Saturday, December 26, 2015

Empire Falls, January Book

In 2002, Richard Russo was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life. writes the following review of Empire Falls:

Richard Russo - from his first novel, Mohawk, to his most recent, Straight Man-has demonstrated a peerless affinity for the human tragicomedy, and with this stunning new novel he extends even further his claims on the small-town, blue-collar heart of the country.
Dexter County, Maine, and specifically the town of Empire Falls, has seen better days, and for decades, in fact, only a succession from bad to worse. One by one, its logging and textile enterprises have gone belly-up, and the once vast holdings of the Whiting clan (presided over by the last scion's widow) now mostly amount to decrepit real estate. The working classes, meanwhile, continue to eke out whatever meager promise isn't already boarded up.
Miles Roby gazes over this ruined kingdom from the Empire Grill, an opportunity of his youth that has become the albatross of his daily and future life. Called back from college and set to work by family obligations-his mother ailing, his father a loose cannon-Miles never left home again. Even so, his own obligations are manifold: a pending divorce; a troubled younger brother; and, not least, a peculiar partnership in the failing grill with none other than Mrs. Whiting. All of these, though, are offset by his daughter, Tick, whom he guides gently and proudly through the tribulations of adolescence.
A decent man encircled by history and dreams, by echoing churches and abandoned mills, by the comforts and feuds provided by lifelong friends and neighbors, Miles is also a patient, knowing guide to the rich, hardscrabble nature of Empire Falls: fathers and sons and daughters, living and dead, rich and poor alike. Shot through with the mysteries of generations and the shattering visitations of the nation at large, it is a social novel of panoramic ambition, yet at the same time achingly personal. In the end, Empire Falls reveals our worst and best instincts, both our most appalling nightmares and our simplest hopes, with all the vision, grace and humanity of truly epic storytelling.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Fall of Marigolds, November Book

A Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner is a novel about love, loss and the bonds that connect us through generations.
Nurse Clara Wood is working on Ellis Island in New York Harbor in September 1911. She has suffered the loss of the man she loved in the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. While caring for a sick immigrant, she notices a name embroidered on his scarf and finds herself in a dilemma that forces her to re-look at her life.
In September 2011, Taryn Michaels, a widow, is living a good life, raising a daughter and working in Manhattan. Like Clara, she has suffered the loss of a loved one, her husband who died in the collapse of the World Trade Towers. A chance reconnection and a  century old scarf has the potential of changing her life.

This book is described as beautifully crafted and captivating as it weaves together two devastating New York tragedies, the fire and 9/11. The story confronts the fact of life we all live with -  disaster can quickly take away what we hold most dear, yet we can still go forward with hope and renewed love.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Last Days of Summer, October Book

Steve Kluger's Last Days of Summer is a hilarious and heart–warming story about a down and out kid who finds inspiration in his favorite baseball hero.

This is a coming of age novel in which Kluger uses letters, newspaper clippings, war bulletins, ticket stubs and even report cards to tell the story of Joey Margolis, a precocious twelve year old who is in need of a hero. Joey is growing up Jewish in a tough Brooklyn neighborhood in the 1940's.

Constant bullying from the kids in the neighborhood leads him to write to to Charlie Banks, an up and coming star with the New York Giants, asking for a home run so he can tell everyone that it was for him. This is not easy, but Joey uses every trick in the book to get what he wants. The friendship that comes out of their simple correspondence will change them both forever.

The joys and sorrows of growing up will always have an audience and this novel sheds light on all the complexity of those difficult times, with humour and joy.

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, September Book

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus is a 2005 non-fiction book by American author and science writer Charles Mann about the pre-Columbian Americas. 
The book argues that a combination of recent findings in different fields of research suggests that human populations in the Western Hemisphere, the indigenous peoples of the Americas, were more numerous, had arrived earlier, were more sophisticated culturally, and controlled and shaped the natural landscape to a greater extent than scholars had previously thought.
 For example, Mann takes issue with the notion that European technologies in the 17th century were more advanced that those of the Indians. He uses guns as on e of many examples. The Indians thought of them as "noisemakers", more difficult to aim than arrows. Indeed,  John Smith of the Jamestown colony noted that "the awful could not shoot as far as an arrow could fly."


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Why Does the World Exist?, August Book

Why Does the World Exist? is an existential detective story.

Jim Holt dares to ask the question. "Why?" “Why is there something rather than nothing?” You would think that so basic a question must have perplexed people since the beginning of philosophical musings. Actually, there is no evidence in early written literature. Early philosophers, such as Aristotle, wondered what the world was made of, but they didn't ask why it is here. 

Jim's search for answers leads him and his readers on a surprisingly lively journey, given the profound nature of the topic. He travels to Paris, London, Oxford, Pittsburgh and Austin, Texas, to meet the philosophers and cosmologists David Deutsch, Adolf Gr├╝nbaum, John Leslie, Derek Parfit, Roger Penrose, Richard Swinburne and Steven Weinberg. He also has a discussion with the philosophically inclined novelist John Updike. As he moves from one to the other, Holt learns of ever more extraordinary solutions, some almost mystical, yet rooted in solid reasoning.

Holt has a technical background in addition to his experiences as a writer and philosopher. He studied mathematics at the University of Virginia, and was a faculty fellow in the philosophy department at Columbia. He has been a contributor to The New York Times, Slate and New Yorker magazines.

Reviewers describe Why Does the World Exist? as a readable, sometimes even comical, search for answers to that question we all ask ourselves at some time or other.

You can see and hear Jim Holt talk about the book live on TED Talks:

Leah Gessner

Saturday, June 27, 2015

All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion, July Book

Yes. Fannie Flagg, that talented southern writer who is known and loved for her entertaining, wisdom-filled novels. Many reviewers consider The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion her best novel yet. They say it rivals her famous Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe which was adapted for the screen as "Fried Green Tomatoes" by Fannie Flagg herself. Before becoming a writer, Flagg appeared regularly on popular TV shows (Candid Camera, Match Game) and on stage (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas).

In The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion, Sookie Poole finds herself delving into the past where she discovers unexpected, amazing information about her mother; a mother who has been more of a trial than a joy. The new knowledge about who her mother really was inspires Sookie as she goes forward in her own life. Along the way, the reader gets to learn about a little known aspect of American 20th century history, including WASP, Women's Airforce Service Pilots.

I recommend watching an interview with Fannie Flagg on You Tube. Fannie talks about how she got the idea for the book and her approach to writing.  Go to: Search for Fannie Flagg interview with Southern Living.

It's hard to pass up a good story, and Fannie Flagg is a great story-teller; just right for a summer read.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Life After Life, June Book

I, for one, am eager to read "Life After Life" by Kate Atkinson. Everything I have read about this book peaks my curiosity.

First of all, the structure of the book is intriguing.  It could be titled "Life After Life After Life After Life ........" The central character, Ursula Todd is born and dies repeatedly as the structure of the book circles back and forward in time to explore alternative possible lives for her. It begins with Ursula's birth in 1910 to an upper middle class British family; first as a stillborn, but later as a healthy baby. Eventually she lives through World War II, works in the London War Office and witnesses the Blitz.

I am told by enthusiastic reviewers that this novel will convince us to suspend the will to disbelieve so that we can continue to follow Ursula through her lives, which start again and again, sometimes along very different paths and other times only slightly changed, but always in unpredictable ways.

The story begs questions such as: Can we make things better through the experience of repetition? Does the human condition have to include war?

"Life After Life" was chosen as one of the top ten books of 2013 by the New York Times Book Review, shortlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction and the Walter Scott Prize and designated as a notable book for adults by the American Library Association.

At Talk About Books on June 19th we will find out who the believers are.

Leah Gessner

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Americanah, May Book

NPR's Jennifer Reese calls "Americanah" a "rich and gloriously detailed tapestry ... hung on the sturdy scaffolding of a sweet love story." Those glorious details are Adichie's insightful observations of the human social condition. They abound throughout the story.

In "Americanah",  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tackles the question, "What is the difference between an African-American and an American-African?" She was born in Nigeria where she wasn't aware that she was black; not until she emigrated to the United States.

An example of the fine differentiations she succeeds in communicating to American readers: 
In college, the African-American joins the Black Student Union, while the American-African signs up with the African Students Association.  When thinking of race and class, Americans instinctively speak of “blacks and poor whites,” not “poor blacks and poor whites.”
“Americanah” tells the story of a smart, strong-willed Nigerian woman named Ifemelu who, after she leaves Africa for America, endures several harrowing years of near destitution before graduating from college, starting a blog entitled “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-­American Black” and winning a fellowship at Princet­on. Her high school boyfriend, Obinze, remains in Nigeria after an unsuccessful attempt to emigrate. He becomes a successful businessman. A complicated, long distance relationshiop ensues.

Leah Gessner

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Rosie Project, April Book

Graeme Simsion, a New Zealand born, Australian author, has created Don Tillman, a brilliant yet socially challenged professor of genetics, who decides it’s time he found a wife. And so, in the orderly, evidence-based manner with which Don approaches all things, he designs the Wife Project to find his perfect partner: a sixteen-page, scientifically valid survey.

Rosie Jarman, strangely beguiling, fiery, and intelligent shows up. While Don quickly disqualifies her as a candidate for the Wife Project, as a DNA expert, he is particularly suited to help Rosie on her own quest: identifying her biological father.

Arrestingly endearing and entirely unconventional, this novel will resonate with anyone who has ever tenaciously gone after life or love in the face of great challenges. Although set in his geeky ways and distinctly disadvantaged when it comes to tact, Don's underlying sweetness and charm endears him to the reader. The Rosie Project is in part about the joy that can come from openness to change. The Rosie Project is a rare find: a book that restores our optimism in the power of human connection while offering lots of amusement, sharp dialogue, fast pacing, hijinks, slapstick and surprises.

(excerpts from LitLover and NPR Reviews)

Leah Gessner

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Without You There Is No Us, March Book

Suki Kim says of her chilling memoir, "It was a world where they invented their own truth and I had always been obsessed with it. So in 2011, I managed to get a job teaching English to the 19-year-old sons of North Korea’s ruling class at a brand-new university staffed only by foreigners. I lived on a walled campus with the students and ate all my meals with them, and was constantly monitored by minders. I kept notes whenever I could, erasing everything from my computer and keeping it on USB sticks, which I carried on my body. What I wrote would become Without You, There Is No Us.

According to the December 11, 2014 NY Times review, "the book takes its title from a patriotic song extolling the Great General Comrade Kim Jong-il, whose death was announced on what happened to be the day of the author's final class in the Democratic People's Republic. The book reminds us that evil is not only banal; it is also completely arbitrary."

The reader will be amazed to read about the shocking technological backwardness of Kim's students, even though the institution they attend is the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. The students do have ­access to an internal network, or intranet, but it’s not connected to the Internet, and they use their computers mostly as dictionaries.

Kim can’t help wondering whether she has literally endangered her students by giving them a sense of hope. “I hope they have forgotten everything I inspired in them,” she writes.

Suki Kim was born and raised in Seoul. She lives in NY and has been traveling to North Korea as a journalist since 2002.

For more enticing tidbits about what lies ahead in Without You, There Is No Us, click on the following links to go to the NY Times review or to Suki Kim's website. I recommend her photo album from North Korea.

 Leah Gessner


Saturday, January 24, 2015

Elephant Company, February Book

Talk About Books meets at the Guilford Free Library every 3rd Wednesday of the month. On Wednesday, February 18 at 6:30, we will be discussing Elephant Company by Vicki Constantine Croke. This is "the inspiring story of an unlikely hero and the animals who helped him save lives in World War II. Copies are available at the library.

Our “unlikely hero” is Lt. Col. James Howard Williams, a dashing, athletic man with a deep attachment to animals of all kinds, and an uncanny ability to communicate with them. Shortly after Williams returned from World War I, a chance meeting and the mere mention of elephants were all it took for the animal lover to apply for a job as an elephant wallah with the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation.

On arriving at camp, he was shown a row of elephants and told, “Those four on the right are yours, and God help you if you can’t look after them.” Williams had no idea what that entailed, but his uncanny rapport with the elephants transformed him from a carefree young man into the charismatic war hero known as Elephant Bill. Impressed with their intelligence, courage, kindness, and humor, he believed that just living with the elephants made him a better man. He worked to cure their ills and he fought for their humane care.

This work of nonfiction is the result of Croke's detailed research.  Though rich in information, Sara Gruen (author of Water for Elephants) writes in the NY Times Sunday Book Review, "it is about far more than just the war, or even elephants. This is the story of friendship, loyalty and breathtaking bravery that transcends species." Part biography, part war epic, and part wildlife adventure, Elephant Company is an inspirational narrative that illuminates a little-known chapter in the annals of wartime heroism.

What more can I say? Come get a copy and join us on February 18th. Meantime, go to for a fascinating browse.

Leah Gessner

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Orphan Train, January Book

Christina Baker Kline delivers her most ambitious and powerful novel to date; a captivating story of two very different women who build an unexpected friendship: a 91-year-old woman with a hidden past as an orphan-train rider and the teenage girl whose own troubled adolescence leads her to seek answers to questions no one has ever thought to ask.

Nearly eighteen, Molly Ayer knows she has one last chance. Just months from "aging out" of the child welfare system, and close to being kicked out of her foster home, a community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping her out of juvie and worse.

Vivian Daly has lived a quiet life on the coast of Maine. But in her attic, hidden in trunks, are vestiges of a turbulent past. As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly discovers that she and Vivian aren't as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.

Rich in detail and epic in scope, Orphan Train is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of second chances, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are.

 Christina Baker Kline writes in her website that "Orphan Train is a specifically American story of mobility and rootlessness, highlighting a little-known but historically significant moment in our country’s past. Between 1854 and 1929, so-called “orphan trains” transported more than 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children – many of them first-generation Irish Catholic immigrants – from the coastal cities of the eastern United States to the Midwest for “adoption” (often, in fact, indentured servitude). Charles Loring Brace, who founded the program, believed that hard work, education, and firm but compassionate childrearing – not to mention Midwestern Christian family values – were the only way to save these children from a life of depravity and poverty."

Go to Christina Baker Kline's website to learn more about this fascinating piece of history and why the author was inspired to write about it.