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Category Archive for 'Book Club Suggestions'

When her husband Sam dies alone of a heart attack in the minutes that she has been waiting to join him at a favorite restaurant in Vermont, devoted wife Antonia makes it her primary focus to create an afterlife for him. She needs something that will enable her to relive memories and past events with him while she lives her everyday life. When Mario, a young, undocumented worker from Mexico who works on the nearest farm, comes to clean her gutters, he eventually asks for a favor – Will she please help him call his girlfriend who is now in the US but far away from him in Vermont? Developing her themes of love and loss in life and death as they affect Antonia, Julia Alvarez creates several subplots involving other characters, all reflecting powerful emotions without descending into sentimentality or maudlin self-analysis. Mario, his girlfriend Estela, and José, his fellow worker on the farm, are one plot, dealing with the problems of illegal immigrants desperate to create new lives in the US. The second plot line revolves around a get-together of Antonia and her three sisters in Massachusetts to celebrate her birthday. The failure of sister Izzy to appear for the celebration, as promised, becomes the all-consuming issue for the other sisters for many days, and the need for Antonia to be present as they and the police all search for Izzy force her to be out of state when some of the issues involving Mario and his undocumented girlfriend are becoming critical. Abandonment, betrayal, the sadness of loss, and anger lead to personal growth, further develop the original themes, and flesh out this dramatic and sensitive novel.

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With two main characters who have little to suggest that their stories will become the charming, funny, insightful, and un-put-down-able chronicles that eventually evolve, Irish author Rónán Hession demonstrates his own creativity and his own ideas regarding communication and its importance or lack of it in our lives. He ignores the generations-old traditions of boisterous Irish writing and non-stop action in favor of a quiet, kindly, and highly original analysis of his characters and their unpretentious and self-contained lives. Leonard and Hungry Paul, both in their early thirties, are serious introverts with few friends, but events occur which inspire each of them to become just a bit more social. For Leonard, it is a young woman; for Hungry Paul, it is the realization that a new job comes with the possibility that he may have his own apartment, not live at home. I cannot remember when I have read a book which so thoroughly and honestly touched my heart. The writing is intelligent, memorable, real, and very funny, and I am already impatient for Rónán Hession’s next novel.

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This superb historical novel focuses on the power of words to change lives. Curon, a tiny town a few kilometers from the junction of Switzerland, Austria, and Italy, is the setting, and its inhabitants are officially Italian, but they all speak German, instead. When they are forced to learn Italian, and punished severely if they do not, they find themselves caught between Mussolini on one side, and Hitler on the other, as both are coming to power at the same time. Author Marco Balzano tells a dazzling history, and he does so by keeping things simple, letting the action tell most of the story, and keeping his characters and their problems very real. One of the best – and most unpretentious – novels I’ve read all year.

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Author Irmgard Keun firmly established her reputation in Germany in 1932, with the publication of the hugely popular pre-Nazi era novel, The Artificial Silk Girl, a celebration of youth and the fast life lived to its fullest. Almost a generation and a world war later, Keun published Ferdinand, The Man with the Kind Heart depicting the aftermath of the war and the separation of Germany into two nations, East and West. “Ordinary” citizens of this time and place do not know what to expect in the future, what goals make sense in this destroyed society, and how to live a real life. These are some of the very real goals of main character Ferdinand Timpe. A former POW and fiancé of a girl who is almost a stranger to him, Ferdinand himself is not intrinsically very interesting, but author Irmgard Keun is such a high-powered, energetic writer, so wild in creating scenarios filled with irony, humor, and constant surprises, that once a reader starts exploring her novel, it becomes all-encompassing. Her tornado of images and actions never lets up, bringing even Ferdinand to reluctant life.

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Ten pages into this novella, which Muriel Spark claimed was her favorite among all her novels, the fate of main character Lise is not in doubt. Lise will be dead before the book ends. Since the reader will suspect who the murderer is well before the murder happens, the author has always preferred to refer to this book not as a “whodunnit,” but as a “whydunnit,” a term she uses within the book. From the outset the reader observes surreal, alarming, and clinically insane behavior from Lise, the victim. At the same time the person who seems to be her murderer appears to be a just bit wacky. Unexpected ironies throughout turn the novel on its head, creating a mood in which dark humor and bizarre surprises keep a smile on the face of the reader almost all the way through the novel – until the reader discovers the truth, that the person in “the driver’s seat” throughout the novel’s action is actually neither of the two main characters. It is Muriel Spark herself, whose ability to play with the reader’s sensibilities, control them, and then reveal the extent to which they have been manipulated turns the “whydunnit” into an unparalleled tour de force.

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