Saturday, April 22, 2017

May Book, Rules of Civility

  Amor Towles' debut novel, Rules of Civility, transports readers back to Manhattan in 1938, just before the sharp lines between social stratifications were smudged by the leveling influences of World War II and the G.I. Bill.  

Rules of Civility takes its title from young George Washington's Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, all 110 of which appear in the novel's appendix. Like the literary touchstones he evokes — F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton and Louis Auchincloss — Towles, a principal at a Manhattan investment firm with English degrees from Yale and Stanford, writes with grace and verve about the mores and manners of a society on the cusp of radical change.

Towles uses the somewhat contrived device of a long flashback to tell his story, but it works. His starting point is the 1966 opening of Walker Evans' "Many Are Called" show at The Museum of Modern Art, attended by his then-middle-aged, urbane narrator and her husband. Among the photographs — in which Evans captured New Yorkers on the subway with a hidden camera in the late 1930s — the narrator recognizes two shots, taken a year apart, of a man she used to know named Tinker Grey. Seeing these photographs sends her back to reminiscences of the year she met Grey, a turning point in her life.

The Week's Best Stories from NPR, August 2011

Saturday, April 1, 2017

April Book, The Water is Wide

The Water is Wide is a memoir published by Pat Conroy in 1972. It is based on his work as a teacher on Daufuskie Island, South 

The island is poor and isolated from the mainland, having no bridges and little infrastructure. Nearly all of the islanders are directly descended from slaves and have had little contact with the mainland and its people.

Conroy writes about his struggles to communicate with the islanders, to find ways to reach his students, ages 10 to 13, who are illiterate and innumerate. They know shockingly little of the world beyond their island. Conroy finds himself doing battle with the principal over his unconventional teaching methods and with district administrators who have neglected to provide proper education for these children.

Conroy writes with humor and compassion when recreating dialogues and incidents, but never deserting the seriousness of the topic.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

March Book, The Collaborator of Bethlehem

In his first Omar Yussef mystery, The Collaborator of Bethlehem,  (published in 2006),  Matt Beynon Rees tackles the complex Palestinian world of culture clash and suspicion.

Omar Yussef has been a teacher of history to the children of Bethlehem. He is a likable character filled with humility, humanity and faith in the power of knowledge. When a favorite former pupil, George Saba, a member of the Palestinian Christian minority, is arrested for collaborating with the Israelis in the killing of a Palestinian guerrilla, Omar is sure he has been framed. If George is not cleared, he faces imminent execution. When the wife of the dead man, also one of Omar Yussef’s former pupils, is murdered, possibly raped. When he begins to suspect the head of the Bethlehem al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades is the true collaborator, Omar and his family are threatened. But as no one else is willing to stand up to the violent Martyrs Brigades men, who hold the real power in the town, it is up to him to investigate. 

Author Anne Perry writes, “A beautifully written story. I have walked the streets of Bethlehem with Omar Yussef, smelled the dust and the fear, tasted his food, shared his anger and his hope. His decency is a light in the gloom. I shall not forget him."

Other Omar Yussef Mysteries: A Grave in Gaza, The Samaratan's Secret, The Fourth Assassin

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

February Book, Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, by Jennifer Chiaverini, is based on the true story of Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who became a  professional dressmaker and personal friend to Mary Todd Lincoln.

The story of their childhoods could not have been more different, yet both grew up to be ambitious young women. Elizabeth was determined to earn enough money to buy her freedom; Mary sought a husband who would respect her intelligence. When each arrived in Washington DC, it was a crucial time in her life. Mary was to be the First Lady and Elizabeth had developed a client list that included the top of Washington society. Their friendship would endure the death of children, the assassination of the President and a nationwide scandal.

Keckley published a memoir, “Behind the Scenes,” in 1868. The public did not react positively. Chiaverini writes, “She had always prided herself on her integrity and dignity, and to suddenly be dismissed as a lowly servant telling tales was quite a shock.”

Self-taught, self-made and utterly self-reliant, Elizabeth Keckley represents an important but forgotten piece of history.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

January Book, Euphoria

Euphoria, by Lily King, is a novel of historical fiction based on a brief period in  the life of Margaret Mead. In 1933, Mead, already well-known for her ground-breaking work, Coming of Age in Samoa, and her husband, Reo Fortune, were returning from a discouraging stay with a hostile tribe in New Guinea, when they met a colleague, Gregory Bateson, who convinced them to stay and continue working with a different tribe.

Using this encounter as a point of departure, King creates the story of a love triangle involving three gifted anthropologists who are working to develop a new social science.

Denise Brennan Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Georgetown University, comments, "Well, Nell is a tough woman. She goes into places where women weren't going at that time. And we hear, time and time again, from the author, Lily King, how ambitious she is and how she loves to work. I loved Nell. I think, in Nell, we see somebody who's straddling so many worlds, both the male world and the places that women couldn't go in her own society and then we watch her so expertly and so compassionately and yet, at times, quite troublingly try to make sense of this completely other so-called exotic place she goes into.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

December Book, Everything I Never Told YOu

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet . . .

This is the opening sentence for this first novel, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. The story is about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio.

A profoundly moving story of family, history, and the meaning of home, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, exploring the divisions between cultures and the rifts within a family, and uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.

"If we know this story, we haven't seen it yet in American fiction, not until now. Ng has set two tasks in this novel’s doubled heart—to be exciting, and to tell a story bigger than whatever is behind the crime. She does both by turning the nest of familial resentments into at least four smaller, prickly mysteries full of secrets the family members won’t share… What emerges is a deep, heartfelt portrait of a family struggling with its place in history, and a young woman hoping to be the fulfillment of that struggle. This is, in the end, a novel about the burden of being the first of your kind—a burden you do not always survive.”  Alexander Chee, The New York Time Book Review

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

November Book, The Franchise Affair

The Talk About Books group decided at their October meeting to read a mystery for the November book selection.  Josephine Tey came up as a much loved British mystery writer. The Franchise Affair was first published in 1948.

The setting is contemporary post-Second World War, but could be  inspired by the 18th-century case of Elizabeth Canning, a maidservant who claimed she had been kidnapped and held prisoner for a month. It could be based on a 1925 non-fiction account of the case, The Canning Wonder by Athur Machen.

Robert Blair was about to knock off from a slow day at his law firm when the phone rang. It was Marion Sharpe on the line, a local woman of quiet disposition who lived with her mother at their decrepit country house, The Franchise. It appeared that she was in some serious trouble: Miss Sharpe and her mother were accused of brutally kidnapping a demure young woman named Betty Kane. Miss Kane's claims seemed highly unlikely, even to Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, until she described her prison -- the attic room with its cracked window, the kitchen, and the old trunks -- which sounded remarkably like The Franchise. Yet Marion Sharpe claimed the Kane girl had never been there, let alone been held captive for an entire month! Not believing Betty Kane's story, Solicitor Blair takes up the case and, in a dazzling feat of amateur detective work, solves the unbelievable mystery that stumped even Inspector Grant.