Friends Who Read

A book club

Books 61-75

Once We Were Brothers, by  Ronald Balson.  Elliot Rosenzweig, a respected civic leader and wealthy philanthropist, is attending a fundraiser when he is suddenly accosted and accused of being a former Nazi SS officer named Otto Piatek, the Butcher of Zamosc. Although the charges are denounced as preposterous, his accuser is convinced he is right and engages attorney Catherine Lockhart to bring Rosenzweig to justice. Solomon persuades attorney Catherine Lockhart to take his case, revealing that the true Piatek was abandoned as a child and raised by Solomon’s own family only to betray them during the Nazi occupation. But has Solomon accused the right man?  Once We Were Brothers is Ronald H. Balson’s compelling tale of two boys and a family who struggle to survive in war-torn Poland, and a young love that struggles to endure the unspeakable cruelty of the Holocaust. Two lives, two worlds, and sixty years converge in an explosive race to redemption that makes for a moving and powerful tale of love, survival, and ultimately the triumph of the human spirit.  RATING: 3.5

Orphan Master’s Son, by  Adam Johnson.  Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother—a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang—and an influential father who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. There the boy is given his first taste of power, picking which orphans eat first and which will be lent out for manual labor. Recognized for his loyalty and keen instincts, Jun Do comes to the attention of superiors in the state, rises in the ranks, and starts on a road from which there will be no return.  Considering himself “a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world,” Jun Do becomes a professional kidnapper who must navigate the shifting rules, arbitrary violence, and baffling demands of his Korean overlords in order to stay alive. Driven to the absolute limit of what any human being could endure, he boldly takes on the treacherous role of rival to Kim Jong Il in an attempt to save the woman he loves, Sun Moon, a legendary actress “so pure, she didn’t know what starving people looked like.”  Part breathless thriller, part story of innocence lost, part story of romantic love, The Orphan Master’s Son is also a riveting portrait of a world heretofore hidden from view: a North Korea rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love. A towering literary achievement, The Orphan Master’s Son ushers Adam Johnson into the small group of today’s greatest writers.  RATING: 3.0

Skinny Dip, by Carl Hiassen.  Chaz Perrone may care more about Hummers than hammerheads, but he’s done pretty well for himself as a marine biologist, doctoring water samples so that an agribusiness tycoon can continue dumping fertilizer into the Everglades. When Chaz suspects that his wife, Joey Perrone, has figured out his scam, he resolves to push her overboard a cruise liner into the seething Atlantic. But if Chaz is a subpar scientist, he’s an even worse killer. Joey, clinging blindly to a bale of Jamaican pot, is plucked from the ocean by a rugged stranger. Instead of rushing to the authorities, she seizes the opportunity to stay dead and, with her new friend’s help, screw with Chaz until he screws himself. Add in an ill-tempered detective with a penchant for albino pythons, an oddly hirsute bodyguard addicted to fentanyl, and an unscrupulous boss growing uneasy about his lackey’s increasingly erratic behavior . . . and Chaz’s life is about to get a whole lot more interesting.  RATING: 3.0

Orphan Train, by  Christina Baker Kline.  Penobscot Indian Molly Ayer is close to “aging out” out of the foster care system. A community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping Molly out of juvie and worse…  As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly learns 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.  Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her for her entire life—answers that will ultimately free them both.  RATING: 3.25

Washington Square, by Henry James.  Washington Square is a short novel by Henry James. Originally published in 1880 as a serial in Cornhill Magazine and Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, it is a structurally simple tragicomedy that recounts the conflict between a dull but sweet daughter and her brilliant, unemotional father. The plot of the novel is based upon a true story told to James by his close friend, British actress Fanny Kemble.[1] The book is often compared with Jane Austen’s work for the clarity and grace of its prose and its intense focus on family relationships. James was not a great fan of Washington Square itself. He tried to read it over for inclusion in the New York Edition of his fiction (1907–1909) but found that he could not, and the novel was not included. Other readers, though, have sufficiently enjoyed the book to make it one of the more popular works of the Jamesian canon.  RATING: 4.0

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck.  First published in 1939, Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads—driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. Out of their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into Haves and Have-Nots evolves a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity. A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes into the very nature of equality and justice in America. At once a naturalistic epic, captivity narrative, road novel, and transcendental gospel, Steinbeck’s powerful landmark novel is perhaps the most American of American Classics.  RATING: 4.0

 The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz.  Oscar is a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd who—from the New Jersey home he shares with his old world mother and rebellious sister—dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien and, most of all, finding love. But Oscar may never get what he wants. Blame the fukú—a curse that has haunted Oscar’s family for generations, following them on their epic journey from Santo Domingo to the USA. Encapsulating Dominican-American history, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao opens our eyes to an astonishing vision of the contemporary American experience and explores the endless human capacity to persevere—and risk it all—in the name of love.  RATING: 3.5

Someone, by Alice McDermott.  Ordinary life-its sharp pains and unexpected joys, its bursts of clarity and moments of confusion-lived by an ordinary, but unforgettable woman: this is the subject of Someone, Alice McDermott’s extraordinary seventh novel.  We first glimpse Marie Commeford as a child: a girl in thick glasses observing her pre-Depression world from a Brooklyn stoop. Through her first heartbreak and eventual marriage; her delicate brother’s brief stint as a Catholic priest and his emotional breakdown; her career as a funeral director’s “consoling angel”; the deaths of her parents and the births of her children-we follow Marie through the changing world of the twentieth century and her Irish-American enclave. Rendered with remarkable empathy and insight, Someone is a novel that speaks of life as it is daily lived, with passion and heartbreak, a crowning achievement of one of the finest American writers at work today.  RATING: 3.0

Under the Wide & Starry Sky, by Nancy Horan.  At the age of thirty-five, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne has left her philandering husband in San Francisco to set sail for Belgium—with her three children and nanny in tow—to study art. It is a chance for this adventurous woman to start over, to make a better life for all of them, and to pursue her own desires. Not long after her arrival, however, tragedy strikes, and Fanny and her children repair to a quiet artists’ colony in France where she can recuperate. Emerging from a deep sorrow, she meets a lively Scot, Robert Louis Stevenson, ten years her junior, who falls instantly in love with the earthy, independent, and opinionated “belle Americaine.”  Fanny does not immediately take to the slender young lawyer who longs to devote his life to writing—and who would eventually pen such classics as Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In time, though, she succumbs to Stevenson’s charms, and the two begin a fierce love affair—marked by intense joy and harrowing darkness—that spans the decades and the globe. The shared life of these two strong-willed individuals unfolds into an adventure as impassioned and unpredictable as any of Stevenson’s own unforgettable tales.  RATING: 3.0

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by  Robert Louis Stevenson.  In September of 1884, Robert Louis Stevenson, then in his mid-thirties, moved with his family to Bournemouth, a resort on the southern coast of England, where in the brief span of 23 months he revised A Child’s Garden of Verses and wrote the novels Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  An intriguing combination of fantast thriller and moral allegory, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde depicts the gripping struggle of two opposing personalities — one essentially good, the other evil — for the soul of one man. Its tingling suspense and intelligent and sensitive portrayal of man’s dual nature reveals Stevenson as a writer of great skill and originality, whose power to terrify and move us remains, over a century later, undiminished.  RATING: 3.0

The Invention of Wings, by  Sue Monk Kidd.  Hetty “Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women.  Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten year old Handful, who is to be her handmaid. We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.  As the stories build to a riveting climax, Handful will endure loss and sorrow, finding courage and a sense of self in the process. Sarah will experience crushed hopes, betrayal, unrequited love, and ostracism before leaving Charleston to find her place alongside her fearless younger sister, Angelina, as one of the early pioneers in the abolition and women’s rights movements.  RATING: 3.0

A Good American, by  Alex George.  This is the story of the Meisenheimer family, told by James, a third-generation American living in Beatrice, Missouri. It’s where his German grandparents—Frederick and Jette—found themselves after journeying across the turbulent Atlantic, fording the flood-swollen Mississippi, and being brought to a sudden halt by the broken water of the pregnant Jette.  A Good American tells of Jette’s dogged determination to feed a town sauerkraut and soul food; the loves and losses of her children, Joseph and Rosa; and the precocious voices of James and his brothers, sometimes raised in discord…sometimes in perfect harmony.  But above all, A Good American is about the music in Frederick’s heart, a song that began as an aria, was jazzed by ragtime, and became an anthem of love for his adopted country that the family still hears to this day.  RATING: 3.0

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt.  Theo Decker, a 13-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his longing for his mother, he clings to the one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.  As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love–and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.  The Goldfinch is a mesmerizing, stay-up-all-night and tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.  RATING: 3.5

Waiting for Snow in Havana, by Carlos Eire.  “Have mercy on me, Lord, I am Cuban.” In 1962, Carlos Eire was one of 14,000 children airlifted out of Havana—exiled from his family, his country, and his own childhood by Fidel Castro’s revolution. Winner of the National Book Award, this stunning memoir is a vibrant and evocative look at Latin America from a child’s unforgettable experience. Waiting for Snow in Havana is both an exorcism and an ode to a paradise lost. For the Cuba of Carlos’s youth—with its lizards and turquoise seas and sun-drenched siestas—becomes an island of condemnation once a cigar-smoking guerrilla named Fidel Castro ousts President Batista on January 1, 1959. Suddenly the music in the streets sounds like gunfire. Christmas is made illegal, political dissent leads to imprisonment, and too many of Carlos’s friends are leaving Cuba for a place as far away and unthinkable as the United States. Carlos will end up there, too, and fulfill his mother’s dreams by becoming a modern American man—even if his soul remains in the country he left behind.  RATING: 3.5

The Husband’s Secret, by Liane Moriarty.  At the heart of The Husband’s Secret is a letter that’s not meant to be read.  My darling Cecilia, if you’re reading this, then I’ve died…  Imagine your husband wrote you a letter, to be opened after his death. Imagine, too, that the letter contains his deepest, darkest secret—something with the potential to destroy not only the life you have built together, but the lives of others as well. And then imagine that you stumble across that letter while your husband is still very much alive…  Cecilia Fitzpatrick has achieved it all—she’s an incredibly successful businesswoman, a pillar of her small community, a devoted wife and mother. Her life is as orderly and spotless as her home. But that letter is about to change everything—and not just for her. There are other women who barely know Cecilia—or each other—but they, too, are about to feel the earth-shattering repercussions of her husband’s secret.  RATING: 2.75

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