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Category Archive for 'Book Club Suggestions'

Hendrik Groen, age 83 ¼, a resident of an assisted living facility in the Netherlands, decides on New Year’s Day, 2013, that he still doesn’t like old people. “Their walker shuffle, their unreasonable impatience, their endless complaints, their tea and cookies, their bellyaching.” He regards himself, however, as “civil, ingratiating, courteous, polite and helpful. Not because I really am all those things, but because I don’t have the balls to act differently.” In order to keep himself from spiraling into depression in the home, he has decided to give the world “an uncensored expose: a year in the life of the inmates of a care home in North Amsterdam.” An international bestseller when it was published in Europe last year, Groen’s diary is written by an anonymous author (newly revealed, see Note at end), and it concerns itself with some of the same issues as were raised in the best-selling December 2012 book, Mother, When Will You Finally Die?” by Martina Rosenberg, a memoir published in Germany. Despite the real information and the statistics which make this book both a fascinating and important study of old age in a different country, the book’s primary purpose is to depict real life in this one care home, and the choice of recording it in a daily diary provides the reader with a plethora of insights and its many humorous episodes.

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Having announced that this book will not be a “costume drama,” author Fay Weldon sets her story between 1922 and 1939, the period between the two world wars. While this is not a pure drawing room comedy, neither is it a story of postwar darkness – a story of families dealing with the deaths of their fathers and sons and the difficulties in supporting their families. Here Weldon’s characters are the elite and educated survivors from that Edwardian period, which shaped their thinking, behavior, and pocketbooks and which has left them out of touch with the real world as they now live in the war’s aftermath. Both satiric and ironic, the plot proves also to be very funny and cleverly revealing of social values. Sir Jeremy Ripple now runs a publishing house but likes to think of himself as a communist. Angela, his wife, the granddaughter of a Princess and niece of an Earl, is the money behind his company, and she still adheres to all the habits and behaviors of the upper class. Only Vivvie, their daughter, “large, ungainly five foot eleven inches tall, and twenty years old,” seems to have much realization of how the world works – and her conclusion is that small, pretty girls are the ones lucky in love. When Vivvie decides to propose marriage to a Douglas Fairbanks look-alike, the action begins, and it never quits. One of Fay Weldon’s best books to date.

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In this memoir, Hisham wastes no time, going straight to the heart of his life and telling the whole story, showing clearly the effects of the very real traumas which he has never fully explored, and the fears and insecurities which have dominated his life as a result. As the memoir opens in March, 2012, forty-one-year-old Matar, and Diana, a photographer, who have been living in New York, are at the airport in Cairo, waiting to take off for Benghazi. He is nervous because he and his family left Libya for exile in 1979, and he has never returned. His father, Jaballa Matar, worked for the Libyan government as first secretary to the Libyan Mission to the United Nations in 1970, and Hisham was born that year in New York. After three years, he, his father, mother, and older brother Ziad, returned to Libya, as Qaddafi was coming to power. Jaballa Matar, who opposed many of Qaddafi’s policies in favor of the resistance in the late 1970s, fell victim to Qaddafi’s ambitions. With their lives endangered, the family escaped from Libya for Egypt in the late 1970s, and Hisham did much of his early schooling in Egypt. Then his father was kidnapped and sent to Abu-Salim Prison in Libya. Matar’s story is enhanced by constant flashbacks which broaden the scope and the cast of characters, making them come more fully alive. This powerful memoir treats the subjects of memory and loss, innocence and guilt, power and vulnerability, and ultimately love and hope, giving the reader new insights into how one man eventually manages to cope with his past, present, and future.

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Author Hiromi Kawakami, for all her prizes and prize nominations, also wins hearts and creates smiles with her off-beat and surprising novels. With an ability to create characters who are sometimes so ordinary that they become interesting, she puts her characters into new situations in which they, with their limited personal and emotional resources, live their lives in full sight of us all. Unpretentious and casual, her main character here, Hitomi Suganuma works as a cashier at the Nakano Thrift Shop, where she sometimes has only half a dozen customers a day. She has plenty of time to observe those around her, to think about their lives, and to contemplate her own future. Fun and funny, the novel that results is almost as unfocused as Hitomi is, lying halfway between a novel and a collection of interrelated short stories, and it all works. The character portraits are unforgettable as author Kawakami brings them to life in ways that will surprise those readers who think of the Japanese as formal and reserved. The characters here are unafraid to say what they think, to be sexy and uninhibited while remaining polite, and to be independent in their lifestyles.

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A purple swamp hen from the famed mural of Pompeii is the speaker of the first story in this collection of short stories by Penelope Lively. As the hen describes, the garden was unlike anything any of us have ever known, hosting “fornication, incest, rape, child abuse, grievous bodily harm – and that’s just Quintus Pompeius, his household, and his associates.” And, the hen states, the humans were far more imaginative than the fauna, which “simply got on with the business of copulation and reproduction.” Clearly establishing the satiric tone of this and many other stories in her new story collection, her first in almost two decades, author Penelope Lively continues to prove that great writing – elegant, precise, completely attuned to nuance, and committed to using exactly the right word and not one word more – still exists for lovers of fine prose. She further shows that fine writing need not be stuffy or effete, that humor is an integral part of life, and that satire may be more effective in conveying ideas than polemics and criticism. Best of all, she shows that stories, though short, may convey big ideas and that collections of stories may represent different times and different forms and still develop a broad thematic unity within the collection.

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