiction list, select the “Adult” link.
You will see a list of genres to choose from. Select the “Historical Fiction” link.
A listing of sub-genres will display. Choose a topic of interest, for example “Immigrant Experience,” to see the full list of titles.
At the end of each Explore Fiction list, you will find a description that will give you more information about the books on the list or how you can find more books like those listed. Please note that at each list, you can select a title to link directly to the book record for an annotation, reviews, and links to other resources.”
© 2007 EBSCO Publishing, Powered by The Title Source TM

Rococo by Adriana Trigiani

Wednesday, October 24th, 2007

Rococo was the Abingdon Lite at Night Reading Group choice for October. Along with a little hot chocolate, the group had a fun discussion and had enjoyed reading this humorous and engaging novel. First of all you have to really like the subject of interior design. If there is any criticism of this book, it is that it dwells on this subject in a rather overlong fashion for the first few chapters, to the point where you may be asking yourself ‘where’s the plot?” However, the story begins to unfold. It is a story of relationships, of love and laughter, family troubles and friendships, intertwined with Bartolomeo di Crespi’s desire to be the one to renovate his local church. Bartolomeo is an interior designer. He belongs to an Italian Catholic family and the book is flavored with their customs and culture. There are many lovable characters and the story has a feel good ending. If you are looking for a light, funny read, this is it.

Ms. Trigiani is the author of the Big Stone Gap series and Lucia, Lucia. Fans can expect to see Adriana’s work on the big screen, as final preparations are underway to produce her Big Stone Gap screenplay, which she has written and will direct.

For a Reading Group Discussion Guide, go to Ms. Trigiani’s Official Website at:

Another new website for readers

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007

I received an e-mail from Molly Lundquist, creator of LitLovers a new website dedicated to book clubs and readers in general. Molly asked that we put a link on ReadersPlace to her site and I will do so, as well as mentioning it here.

Molly has an MA in English lit. and decided to put her eight years of teaching lit courses to good use and create this site to encourage reading for all ages. I have looked at it and like it. Please look at it and decide for yourself, while being aware that Molly may have some commercial reason as well as an altruistic one for creating the site. There is, for instance, an opportunity to shop online.

The site has free online literature courses, book club recommendations, book club resources, ideas for mothers and children. There are reading guides, hints on how to discuss books and how to conduct book groups. There is a place for real book groups to join and share their experiences and ideas.

Molly says that her goal is to make reading fun, and I believe this site goes a long way to doing that. It even includes recipes for food to go with book group meeting themes, and gift ideas for your host or hostess. I’m sorry, you gentlemen readers out there, but this site did seem to have a rather feminine bent; however, I hope everyone, male or female, will check it out to see what it has for them.

Broken For You by Stephanie Kallos

Monday, October 22nd, 2007

Broken For You by Stephanie Kallos is a book that richly repays the reader with eccentric characters, multiple plot lines, mysteries from the past, strong emotions, love in unlikely places, quirky humor, and complex but largely happy outcomes. It’s an ideal book for a book club.

About the book:
Margaret Hughes is a wealthy widow living in the biggest mansion in a Seattle neighborhood way on the top of a hill. She is all alone in the museum-like house stuffed with a priceless collection of porcelain. For various reasons, which unfold in the book, Margaret is a recluse and lives almost solely to be the caretaker of this collection, the provenance of which we suspect, but which is only slowly revealed. Margaret discovers that she has incurable cancer, and so decides she will take the last chance she has of living for herself. Her first step is to seek company and she advertises for a lodger. Wanda Schulz comes into her life. Wanda seems tough, but we find she has been severely emotionally damaged by a series of rejections, first by her father and more recently by a lover whom she is seeking in Seattle. As both women wrestle with the ghosts of their past, a diverse cast of eccentric characters comes into their lives. All are broken in some degree, and all find ways to put themselves together, each in a different and ultimately beautiful form. Wanda discovers that she is a talented mosaic artist. Her art form becomes a metaphor for all that occurs in the book, a breaking of things that is essential before beauty or lives can be reformed. The book itself is complex, with many themes and plot-lines being assembled to complete the mosaic, which finally takes shape as a celebration of the diverse ways love manifests itself.

About the author:
This is Stephanie Kallos’ first book. She spent 20 years in the theater as a teacher and actress. Her short fiction was nominated for a Raymond Carver Prize and a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Seattle. Click here for her website

The book received 3 starred reviews.

Conversation starters:
The book starts with Margaret in her house. What do you think of the way Margaret’s history is revealed?
The characters are very eccentric, but at the same time believable. Why do you think this is? What do you think of their behavior?
The plot is very complex. How are the different threads woven together? Are the resolutions believable?
Metaphor is very important in this book. Which ones worked for you?
I saw humor in this book. Did you also find the same? What for you was the effect of the humor?
The concept of “broken” is central to the book. What did you make of that?

This book has been compared to books by Margaret Atwood. I think it would appeal also to readers of Anne Tyler. Do you agree?

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

Wednesday, October 17th, 2007

In April 2007, the Jarrettsville book group got together to talk about When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka. I can recommend this book for men or women, adult or teen, because it appeals to both the intellect and the emotions. It is eminently discussible, both for its themes and the artistry with which they are laid out.

Publisher’s Reading Group Guide

It is Berkeley, California, the spring of 1942. Pearl Harbor has been attacked, the war is on, and and a woman reads a sign in a post office window. Though we do not know what was printed on the sign, we see the woman ready herself and her two young children for a journey that will take them to the high desert plains of Utah. They travel by train and gradually the reader discovers that all on board are Japanese American, and that their destination is an internment camp where they will be imprisoned “for their own safety” until the war is over. With stark clarity and an unflinching gaze, Otsuka explores the inner lives of her main characters—the mother, daughter, and son—as they struggle to understand their fate and long for the father whom they have not seen since he was whisked away, in slippers and handcuffs, on the evening of Pearl Harbor. As the publisher said, “Moving between dreams, memories, and sharply emblematic moments, When the Emperor Was Divine reveals the dark underside of a period in American history that, until now, has been left largely unexplored in American fiction.

The book received several starred reviews, and was recommended for both adult readers and for older teens. It appeared on several editor’s choice lists and on Books for The Teen Age list for 2004 and 2005. It won the Alex Award for adult books with appeal for teens. These are some of the things that reviewers said:
“Otsuka…demonstrates a breathtaking restraint and delicacy throughout this supple and devastating first novel…”
“…this spare and poignant first novel…”
“A carefully researched little novel…”

Asia Source interview with Julie Otsuka
Random House conversation with the author (includes photo)
Barnes and Noble Meet the Writers (includes photo)

This is Otsuka’s first novel. It is based on the actual experiences of her grandparents in WWII. After Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were taken forcibly from their homes, some males were imprisoned or at least interrogated. Often families were split up and the women and children taken to internment camps in very remote and inhospitable places, where they suffered keen physical privations as well as the psychological and economic devastation of being interned by the government they considered their own.


What did you think of the opening of the novel?
The internment of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans during the war has been universally condemned in recent years; however, can you ever see an occasion where the denial of individual civil liberties in favor of the greater good would be right?
Otsuku’s writing has been criticised for being too spare and unsentimental. What do you think of her emotional restraint?
Details abound in the book. What do you think the cumulative effect of all these details is?
What do you think of the relationship between the mother, the daughter, and the son?
What do you think of the resolution and stoicism of the mother? Is there anger at the injustices the people suffer?
The family is alienated from everything they knew. How does Otsuku convey their alienation?
What do you think of the attitude of their neighbors?
What happened to the spirit of the woman’s husband? Is the depiction of his character believable?

Doris Lessing Awarded Nobel Prize in Literature

Thursday, October 11th, 2007

I saw this news article in today’s Shelf Awareness, an online newsletter I subscribe to:

“British author Doris Lessing has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2007. In announcing the award, the Swedish Academy called her “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny.”
The BBC noted that “Lessing is only the 11th woman to win the prize, considered by many to be the world’s highest accolade for writers, since it started in 1901.”

Lessing was born in what is now Iran and moved to Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe – as a child before settling in England in 1949. Her debut novel The Grass is Singing was published the following year and she made her breakthrough with The Golden Notebook in 1962. “The burgeoning feminist movement saw it as a pioneering work and it belongs to the handful of books that informed the 20th Century view of the male-female relationship,” the Swedish Academy said; however, Lessing herself has distanced herself from the feminist movement.

Here are some of Lessing’s books currently owned in HCPL:

The Wind Blows Away Our Words and Other Documents Relating to the Afghan Resistance
The Fifth Child
Under My Skin (volume one of Lessing’s autobiography)
Walking in the Shade (volume two of the autobiography)
Golden Notebook
Mara and Dan
The Sweetest Dream
The Grandmothers: Four Short Novels
Time Bites: Views and Reviews
The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog: a Novel
The Cleft

Check out Novelist on ReadersPlace for reviews of Doris Lessing’s fiction.
HarperCollins has a Reading Group Guide for The Golden Notebook

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

Tuesday, October 9th, 2007

On Tuesday, October 16, 2007, Fallston Branch’s Critics Without Credentials will discuss Jodi Picoult’s fictional tale about a school shooting, called “Nineteen Minutes.”

I don’t want to preempt the group’s discussion by betraying too much about the book here, but I do hope one or two of them leave a comment afterwards about how the discussion went. I am sure it is a very timely book, and one perhaps difficult to read, but very rewarding.

I thought I might list here some suggestions for similar books:

A Theory of Relativity by Jacqueline Mitchard
Readers with a preference for observing how families in turmoil deal with shocking situations will appreciate this novel of grieving grandparents locked in an anguished custody battle for the sole surviving daughter of parents lost in a car accident.

The Buffalo Soldier by Chris Bohjalian
Jodi Picoult writes of hot-button issues as does Chris Bohjalian. This time the issue is the foster care system and mixed-race families. The devastating loss of their twin daughters in a flash flood turns the lives of Terry and Laura Sheldon upside down as their marriage is tested by grief, Terry’s brief love affair, and their growing relationship with their foster child, a ten-year-old African American boy.

While I Was Gone by Sue Miller
Years after a friend was brutally murdered, Jo Becker is now married with a grown family, but when an old housemate moves nearby, Jo rekindles a relationship that takes her back to the past and threatens her future. This book asks the question, “How well do we really know our friends and the ones we care for?”

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
In a series of letters to her estranged husband, narrator Eva Khatchadourian relates the stories of her son’s upbringing and tries to resolve an agonizing question. Two years before the opening of the novel, her son, Kevin, murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker, and the much-beloved teacher who had tried to befriend him. Eva is tortured by the question of who is to blame.

Book Club Girl

Tuesday, October 9th, 2007

Here is yet another reading group resource site I have heard about recently. HarperCollins has been creating buzz with a blog launched by the company and called

I like this blog because it promotes books published by other companies as well as HarperCollins.

“Book Club Girl” is Jennifer Hart, v-p and associate publisher of Harper Perennial and Harper Paperbacks. “We wanted to create a blog where we could promote books that we publish that are great reading group picks, but we knew if that was all the site had it wouldn’t gain the trust of consumers,” said Hart.

Content ranges from bookstore news, such as a reading group event held at the Tattered Cover, Denver, Colo., to the low-down on what members are reading in the two book clubs to which Hart belongs. features include “What’s on Your Nightstand,” where Hart’s colleagues share their bedtime page-turners and occasional guest bloggers contribute entries. Book group online resources are listed, as are Book Sense book group picks, and authors book groups like.

One of the reasons for creating the blog, said Hart, is to capture the attention of reading group members using the Internet to find discussion questions and other materials but who might not be aware of or inclined to visit the publisher’s website. “The blog seemed the natural way to capture the eyeballs out there looking for information and bring them someplace that’s fresh and updated every day,” Hart said. “The best thing we can offer readers is a comprehensive site that covers all of the resources available.”

Viking Penguin Book Club Launches Online

Friday, October 5th, 2007

Here is another online resource for reading groups that I have seen several news bytes on, including a piece in Shelf Awareness: Daily Enlightenment for the Book Trade, “the free e-mail newsletter dedicated to helping the people in stores, in libraries and on the Web buy, sell and lend books most wisely.”

Viking Press and Penguin Books have launched an online resource for
reading groups (click here) which includes regular posts from authors, editors and sales and marketing people at Viking and Penguin; a forthcoming blog where readers can post comments and reviews; a monthly newsletter; weekly news, awards, author tour updates and contests/giveaways.

Viking and Penguin plan regularly to feature one new Viking hardcover, one new Penguin paperback, and one Penguin classic. The site’s archive, which currently consists of more than 100 titles, is being expanded. It includes titles by a range of authors picked to appeal to reading groups. It’s designed to allow users to flip through titles as though browsing the shelves of a bookstore or library.

I plan to add this site to the other publisher sites I check for reading group choices and information. VP Book Club looks very attractive. So far the archive is full of 100 plus titles, but both the news section and the blog from the publishers are a bit scanty. No doubt they will fill up with comments soon! I might sign up for the e-mail newsletter.