Gab Bags List

Williamsburg Regional Library has collected multiple copies of the following titles for use by reading groups. The books are packaged in a tote bag, and can be checked out for up to eight weeks. Many of the titles have questions and supplementary material to stimulate thoughtful discussion.

Book groups can now reserve their selected titles up to one year in advance using our KitKeeper tool.

For instructions on using KitKeeper, click here.

  • Use the catalog to place holds on the title you want.
  • Use the KitKeeper menu to find a complete list of titles or browse the Gab Bags that are available on a particular date.

For a printable list of titles (without descriptions), click here .

Join our Book Group Newsletter list if you're interested in receiving periodic emails about Gab Bags and other book group resources.

If you have any questions about the program, or would like to learn about other book group resources available through the Williamsburg Regional Library, please contact Andrew Smith, Readers Services Librarian, or call 259.4050.


Jump to titles starting with: A-C   |   D-G   |   H-L   |   M-R   |   S-Z

1776 - David McCullough

Historian McCullough combed British and American archives to build a detailed portrait of the first, critical, year of the American Revolution. As the year began, the colonies had an untested and untrained army, with insufficient supplies.  It ended with the surprise victory at Trenton, which gave the Americans a new determination to continue the battle for independence.  In between, though, George Washington barely held the army together, suffering serious defeats and personal doubts.  Relying on correspondence, a re-evaluation of the English side (including the ill-advised George III), and first-person accounts, McCullough recaptures the spirit behind The Spirit of '76.

Age of Desire - Jennie Fields

Despite her growing literary reputation, Edith Wharton's unhappy personal life overshadowed her time in her beloved Paris.  Trapped in a passionless marriage with the much older and increasingly unstable Teddy Wharton, she was convinced that she was incapable of love.  When she became infatuated with an American journalist and embarked on an affair with him, it also drove a wedge between Edith and her confidante and literary secretary Anna Bahlmann.  Using Wharton's and Bahlmann's own letters and diaries as background, Fields captures this time of temptation and loss, and the effects it had on four very different people.  Andrew reviewed it at Blogging for a Good Book.

The Age of Miracles - Karen Thompson Walker

When Earth's rotation begins to slow, days and nights begin to lengthen, society is disrupted, and the natural world is threatened.  11-year old Julia witnesses the breakup of old bonds, the radical changes forced on people, and the reaction to those who don't go along.  She also suffers the pangs of first love, of faithless friends, and of the loss of dreams she never had a chance to dream.  In spite of that, there is a note of hope that accompanies her story.  Check out Melissa's review on our blog. 11 regular print, 1 large print, and 1 audiobook.    

Ali and Nino – Kurban Said

In pre-World War I Azerbaijan the cultural chasms are as deep as the oil wells that surround the city. Muslim Ali Khan, the scion of the wealthy and powerful Shirvanshir family, has fallen in love with Princess Nino Kipiani, the daughter of a rich Christian merchant family. Their courtship, opposed by family and friends, is disrupted by the outbreak of war. A time of great change is coming for Russia and for the Middle East, and the young lovers must decide whether they belong to Europe or Asia. Rich with depictions of the people of the Caucasus and affecting in its portrayal of youthful romance, Ali and Nino has been called “a jewel of a book” by the New York Times Book Review.  It's also been reviewed at WRL's book blog.

American Pastoral - Philip Roth

Roth's literary alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, imagines the life of his high school hero, Swede Levov, as Swede comes to terms with a loss of American innocence.  Athlete, successful businessman, husband of a former Miss New Jersey, Swede seems to have it all - until a rash and revolutionary act by his daughter Merry undoes his life.  Set against the backdrop of the turbulent Sixties, Swede comes to represent the Everyman who loses his moorings when the institutions of his life - family, work, government - break apart. Andrew reviewed it on Blogging for a Good Book.

And the Mountains Echoed - Khaled Hosseini

Linked together by a single event, ordinary Afghans experience war, poverty, and exile, and gradually reveal the story of their lives. In Afghanistan, Greece, France, and the United States, Hosseini creates intimate settings for each character, away from the larger issues of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, but focused on the way small and large decisions can affect those around us. (402 pages)

An Equal Music - Vikram Seth

The delicate balance of a string quartet is tested when pianist Julia McNicholl joins them for a tour.  Julia and violinist Michael had an intense love affair when they were studying music in Vienna years before.  When they separated, they lost all contact, until Julia suddenly comes back into Michael's lonely and disordered life, and they begin playing together again.  But Julia has secrets that threaten their revived relationship.  Seth depicts the creative process, the demanding personalities of the five musicians, and the beauty of the music with clarity and passion, even as he builds to a crashing resolution.

Angle of Repose - Wallace Stegner

Stegner's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel follows the tale of Susan and Oliver Ward, pioneers to the American West following engineering jobs from mining camp to mining camp until their marriage falls apart.  Their story is narrated by their grandson, Lyman, a retired historian wracked with a crippling disease that leaves him reliant on family friends.  By studying his grandmother's letters and drawings he delves beneath the public surface of her marriage to the pain and individuality of her life.  At the same time, he draws comfort and insight into his own troubled life.  Slow, intense and deeply rewarding reading.

Annie Dunne - Sebastian Barry

In the rural farm country of County Wicklow, Ireland, 59-year old Annie Dunne lives with her 62-year old cousin Sarah.  Over the course of a summer, Annie and Sarah will care for the children of a relative, and Sarah will be courted by the local handyman.  How will Annie, handicapped and dependent on Sarah for her bed and bread, deal with changes that threaten the life she’s grown accustomed to?  Barry, a well-regarded playwright, explores the rhythms of language and seasons on a land unchanged by the 20th century.  Read the WRL review from October 2010.

The Art of Racing in the Rain - Garth Stein

Enzo, a Lab/terrier mix, is automobile racer Denny Swift's mascot and companion as he navigates the winding road to a pro career.  He's also a family guardian when Denny's wife Eve suffers a trauma, and as Eve's parents sue for custody of Denny  and Eve's daughter.  Enzo pays careful attention to Denny's response to his years of sorrow, since he is convinced that he will be reincarnated as a human and wants to be prepared.  A tender and heartwarming story of love, loss, and faithfulness.  (Large Print and Audiobook)

Atonement - Ian McEwan

Briony Tallis, at three stages of her life, narrates this searing account of lives ruined and, perhaps, salvaged.  Told with an exquisite detail that captures the heat of an English day, the passion of young lovers, the chaos of war and retreat, and a conscience that tries to right past wrongs, McEwan is at his best as he recreates Briony's life and her struggle to tell the truth about a childhood error that ruined many lives.  Short-listed for the Booker Prize, which McEwan won for Amsterdam.

Away - Amy Bloom

What would you do to find your lost child? Lillian Leyb has escaped from a pogrom in Russia and made her way to the poverty and ambition of New York's Lower East Side. When word comes that her young daughter may have survived the murderous attack and been taken to Siberia, Lillian blazes with a fierce desire to find and save her.  She sets out on a harrowing trip across North America, intending to cross the Bering Strait into Stalin's Soviet Union. Bloom's talent at creating atmosphere and a strong cast of secondary characters sets the quest of a memorable woman against the backdrop of vivid settings.

Back When We Were Grownups - Anne Tyler

Fifty-three year old Rebecca thinks she has turned into the wrong person.  Widowed for 27 years, mother to three stepdaughters and one daughter, running her dead husband's family business, and taking care of his 99-year old uncle, she wonders how she got to this place.  Going back to the first major decision of her life, she rekindles her relationship with the man she almost married.  Filled with the small details, quirky characters, and gently comic scenes that make Tyler a singular writer, Back When We Were Grownups gives Rebecca, and readers, a chance to see what might have been. 

Barn Blind - Jane Smiley

Smiley's first novel is the story of an Indiana family under the spell of mother Kate's obsession with raising and training horses, and conveying her certain ideas of riding to everyone she meets.  Her four adolescent children struggle with their identities and awareness of their limited horizons; her husband tries to reignite the love they used to have.  Strong personalities clash in an ultimately tragic portrait of a family. 

Beautiful Swimmers - William W. Warner

Warner's classic is a must-read for anyone whose life is affected by, or affects, the Chesapeake Bay.  Following the blue crab (callinectes sapidus, or beautiful savory swimmer), Warner details a life cycle that is still mysterious to the scientists and watermen who see the crab at every point on the Bay.  He also writes eloquently and lovingly about the lives of the watermen who once worked year-round harvesting the shallow waters of the Bay, and about the changes that would drive all but the hardiest out of work.  A Pulitzer Prize-winner in 1977, this edition adds an update about the decline of crabs, as well as an introduction by John Barth.  Check out Andrew's obituary of William W. Warner from April 2008.

Beekeeper's Apprentice - Laurie R. King

First in the series, Apprentice recounts the first meeting between the gangly, bookish Mary Russell and the legendary consulting detective Sherlock Holmes.  Mary's innate skills of observation and logical thinking entice Holmes into training her in his own methods of detection, and the pair's initial adventures confirm her abilities.  But when a frighteningly capable adversary arises, the duo must split up or risk their lives and relationship. 

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk - Ben Fountain

Made famous by a brief firefight filmed by Fox News, Billy Lynn and the rest of Bravo Squad are pulled out of Iraq and sent on a national morale-raising tour.  From the White House to small-town Chambers of Commerce, they are surrounded by people wanting to express their gratitude and make money out of their story.  On the last day of the tour Billy and his surviving comrades wander around Cowboy Stadium before becoming a sidelight in the halftime show.  Overwhelmed by the death of one friend and severe wounding of another, Billy looks at his country in a new, more mature way and makes a fateful decision.  Caution: Billy and his friends have come straight from combat, so their language and attitudes are rough.  Here's what Andrew thought at Blogging for a Good Book (307 pages)  

Blue Water - A. Manette Ansay

Rex and Meg Van Dorn lose their 6-year old son in an accident caused by drunken neighbor Cindy Ann Kreisler.  When grief and the revenge of a lawsuit don't help them to heal, they set off to live aboard their sailboat, but even the ocean and the idyllic settings of a Caribbean island find ways to remind them of their son.  As Meg tries to find a way to let go or to live with her sorrow and anger, memories of her youthful friendship with Cindy Ann make her question her own responsibility for the accident.  A powerful tale of anguish transformed into forgiveness, and of friendship lost and renewed, told in Ansay's clear and detailed language. 

The Bonesetter’s Daughter - Amy Tan

In this follow-up to The Joy Luck Club, Tan continues to explore themes of mother-daughter relationships. Ruth is a 40-something ghostwriter caring for her difficult and demanding mother, who may have Alzheimer’s. The discovery of her mother’s diary, written in Chinese, prompts Ruth’s rediscovery of her mother, her heritage and her true family.

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak

Watched over by Death himself, Liesel Meminger is taken from her politically suspect family by the Nazis, and sent to live with more reliable foster parents. Illiterate at age 9, Liesel steals her first book from the gravedigger at her brother's funeral and learns to read from it; she will steal more, taking extraordinary risks to acquire anything in print.  Even as she collects books, she gathers people around her: a remarkable boy, a Jewish boxer in hiding, a tender foster father and hard-bitten foster mother, the wife of the Nazi mayor of the town.  Zukas creates a world in which words both kill and heal, and his unique narrator (who is extraordinarily busy in wartime) shows the human side of both.   Read Andrew's review on Blogging for a Good Book.

The Buddha in the Attic - Julie Otsuka

Six "picture brides" - young Japanese women who came to the United States to marry men they didn't know - collectively tell their stories in language almost as poetic as haiku.  From leaving their homes to raising children ashamed of their Japanese heritage, these women struggle to understand the strange men and the strange new world they become part of.  In the wake of Pearl Harbor, they find that they are now enemies of the United States, destined for internment camps and invisible to their former neighbors.  Given in memory of Judy Culhane by the Ford's Colony Book Club.

Catch Me If You Can- Frank Abagnale

At the tender age of sixteen, he claims, he embarked on a life of con games, bad checks and impersonation that netted him $2.5 million, countless free miles on airlines, and women, women, women.  Along the way, he was a pilot, a lawyer, a doctor, a wealthy developer; by his early twenties, he was in the hell of a French prison.  Written more as a memoir than a true crime investigation, this takes the unique viewpoint of the criminal, not the investigator, and gives a new slant on identity theft, security, and the making of a criminal. 

The Cellist of Sarajevo - Steven Galloway

The siege of Sarajevo during Yugoslavia's civil war was a battle to break the will of its citizens.  In the wake of a mortar attack on civilians, an unnamed cellist vows to play in the war-torn streets for 22 days - one for each victim of the horrific attack.  A young sniper is assigned to keep him alive, but she begins to question her purpose in this war. An older man meets a family friend at a deadly intersection.  And a young father hauls empty bottles to the only source of fresh water in the city.  Through each character's eyes we see the hope and possibility of redemption as each refuses to despair in the face of ugliness and destruction.  A beautifully written and considered novel.

Call the Midwife - Jennifer Worth

At the age of 22, Jennifer Worth joined with a group of nuns to provide midwife and nursing services in one of the roughest areas of London. Encountering poverty, crime, and violence for the first time in her life, she also discovered that families could be resilient and that the tight-knit community supportive. In a series of vignettes, she introduces readers to the other midwives, to the complications of childbearing (especially in crowded tenements), and to the singular characters she met in her work. Jan wrote about Call the Midwife at Blogging for a Good Book. 294 pages; 12 copies, plus 1 audiobook

Cleopatra - Stacy Schiff

She was at one time the most powerful woman in the world, ruling Egypt and influencing Rome through political and sexual wiles, brutality, and wealth.  Sorting past her depiction by Shakespeare and Plutarch, Schiff shows that her 22-year reign and shocking disregard for male domination was no accident.  While Schiff takes some liberties with Cleopatra's internal life, her sweeping portrait of the world she lived in is solid and highly readable.

Comeback - Claire and Mia Fontaine

Claire Fontaine (not her real name) had a pretty good life going - a successful screenwriter married to a good man, living in Los Angeles - until her daughter Mia got into trouble.  Suddenly, all the signs of trouble were out in the open: the biological father accused of molesting Mia, Mia's drug use and self-mutilation, Claire's need to control the people around her.  Honest, sometimes even brutal, mother and daughter take turns telling their stories of redemption and reconciliation, adding to an already-powerful story.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers - Xiaolu Guo 

Z's parents have sent her to England to study and help create business for their small shoe factory.  Uncertain, unfamiliar with the culture and the language, unhappy and lonely, Z quickly takes up with an unnamed Englishman.  Their relationship is fraught with personal and cultural misunderstandings.  Even as Z improves her language skills, though, she begins to change in ways that will affect the rest of her life.  The book is structured as a cross between a journal and a dictionary, with each chapter beginning with a word that will be defined or illustrated by the story.  Guo's first English-language novel mirrors her own experience coming to the West. 

The Confessions of Nat Turner - William Styron

In August of 1831, a group of slaves rose up in Southampton, Virginia, around what is now Courtland.  Almost 60 white people were killed in the initial insurrection; in its aftermath, over 200 blacks were executed or lynched in retaliation.  The revolt was led by a slave preacher, Nat Turner, who was captured two months later, and who gave an account of his life and activities during the uprising.  From that brief account, William Styron created a brilliant and controversial work of fiction, told in Nat Turner's voice, for which he received the 1967 Pulitzer Prize.  Told in flowing and ever-changing language, with rich and disturbing details of slave life, this challenging book is sure to yield good discussions. 

The Confidant - Helene Gremillon

A letter sent in 1975 begins to reveal secrets that started in the 1930s.  Camille Werner discovers the letter while going through a stack of consolation notes after the death of her mother.  While at first she thinks it is an unsolicited manuscript to her publishing company, she comes to realize that the events described may be closer to her own life than she knew.  Against the backdrop of the German invasion of France in 1940, secrets and lies lead to tragedy, echoing the larger cataclysm of the war.  And even the anonymous letterwriter, who thought he knew the entire story, comes to discover that he, too, has been misled.  A tale of deception told in crystal-clear translation which set the international publishing community on fire.  See Andrew's review on WRL's Blogging for a Good Book.

Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis de Bernieres

Written in the magical realist style of his hero Gabriel Garcia Marquez, de Bernieres weaves together the tales of the inhabitants of the Greek island of Cephalonia, the Italian and German soldiers who occupy the island during World War II, and the historical characters whose actions bring these common people into contact and conflict. Kept apart by the potential consequences of a relationship between occupier and villager, then torn apart by the war, Pelagia Iannis, the independent daughter of an island doctor, and Captain Antonio Corelli, musician, artist and reluctant soldier are the heart of the story, but voices of the myriad of supporting characters weave a beautiful cloth with both light and dark threads.

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Dear Life: Stories - Alice Munro

2013 Nobel Prize winner Munro's last collection offers 14 stories of people facing changes and making choices.  From a young mother traveling with her daughter into the possibility of a love affair to a troubled man avoiding intimacy throughout his life, Munro's detailed stories turn on small moments told in simple language.  The capstone of a career writing "novels disguised as short stories", Dear Life includes four stories she says are the most autobiographical she's ever written.  (319 pages)

Devil in the White City - Erik Larson

It was the event of the century - the 1893 Chicago World's Fair that would show the world the energy and genius of America, with icons like Buffalo Bill Cody, Susan B. Anthony, and Thomas Edison enchanting visitors.  Architect Daniel H. Burnham, working against a two-year deadline, overcame countless obstacles to create The White City as a showcase.  But Chicago had a darker side: Dr. H. H. Holmes, an entrepreneur who conned his way into building the World's Fair Hotel, including in his construction a laboratory for murdering and dismembering young women - perhaps as many as 200.  Larson alternates stories, creating suspense and awe at the accomplishments - both good and evil - of these energetic and charismatic men. 

Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World - Vicky Myron

Coming to work one freezing Iowa day, librarian Vicky Myron discovered a half-frozen kitten in the book drop.  She named him Dewey Readmore Books, and he quickly became a fixture in the library.  As a library mascot, his seeming intuition led him to search out those who needed him the most.  For 19 years, he was the face of the Spencer Library, leading people into the library and into a sense of friendship and community.  Why do we lavish such attention on our pets?  Are the animals in our homes really an expression of our personalities?  Dwight wrote about it on the Library's book blog.

The Dollmaker - Harriette Arnow

A masterpiece much like Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Dollmaker tells the story of Gertie Nevels, who follows her husband to his wartime job in Detroit. Although poor, the beauty and deep roots of her Kentucky home nurture Gertie's soul in a way the city never will.  And though there is good money to be made, Detroit is ugly, mechanical, and filled with people from alien places and cultures. Written in 1954, The Dollmaker shows how a traditional family is uprooted by the modern world, and how the strong woman at its heart may not be able to hold them together. (Given in appreciation of Mike and Edith Carr.) 677 pages 

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight - Alexandra Fuller

A difficult, beautiful, and moving memoir of growing up poor and white in post-colonial Africa.  The Fuller family was rocked by disease, death, alcoholism and instability, moving from farm to farm and country to country in the wake of social and political upheaval.  Laugh-out-loud moments of humor vie with heart-breaking losses as Fuller narrates vignettes from her African life in evocative prose, examining her parents, her sister and her homeland with a loving yet unsparing eye.

Dream of Scipio - Iain Pears

Three men.  One city.  Three troubled times.  One manuscript.  From 5th century Provence, where imperial governor Manlius tries to defend his land from barbarian invasions, to an 11th century troubadour who dies protecting the woman he admires during the Black Death, to the 20th century scholar who learns about both of them during the German occupation, the ideal of a Greek wise woman echoes through the centuries in a poem written by Manlius.  Unfortunately, events mock idealism as anarchy leads to anti-Semitic pogroms.

Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery 

In an upscale apartment building in Paris, generations of the French upper class have spent their self-important lives.  But a pair of undetected geniuses also strive for anonymity in their midst.  Mme. Michel, the cliché of the rude concierge, is a self-taught scholar.  Twelve-year old Paloma plays the role of a mediocre student; in reality, she is a penetrating observer.  When a new tenant moves in, the two blossom under his attention.  Barbery focuses on developing the characters, but fills the story with moments of beauty and laughter.  Check out the review on Blogging for a Good Book.

Empire Falls - Richard Russo

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Empire Falls tells the story of a Maine mill town devastated by the loss of industry, and waiting for the town's leading citizen to create new opportunities.  Told through the eyes of several characters, the story mostly focuses on Miles Roby, a college drop-out who returned to Empire Falls to nurse his mother.  Now in his 40's, Miles manages the Empire Grill and copes with his teenaged daughter, the wife who left him for another man, an alcoholic father, and a variety of people who test his patience and resolve.

English Creek - Ivan Doig

In the summer of 1939, young Jick McCandliss takes on an adult role in the Montana mountain country.  At the intersection of pioneering memories and the increasingly modern world, Jick tries to negotiate between his parents and older brother while learning about his parents' lives and his own abilities to act independently.  Action-filled scenes alternate with hilarious events and inspired descriptions of the natural world.

Faith - Jennifer Haigh

When popular priest Art Breen is accused of molesting a young boy, he's stripped of his parish and exiled from the only life he's ever known.  His sister returns to her estranged family to support Art, but Sheila McGann struggles to understand the response of their tight-knit Boston Irish Catholic community.  Repulsed by his suspicions that the accusations are true, their brother Mike takes it on himself to further investigate, and ends up making his own tragic errors.  This examination of family and community is a sensitive portrayal, but questions about Art's guilt or innocence keep the reader focused until the shocking end.  Check out our "Blogging for a Good Book" review" as well.

The Family Fang - Kevin Wilson

Annie and Buster Fang, children of the renowned artists Camille and Caleb Fang, are forced to return home when their lives suddenly and calamitously fall apart.  Shortly after, Camille and Caleb disappear.  Were they murdered, or is this another one of the public performances they use to elicit reactions from an unsuspecting public? Annie and Buster (called Child A and Child B in the bizarre pieces Wilson describes), try to rebuild amid the uncertainty.  At what point does the parent's influence end and the child's life begin?  Is that what we mean by "growing up"?  Here's Andrew's take on it.

Fast Food Nation - Eric Schlosser

Looking at "the dark side of the American meal", Schlosser follows the roots, history, and current state of the fast food industry.  From the iconoclastic founders of fast service and dependable flavors to the modern minimum wage employees and chemically-enhanced factory-produced meals, Schlosser raises questions about how fast food is made, marketed, and sold, all the while acknowledging that people like it, and eat it in huge quantities. Dwight wrote about the documentary Food, Inc., which adds more detail to Schlosser's investigation

The Financial Lives of the Poets - Jess Walter

Mark Prior is about to lose it all.  All his money - savings, balloon mortgage, retirement - has gone to starting a website promising financial news told in verse.  His wife is having an online affair.  His kids might have to go to public school.  Then Mark stumbles on a prime financial opportunity: selling marijuana to his friends.  A tragicomic satire on modern life, Walter asked himself, "What if instead of re-creating (the social climate) later, I just stick my head out the window and describe what I see as we go barreling off the road?”

A Gathering of Old Men - Ernest J. Gaines

Rural Louisiana in the 1970's:  a group of elderly black men summon the local sheriff to take responsibility for the murder of a violent and racist white man.  After a lifetime of mistreatment at the hands of whites, they are prepared to stand up to the sheriff and to fight to protect the identity of the true killer.  But times have changed - people in both communities have turned their backs on the ways of the past and must come to grips with this defiant, honorable stand which promises open confrontation.  Made possible by donations from the William and Mary Law and Society Book Group.

Getting Mother's Body - Suzan-Lori Parks

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Parks uses a multitude of characters to narrate the tale of teenager Billy Beede, black, unmarried, and pregnant, and the lengths she goes to to get money to pay for an abortion.  Her mother, blues singer Willa Mae Beede, is reputed to have been buried with pearls and diamonds, and Billy is determined to get them.  The cast of characters, including Billy's luckless aunt and uncle, Willa Mae's former lover (who may or may not be a man), and the hometown oddball, chases Billy across Texas and into Arizona before reuniting at Willa Mae's grave.  The characters all have their own voices, and their experiences - heartbreaking and humorous alike - show their essential humanity.

Girl with a Pearl Earring - Tracy Chevalier

Chevalier painstakingly recreates the society and culture of 17th century Holland in telling the story of the young woman pictured in Johannes Vermeer's painting of the same name.  Griet is forced to go into service, and ends up in the Vermeer household, which is run with an iron fist by Vermeer's wife and mother-in-law.  Griet, who has an artistic sensibility all her own, becomes an assistant, confidante, and model for the artist.  She learns much along the way about her place in society and the gifts she has to offer, despite the limitations her gender puts her under.  Charged with sensuality, erupting with clarity from a dark background like a Vermeer painting itself, Chevalier's portrait of a young woman has become an instant classic. 

The Glass Castle - Jeannette Walls

Walls' story of growing up with eccentric - or crazy - parents is a marvelously funny, sometimes angering story of two mismatched adults whose four children essentially raise themselves.  Walls' parents believed in self-sufficient children, to the point where they were left to fend for themselves in a house with no heat or food.  Her mother, a painter, values her art above all; while giving Walls an aesthetic sense, she spends their meager income on supplies.  Her father, an alcoholic with grand dreams, teaches the children philosophy and science far beyond the poor public education they receive but disappears for weeks at a time.  How the children are able to survive, even thrive, is practically a miracle, but Walls never stoops to melodrama while telling her story. 

God Never Blinks - Regina Brett

Columnist and radio show host Brett assembled her list of "50 Lessons for Life's Little Detours" from the painful fragments of her own life.  A single mother, a recovering alcoholic, and a cancer survivor, she searched for the source of the courage it took to live out her unplanned life and found it in God.  She also shares some hard-earned wisdom for living with others and for understanding how your life is for you to live.  What Lesson do you value most?  Which one do you need to work most on? (Large Print and Audiobook)

Good Faith - Jane Smiley

Realtor Joe Stratford is an unassuming, unambitious small-town businessman content with his life, his home, and his adopted family.  When Marcus Burns, former IRS agent, comes to town with big dreams and plans to manipulate the tax code to finance a billion-dollar development, Joe is first drawn in, then jumps in, to Marcus' scheme.  Smiley uses the go-go days of the S&L / real estate boom of the 1980's to examine attitudes towards money, property, and "good faith" with both hilarious and touching results.

The Good Soldier - Ford Madox Ford

Two couples live respectable lives of wealth and idleness in Europe before World War I - but beneath the surface lies infidelity, manipulation, bigotry, madness, and suicide.  Ford's masterful examination gradually reveals the depths of human passion as the narrator tells 'the saddest story I have ever heard' in a meandering style that slowly reveals the tragedies that overtook five people.  This edition has the authoritative text (161 pages), critical evaluations, and contemporary reviews, so there is no resource kit. 

The Great Man - Kate Christensen 

Oscar Feldman was a famous painter and womanizer, part of the New York art scene in the middle of the 20th century.  Five years after his death, competing biographers begin to interview the women in his life - his wife, his long-term mistress, and his sister, a noted painter in her own right.  In assembling their own portrait of Oscar, the two biographers learn of a secret that might devastate Oscar's reputation - a secret the three women have promised to protect.  Christensen explores different visions of womanhood, including sexuality in their 70's, even as she pokes fun at the world of modern art. 

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

In the wake of World War II, British newspaper columnist Juliet Ashton begins corresponding with residents of the Channel Island of Guernsey.  Occupied by the Germans during the war, the citizens of Guernsey coped with the hardships in large and small ways, including forming the Literary and Potato Peel Society as an antidote to curfews.  Through their letters, Juliet comes to love the islands and develops a special relationship with the people.  A charming and uplifting story. 5 Large Print books and 1 audiobook.

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Handling Sin - Michael Malone

Small-town insurance agent Raleigh Hayes is in control.  But when his father skips town in a yellow Cadillac convertible, accompanied only by a teenaged mental patient, Raleigh has to wonder if his fortune cookie was right when it predicted "You will go completely to pieces by the end of the month".  On the way to meet his father in New Orleans, Raleigh will encounter a junkyard saxophonist, a vanful of thugs, an escaped convict and his standup bass, and a mobster who wants to fight an old-fashioned duel.  Raleigh will also find his way back into his family and his hometown, and learn more about both of them than he ever dreamed.  A comic masterpiece.

Harvest - Jim Crace

A village in rural England, so small that it doesn't have a name, has lived for centuries with little change in daily life.  Then, in the course of a single week, their routines, work, and families are overturned by events.  One of the landlord's buildings is burned down; three strangers come to town; and the owner of the land is surveying the land for some unknown reason. Told by Walter Thirsk, who married a village woman twelve years before but is still an outsider, the destruction of their pastoral life seems both tragic and inevitable.(209 pages)

The Heart Mender - Andy Andrews

While digging in his yard, Andrews discovered a tin box filled with German World War II memorabilia, and constructs a story of love and forgiveness.  While walking on a Gulf Coast beach, war widow Helen Mason discovers the near-dead body of a German U-boat officer and must decide whether to turn him in or nurse him back to health.  Andrews reminds readers that letting go of hate and bitterness is a conscious choice, but will Helen be able to make it? (248 pages)

Hearts of Horses - Molly Gloss 

When 19-year old Martha Lessen drifts into a rural Oregon community, she brings with her a rare talent.  Martha is a horse-breaker, a trainer of even the most difficult animals, and since all the young men are serving in World War I her skills are in demand.  Her unorthodox methods earn her the respect of the area farmers, and she gradually become part of their small world.  Gloss's lyrical language paints a beautiful portrait of a different time and a special place.  (Donated by Nina S. Costello and the Wednesday Morning Book Club)

The Help - Kathryn Stockett

Jackson, Mississippi in 1962 is a bastion of southern gentility, complete with "colored" maids who care for the children and the households of the white families.  Returning from Ole Miss, "Skeeter" Phelan decides to write about their lives.  With the help of Abileen and Minny, she learns about the hidden lives of the maids, and the resulting book explodes in Jackson.  An inside, though limited, view of the long, slow march to civil rights.  5 Large Print copies and 1 audiobook.

Homestead - Rosina Lippi

An isolated Austrian village high in the Alps is the setting for this collection of linked stories.  From 1909, when a misaddressed postcard disrupts one woman's placid life, to 1977, when a young wife struggles with her place on the family farm, the women of Rosenau marry, bear and lose children, suffer losses in both World Wars, and make their own way in a place where everyone knows their families but can't see the rich interior lives they lead.  A lovely book about identity and community, about struggling to escape and settling in, Homestead won the 1999 PEN/Hemingway Award for a first novel.

House of Sand and Fog - Andre Dubus III

The American Dream becomes a nightmare for two people struggling over ownership of the same house.  Colonel Behrani, an exiled Iranian forced to work menial jobs to support his family in the United States, buys a house at a foreclosure auction.  The house is owned by Kathy, a recovering addict who doesn't take the necessary steps to correct a minor bureaucratic mistake before its consequences overwhelm her.  The house is all either of them has, and their determination to hold onto it escalates into an explosive confrontation with tragic results.

The Idea of America - William E. White

What is America about?  For more than 250 years, we've debated, argued in the streets, and fought several wars to figure that out.  We've also compromised, resorted to (and respected) the courts, and actedon our beliefs. Bill White (Ph.D, American History, College of William and Mary) goes back to the fundamental questions of society to encourage deeper thinking.  The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation donated this kit to lead book groups into a civilized discussion about our individual values and how they shape our idea of America.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot

A poor black woman went to Johns Hopkins for free treatment of the cervical cancer that would eventually kill her.  A doctor took a tissue sample and was able to turn it into a line of cells used worldwide for scientific research.  Who was Henrietta Lacks?  Who were the doctors and scientists who used her tissue, and how did they, and the world, gain from her unknowing donation?  And who were the people Henrietta Lacks left behind?  Writer Rebecca Skloot follows these stories, along with the tale of how she found the Lacks family and gained their trust in this moving book.

The Imperfectionists - Tom Rachman

A small English-language newspaper in Rome is the magnet that draws a variety of characters together.  From the copy editor who longs to fit in, to the Paris correspondent who can't sell a story, to the business manager who can't stand the place, Rachmann creates a picture of how a daily paper is put together.  Observant, frequently funny and sometimes wistful for the days when newspapers brought the world to our doorsteps.  How do you get your news?  The Library's own Mandy wrote her review here.

In the Kingdom of Men - Kim Barnes

Virginia Mitchell, raised by a strict Methodist grandfather on a dirt-poor Oklahoma farm, elopes with Mason McPhee when she gets pregnant.  When they lose the baby, Mason gets a job as an oilfield roughneck in Saudi Arabia.  It's the 1960's, so the Kingdom has a 1001 Nights feel to it, offset by the strict rules that govern their behavior.  Virginia suddenly has a house, (complete with servant), sophisticated older friends, and opportunities to pursue new passions.  But those changes also challenge her relationship with Mason, and the Saudi laws that she doesn't fully understand.  And when Mason clashes with his employers, it precipitates a crisis that throws Gin onto her own resources.

In the Time of the Butterflies - Julia Alvarez

Las Mariposas, the pretty, talented daughters of a conservative Dominican family, become revolutionaries under the rule of the dictator Trujillo.  In this affecting novel, each of the sisters tells the story of her growing up and turning towards overthrowing the brutal government.  Along with each sister's story, Alvarez illustrates the characters of the others, until we have a complete portrait of a family, and a country, that would be destroyed by Trujillo.  Read more about Las Mariposas in Andrew's review on Blogging for a Good Book.

Into the Beautiful North - Luis Alberto Urrea

Nineteen-year old Nayeli looks around her Mexican village and realizes that there are no eligible men in town - they've all gone to Los Yunaites to find work. Even worse, narcotrafficantes have made the same discovery and it's only a matter of time before they take over the village. Inspired by the film The Magnificent Seven, Nayeli and three of her friends set off to cross the border and find Mexican men who want to come home. Their journey is filled with challenges and eye-opening, sometimes funny, episodes. Read Andrew's review at Blogging for a Good Book.  12 copies plus 1 audiobook. 342 pages.

Into Thin Air - Jon Krakauer

Mount Everest dominated the imagination of the world even before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit in 1953.  Now, 50 years later, it is a destination for adventurers of all stripes.  But in 1996, 12 climbers, some of them the best in the world, died on the mountain.  Was it bad luck, bad judgment, bad timing, bad leadership?  Krakauer, a journalist, was among the climbers who survived that trip, and this unsparing account of the ascent and its torturous aftermath was written shortly after his return. 

The Inverted Forest - John Dalton

In disarray after all the counselors are fired, a summer camp hurriedly hires replacements just before the first session.  Among the new staff is Wyatt Huddy, a genetically disfigured man often treated as retarded.  He and the other counselors are shocked to learn that their charges for the first two weeks are profoundly mentally handicapped people from the state's mental institution.  But another threat begins to show itself, and Wyatt's response will change the lives of the staff forever.  Dalton's sympathetic but clear-eyed look delves into the moral and legal consequences of society's perceptions of the handicapped.  Check out our "Blogging for a Good Book" review.

Island of Heavenly Daze - Lori Copeland

A feud between aunt and niece; a minister who thinks he's on the verge of losing his job; and a wayward dog who rides the ferry to beg for goodies are only a few of the characters living on a small island off the coast of Maine.  A picturesque spot attractive to tourists, Heavenly Daze only has a few year-round residents.  Among them, though, are seven angels, assigned by decree to guard the inhabitants of the island in response to a deathbed prayer by the island's founder.  So what happens when Reverend Winslow Waldo Wickman buys a mail-order toupee to look younger?  Will the unyielding Olympia de Cuvier come to accept her niece Annie's off-island career?  Will Tallulah get fresh biscuits?  With angels looking on, almost anything can - and does. 

The Johnstown Flood - David McCullough

Over 2000 people died when a wall of water swept down the steep hillsides above Johnstown, Pennsylvania on May 31, 1889.  In one of historian McCullough's earliest works, he tells the story of how the original earthen dam was constructed to create a lake for the recreation of some of Pittsburgh's wealthiest industrialists; how lack of maintenance weakened it; and how the dam was destroyed in a bad Memorial Day storm.  Drawing from newspaper accounts, official histories, and in some cases from the oral accounts of the survivors, McCullough personalizes the tragedy while connecting it to the America of the Golden Age.  Alan reviewed it, along with two of McCullough's books, at the Library's book blog.

Kitchen Confidential - Anthony Bourdain

Author, chef, and television star Bourdain first took readers into the kitchens of those famous and trendy restaurants in 2000, telling his own story of cooking and drug addiction while revealing the 'dark underbelly of haute cuisine'.  His no-holds-barred punk-rock attitude comes screaming through the text as he punctures egos and images with fervor equal to his obvious love of food and cooking.  Here's Melissa's review.

The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini

A powerful story of friendship and loss set in Afghanistan and the United States.  Amir is the privileged son of an imposing father, in whose eyes the boy can never measure up.  Amir's best friend is the harelipped Hazara Ali, whose father is Amir's family servant.  Though he never breaches the wall between servant and master, Ali protects Amir and helps him compete in Kabul's strenuous kite fighting competitions.  Amir fails Ali at a crucial time, and that failure creates anger and regret which follows Amir to America.  When he gets a mysterious call from his father's friend telling him "There is a way to be good again," Amir must choose between his comfortable life and the hazards of Taliban-dominated Afghanistan. 

The Known World - Edward P. Jones

The death of Henry Townsend, an African-American slaveowner, sends repercussions rippling through rural Manchester County.  Jones examines Henry's own life as a slave, his parents' struggle to free him, and the effects of slavery on both white and black, many of whom don't even realize the marks that "the peculiar institution" leaves on their bodies and souls.  Written in flowing poetic language that does not conceal the harsh truths of slavery, The Known World won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

The Last Empress - Anchee Min

After seizing power in Min's Empress Orchid, the former concubine Tzu Hsi must contend with a court filled with corrupt ministers and a weak country vulnerable to outsiders.  With China’s interests at heart, Orchid contrives, not always successfully, to maneuver the politics of the Forbidden City.  A detailed portrait of a powerful and singular woman ruling a dying country, The Last Empress also introduces readers to a volatile period that would lead directly to World War II and the Chinese Revolution.

The Last Report on the Miracles At Little No Horse - Louise Erdrich

Father Damien Modeste, priest to the desolate Little No Horse community, fears exposure when an investigator from the Vatican comes to examine the life of a possible saint. The secret he has kept for more than 70 years? He is actually Agnes De Witt, who assumed the identity of a dead priest under bizarre circumstances. This complex book explores ideas of spirituality in Western and Native cultures, struggles with the role of women in the Catholic church, and offers vignettes, sometimes funny and sometimes heartbreaking, of life on the impoverished reservation. Winner of the Booklist Editors’ Choice and Library Journal Best Books awards for 2001.

The Lifeboat - Charlotte Rogan

Issues of life and death, following and leading, responsibility and ethics arise in this tale set aboard an overcrowded lifeboat.  Grace Winter secretly married to her wealthy husband on the eve of World War I, and is returning to the States with him when their trans-Atlantic ocean liner explodes and sinks.  Should Grace even be aboard?  Should the lone seaman be in charge - and what is he hiding?  As the days pass and prospects for rescue diminish, Grace participates in a horrendous crime - but should she be tried in a court of law?  Told in the form of a journal written for her lawyers, Grace recounts the circumstances that led her and two fellow defendants into a murder trial. 

The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe - Andrew O'Hagan

A gift from Frank Sinatra to Marilyn Monroe (who promptly named him Mafia Honey), the Maltese puts his own spin on the last few years of Marilyn's life.  Erudite and opinionated (his literary criticism is strictly to be avoided), Maf sees the bright, petulant, insightful, and abused star in all her glory.  Scenes with Sammy Davis, Jr., Erica Jong, Lillian Hellman, and the Chairman of the Board himself give Maf (and O'Hagan) to hold the cult of celebrity up to the light in a funny and wistful way.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven- Sherman Alexie

Alexie paints a portrait of modern life on an Indian reservation: the substance abuse, loss of identity, and clashes with the white world.  He also finds hope and humor in deep relationships and efforts to reclaim native heritage.  Stark, poetic, and frequently profound, Alexie's vivid language creates  memorable characters struggling with their daily existence.  The story "This is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" was made into the award-winning film Smoke Signals.

Love and Hate in Jamestown - David A. Price

William and Mary graduate David Price has given an up-to-date telling of the Jamestown story without the mythology that often conceals the truth.  By placing the settlement in its historical perspective, and tracing all the threads to create a great yarn, Price shows how close the 'first permanent English settlement in North America' came to perishing.  He draws distinctions among the settlement's leaders, the leaders of the Native Americans, and the directors of the Company pulling the colony's strings in England.  He also creates sympathetic and detailed portraits of Powhatan and Pocahontas, but lets their actions speak for them.  

Love in the Time of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Is love at 18 the same as love at 70? 50 years after she rejects him, and at the funeral of her husband, Florentino Ariza begins his second courtship of the 70 year old Fermina Daza. Their youthful encounter, and their courtship of furtive glances and impassioned letters, culminates in Fermina’s rejection of Florentino during their first conversation. She goes on to marry above her station, while he assuages his broken heart with a series of relationships with widows and by writing love poetry for ardent but less-skilled suitors. Their stories of their years of separation are intertwined, but it is the magic of their time together, finding new romance at the end of their lives, that is the heart of the book.

The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold

In the first pages of this beautifully haunting and movingly told story, 14-year old Susie Salmon is raped and murdered by her neighbor.  The rest of the book is told by the ghostly Susie, who moves between heaven (14-year olds go to school, but Cosmo is their textbook) and her home, where she watches her family and friends disintegrate in the wake of her disappearance.  Her omniscient presence allows us to see and experience the emotions, the changing relationships and, eventually, the rebuilding of a family united by more than tragedy.

Lying Awake - Mark Salzman

In crisp, stripped-down prose, Salzman tells the story of Sister John of the Cross, a cloistered nun whose ecstatic and deeply personal visions of God have produced a best-selling book of poetry.  When headaches begin accompanying her visions, Sister John must decide whether to seek treatment or continue her communion, regardless of the costs.  Flashbacks to various stages of her life, views of the relationships in a secluded community, and the intensity with which Sister John meets the challenge, make this "a compelling portrait of faith and the interior life" (Library Journal).

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Major Pettigrew's Last Stand - Helen Simonsen

The staid, even old-fashioned Major Pettigrew, a fixture of the village of Edgecombe St. Mary, throws his family and neighbors into a tizzy when he begins keeping company with the village shopkeeper.  Mrs. Ali is wrong for the Major - the wrong class and, being the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, the wrong color.  In the midst of his emotional reawakening, the Major must also cope with his brother's death and estate, his son's appalling nouveau riche behavior, pending land development, and the annual Costume Party at the country club.  Often funny and emotionally revealing, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand also confronts the English relationship with people from their former colonies. Given in memory of Anne Baker by the Fords Colony 3rd Wednesday Book Group.

The Mammy - Brendan O'Carroll

Life in a working class Dublin neighborhood gets even tougher for Agnes Browne when her husband Redser dies and leaves her with seven children to support.  With support from her friend Marion, Agnes runs her vegetable stand, copes with her growing (and sometimes wayward) children, and takes tentative steps towards independence.  Vignettes of Agnes' life and her dreams show how humor, even hilarity, can make the toughest circumstances bearable.  Andrew reviewed it for the Library's blog.

March - Geraldine Brooks

The distant, benevolent father from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women takes on new life in Brooks' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.  From horrible and lonely places, Captain March sends tender, chiding letters to his daughters.  In person, he is defeated and embittered by his failures, changed irrevocably by the Civil War.  But March's isn't the only voice we read - Brooks also brings the magnificent Marmee to life to tell of her struggles and triumphs with her family.  The growth of these complex people, and their struggles to live out their ideals make this a interesting book for discussion - whether you've read Little Women or not.

Marley and Me - John Grogan

From a naughty puppy adopted on impulse to a hilariously unruly full-grown Lab, Marley completely took over the lives of John Grogan and his wife Jenny.  Swallowing anything he could get his mouth around, running full-tilt through doors, and comforting the Grogans after Jenny miscarries, Marley becomes an essential part of the growing family.  Eventually they must decide how to deal with an aging and sick dog, and only then realize how much he affected them.  

Me Before You - Jojo Moyes

Will Traynor was a hard-charging man who embraced challenges in life and love before the accident that left him a quadriplegic. Louisa Clark is a small town woman who only sees her limits. When she is hired as his companion, she is daunted by his anger and resentment. But when she learns of his plans for his future, she becomes determined to show him that his wheelchair shouldn't keep him from living an active life. Will also gains grudging respect for Louisa and decides to help her fulfill her untapped potential. A unique love story that also asks some hard questions about the rights of the disabled. 12 copies, 1 Large Print, and 1 audiobook. 369 pages.

Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden

The moving story of the transformation of Chiyo, 9-year old daughter of an impoverished fishing village to Sayuri, the most sought-after geisha in Kyoto’s Gion entertainment district, is told through this imagined autobiography. Set in the twentieth century against the backdrop of the Great Depression, World War II and the American Occupation, the entertainment district is affected by staggering changes to its deeply traditional culture. The complicated, layered world of the geisha (less prostitute than skilled artist and entertainer) is opened to close examination through Sayuri’s relationships with her okiya family, her mentor, her competitors and the men who pay for her services. 434 pages

The Middlesteins - Jami Attenberg

Edie Middlestein's increasing obesity causes a family crisis when her husband leaves her.  Their daughter Robin, distraught at the betrayal, lashes out at Richard, and their daughter-in-law forbids Richard contact with his grandchildren.  But Richard only wanted to search for happiness after years of misery and lost intimacy as Edie's focus turned to food.  Attenberg takes this ordinary family and examines the bonds that hold relationships together, sometimes using dark humor.  Painfully funny, yet empathetic and filled with hope. 273 pages

The Monuments Men - Robert M. Edsel

As German troops pushed across Europe in 1939 and 1940, agents for Adolf Hitler and his top lieutenants confiscated works of art from the conquered nations.  But when the Allies invaded France and began seizing territory, the troops were followed by a small, special unit assigned to locate the stolen art.  In the chaos of the war-torn countries, the Monuments Men sought to protect significant buildings and art, and to find the looted pieces before they could be destroyed or concealed.  Edsel creates a heartstopping detective story, a tale of combat, and a lesson in art history in one story.  Charlotte reviewed The Monuments Men at Blogging for a Good Book. 473 pages, including illustrations and endnotes.  This Gab Bag was made possible by a gift from Connie Reitz.

 Motherless Brooklyn - Jonathan Lethem

Lionel Essrog, an orphan raised in an institution, comes under the wing of small-time hood Frank Minna.  Along with three other boys from the orphanage, they grow up to become his errand boys, the self-styled Minna Men posing as a car service and detective agency.  When Frank is killed and the Minna Men come apart, only Lionel, who suffers from Tourette's Syndrome, rises to the challenge of finding his murderer.  Lionel's Tourette's tics - outbursts of word fragments combined in oddly poetic ways - make him seem crazy to others, but also hide his intelligence and awareness.  Those tics aside, Lethem's signature use of language is in top form.  Blogging for a Good Book has a review. 311 pages.

Mudbound - Hillary Jordan

Five separate and very distinct people tell the story of a Mississippi Delta cotton farm and the two families tied to it in the 1940s.  Laura McAllen, a city girl, is married to Henry, an engineer who longs to own and subdue the land.  She's also half in love with Henry's brother Jamie, a dashing bomber pilot hiding the trauma of his war behind a good-natured facade.  Black tenants Florence and Hap Jackson farm shares for the McAllens, trying to make enough to buy their own land.   But when their son Ronsel, a decorated soldier, returns from Germany, he ignites a slow-burning match that will explode into violence and expose the casual racism that dominates all their lives.  Connie wrote more at the Library book blog. 339 pages

The Murder of My Aunt - Richard Hull

A classic of the likable rogue mystery stories, first published in 1934.  Edward is poor, effete and burdened with an aunt he dislikes.  His aunt is eminently dislikable, but rich - which leads Edward to begin his plot.  Called "an inverted detective story", we know whodunnit but have to read the tale to find out if he gets away with it.  A British country house murder mystery with the comic touch that makes it a masterpiece, and a surprise ending that guarantees a good time. Andrew wrote a little more about Murder of My Aunt here. 174 pages

Murder Short and Sweet - Paul D. Stouhodar

An anthology of short stories about murder, with entries by Edgar Allan Poe, Dorothy L. Sayers, John Updike, and Arthur Conan Doyle, among others. 

My Antonia - Willa Cather

Cather's classic, first published in 1918, tells the story of the immigrant girl Antonia Shimerda through the eyes of Jim Burden, a young orphan.  The two arrive in Nebraska at the same time, but their lives take very different courses: Antonia scrapes a living with her impoverished family by working in the fields and in service to the people of the nearby town; Jim, living with his respectable and secure grandparents, is destined for better things.  Cather's book is an homage to the vitality and struggle of the immigrants, and to the changing beauty of the prairie.  Connie tells about an additional resource that might enhance your reading of My Antonia.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America - Barbara Ehrenreich

Writer and scientist Barbara Ehrenreich set out for a look at the underside of the American economy - the lives of the working poor.  Taking jobs in Florida (waitress), Maine (housekeeper / kitchen worker) and Minnesota (retail worker), she tried to support herself on her hourly earnings while coping with housing, food and gas bills. Along the way, she made some pretty surprising discoveries about herself and the people who are the foundation of the American workforce.  

No Great Mischief - Alistair MacLeod

The Highland Scots, with all their clan pride, prejudices, abilities, and shortcomings, made an immeasurable contribution to the history of North America, and nowhere outside Cape Breton, Nova Scotia is that heritage adhered to so closely.  In the course of a day trip to visit his dying brother, Alexander MacDonald relives the generations of men and women (and dogs) that followed in the footsteps of their ancestor Calum Ruadh ("Red Calum"), who made the journey from Scotland with his six children.  In relative isolation until the 20th century, the clan bonds in the face of adversity, celebrating and mourning wholeheartedly in the harsh and unforgiving North Atlantic.  Whether those bonds will stand the test of assimilation into modern Canadian society, and whether there is a place for brawling, larger-than-life characters becomes a central question in this powerful, precise novel.

A Northern Light - Jennifer Donnelly

16-year old Mattie faces a time of large decisions and small at the dawn of the 20th century.  A bright student and voracious reader, she has earned a scholarship to college, but a promise to her dying mother keeps her bound to the hardscrabble farm and moody father she must care for.  A neighbor boy excites feelings in her, but her friend's marriage and childbirth trials frighten her.  And finally, a young female guest at the hotel where she's working during the summer has given her a packet of letters to burn.  Only after the woman's drowning and the disappearance of her male acquaintance does Mattie come to realize that there is only one path for her to take.  Based loosely on the murder of Grace Brown (as depicted in Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy and the film A Place in the Sun), A Northern Light won The Carnegie Medal, the LA Times Book Prize, and the Printz Honor Award.

Nothing to Envy - Barbara Demick

LA Times Korea bureau chief Demick learned about real life in North Korea from six refugees - how a system of paperwork and informers keeps people in line, how an extraordinary cult of personality built loyalty to three generations of "Dear Leaders", and how the fourth-largest army in the world kept the reclusive country under complete control.  She also gives grim details about the famine that killed up to 3.5 million people, and the desperate measures North Koreans took to survive.  And still she finds strength, love, and a desire for a better life among ordinary people in a country that is a perennial source of conflict in the world.  Neil's Blogging for a Good Book review has his take on Demick's book.

Olive Kitteridge - Elizabeth Strout 

In their small Maine town, schoolteacher Olive Kitteredge is a familiar figures.  She is also the heart of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner, even when she is only briefly mentioned.  Olive is tough, unyielding, and unsentimental, but capable of caring for those who truly need her.  Deciding who needs her and who doesn't leads to conflict with family and neighbors as her life progresses.  The variety of angles through which both Olive and her town are viewed gives close to a complete portrait of a complicated, memorable woman, but leaves plenty of room for discussion. (This Gab Bag was made possible through a contribution from the Bound By Books group, in memory of Christy Jaap) 2 kits, one with 4 regular and 5 Large Print copies, along with an audiobook.  Andrew wrote about it at Blogging for a Good Book.

Orphan Train - Christina Baker Kline

Molly, a teen on the verge of leaving the foster care system, is assigned to work with an elderly woman as community service.  As the two clean out Vivian's attic, Molly learns that Vivian underwent a similar experience.  Sent from New York aboard an "orphan train", Vivian was moved between foster homes, encountering neglect, servitude, and abuse before finding a home.  Her life through the 20th century - the Great Depression, World War II, and her own deep secret - is told in flashbacks, as Molly learns that she, too, can have a future. Donated in memory of Gertrude Devaney by The Ladies of the Book Club. (288 pages)

The Other Boleyn Girl - Philippa Gregory

Gregory takes readers deep inside the royal court of Henry VIII, choosing the lesser-known Mary Boleyn to tell the stories of ambition, plotting, treachery, and excess the Tudors were known for.  Mary, pushed into the king's bed as his mistress, bears his children and carves a possible path to the throne for her power-hungry family.  Eclipsed by her jealous sister Anne, Mary struggles to find happiness in her own life while aiding Anne's singular plot to overthrow Queen Katherine.   With all the richness and pageantry of a court procession, and an astonishing insight into the cost of claiming power, this is an excellent example of historical fiction.

Other People's Money - Justin Cartwright

Tubal and Co. is one of Great Britain's most prestigious private banks - at nearly 300 years old, it has survived political and economic changes that brought down lesser institutions.  Now a hand-to-mouth community theatre director in Cornwall is about to bring those centuries of tradition crashing down.  Under the latest member of the family, the bank has taken on toxic debt and lost nearly all its money, a chain of events they are trying desperately to hide, but they've reckoned without Artair Macleod's determination to get his annual grant money.  A very human look at the financial crisis from all sides. 

Out Stealing Horses - Per Petterson

Trond Sander, newly widowed and desiring solitude, has moved to a cabin in the far north of Norway.  A chance encounter with his nearest neighbor (like Trond, a reticent bachelor devoted to his dog) breaks a mental logjam and floods him with memories of his 15th summer.  He spent that golden year working with his father clearing timber and haying in the countryside, learning lessons that would govern the rest of his life.  He hears for the first time the truth about his father's absence during World War II, loses his best friend, and faces a bitter betrayal.  Petterson is a master of the small, telling details that accumulate into an overwhelming portrait of both the boy and the man he became.  Blogging for a Good Book has more on Out Stealing Horses.

Outliers - Malcolm Gladwell

Acclaimed writer Gladwell looks at the factors that predict success in any field and narrows them down to several areas.  Using examples from Beethoven to Bill Gates, he identifies the common elements - the circumstances of the individual's birth, the culture they are raised in, and the world that surrounds them as they introduce their talents to a wider audience.  He also cites a major factor in the time these outliers spend honing their craft.  Is there such a thing as a "self-made man"? (Large Print and Audiobook)

Passing - Nella Larsen

A classic of the Harlem Renaissance, by the first African-American woman to win the Guggenheim creative writing award.  Larsen tells the story of Irene Redfield, the wife of a highly respected Harlem doctor.  Irene and her friend Clare Kendry are both light-skinned enough to 'pass' as white, but only Clare has chosen to do so, after marrying a wealthy white man who hates black people.  Clare recklessly risks her secure life to associate with the friends of her youth, and Irene begins to fear that Clare is preying on her family.  As much a marvel for Irene's voice - and the uncertainty over Clare's true actions - as for the commentary on race and class relations in the 20s, the ending alone guarantees a good discussion.

Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi

As a young girl growing up in Tehran, Satrapi is a first-hand witness to the overthrow of the hated Shah and to the rise of the repressive Islamic regime.  The only child of educated parents, Satrapi discovers as she grows older that her great-grandfather was the last emperor under the old kingdom, and that her family had been persecuted by the Shah's feared secret police, the SAVAK. With the coming of the Islamic Revolution, she begins to learn about persecution as the new laws stifle her education and her parents; when war breaks out with Iraq, she is torn between loyalty to her country and disgust with the government that prefers suffering to peace.  Persepolis is a graphic novel, drawn in stark, expressive black-and-white pictures that express both joy and horror in ways that text can't capture.  Jessica tells why she thinks Persepolis has broad appeal.

The Pilot's Wife - Anita Shreve

Happily married for 16 years, Katherine Lyons suddenly and tragically discovers that she didn't really know her husband Jack when he dies in an airline crash.  For Jack was the pilot of a plane carrying 103 passengers that exploded in the air over Ireland, and press reports insinuate that he may somehow be responsible for the bomb.  Through her loss and grief, Katherine comes to terms with the fact that Jack had another family across the Atlantic, and decides to find out why.

The Pirate's Daughter - Margaret Cezair-Thompson

Jamaica's rich beauty and violent past come to life through the eyes of Ida Joseph and her daughter May.  Ida, the beautiful daughter of an Syrian entrepreneur, is seduced and abandoned by the infamous Errol Flynn, whose sailboat wrecks off the coast of Jamaica.  May grows up in an amalgam of cultures - wealth and poverty, European and Jamaican, black and white - looking for some kind of stability.  Cezair-Thompson's descriptions of the land, her feel for the language, and the hidden symbolism in the story give The Pirate's Daughter the languid atmosphere that made it a hit from London to Los Angeles.  Andrew gives more detail at the Library's blog.

A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving

Irving's lush, darkly comic novel explores themes of friendship, faith, and love, in a setting deliberately evocative of Charles Dickens.  Johnny Wheelwright, son of the enchanting Tabitha, befriends the undersized and immensely self-confident Owen, whose wrecked voice Irving depicts in all capital letters.  Owen is convinced that he is especially favored by God, and will be the instrument of a miracle - but first he kills Johnny's mom, creates a memorable and miraculous Christmas season in their New Hampshire town, and destroys the pompous headmaster of his boarding school.  Johnny is his faithful sidekick, drawn along in the wake of Owen's certainty, telling Owen's story as a lonely and bitter exile in Canada.  Hilarious and heartbreaking, with some of Irving's finest writing.  Jessica's review, and the comments section, show why A Prayer for Owen Meany makes a good discussion book.

Prodigal Summer - Barbara Kingsolver

Deanna Wolfe, a solitary Forest Service biologist living in the mountains, tries to protect a family of coyotes, while falling in love with the hunter sent to destroy them. Lusa Maluf Landowski, widowed, immigrant, and a scientist, must wrestle with her husband’s farming family to carve out a place for herself – or leave the place she has come to love. Nannie Land Rawley, organic farmer and self-sufficient older woman, feuds with her next-door neighbor, a crotchety widower trying to breed disease resistant chestnuts. The mountains and valleys of Appalachia are the setting for this tale of three determined and fascinating women, whom Kingsolver uses to reveal nature and humanity’s place in it to the reader. 

The Professor and the Madman - Simon Winchester

It was the greatest project in a period of great projects: the capturing of every word in the English language in the massive Oxford English Dictionary, along with its origins and examples of its use. Under the guidance of Professor James Murray, a self-taught genius of the classics, “men of letters” were recruited to perform the research and create the records. One of the most prolific contributors was Dr. W.C. Minor, an American physician, expatriate and murderer confined to Her Majesty’s Criminal Lunatic Asylum. The story of Murray and Minor’s first meeting has long been a romantic staple of literary scholars; Winchester digs behind the legend and reveals the true, and more affecting, story.

Proof of Heaven - Dr. Eben Alexander

Stricken by meningitis from an e. coli infection , neuroscientist Alexander went into a coma.  For seven days, as he lay in his hospital bed, he encountered an angelic being who guided him through a perfect afterlife to an all-loving deity.  Awakening from the coma, Alexander learned that all his higher brain functions, including memory had ceased, but fully remembered all that had happened.  His professional conclusion is that consciousness lives on after death. He also discovered  that his angel guide was the dead sister he'd never known, and came to believe in a transcendant God. (196 pages)

The Quickening - Michelle Hoover

Neighbors Enidina (Eddie) Current and Mary Morrow are farm wives in the Midwest during the first half of the 20th century.  From the start, their personalities and ambitions clash, and though they help each other, they do not become friends.  War, the Dust Bowl, the Depression all take their toll on the two women, but a tragedy drives them apart.  Told in the alternating voices of the two women, we also listen in as Eddie writes a letter to the grandson she hopes is coming home.  A lyrical but never nostalgic story of the trials and triumphs of ordinary women.

The Reader - Bernhard Schlink

In the years following World War II, teenager Michael Berg encounters 40-year old Hanna, and the two become lovers.  Michael reads to Hanna, a working-class woman who insists that he pursue his education.  Years after Hanna's mysterious disappearance, Michael meets her again - now a law student observing in war crimes trials, he is stunned to find her in the dock as a Nazi.  He also discovers that she is illiterate, which may have contributed to her crime.  Schlink leaves moral judgments to the reader, making this a fascinating book for discussion.

The Reivers - William Faulkner

Faulkner's last novel is the hilarious tale of three car thieves and their adventures in the sinful city of Memphis.  Told in Faulkner's rambling storyteller's fashion, it recounts the trials of 11-year old Lucius, the man-boy Boon Hoggenbeck, and the canny, witty Ned McCaslin as they travel through the backwoods of Mississippi in 1905.  After taking Lucius' grandfather's car, they head to Memphis so Boon can visit his favorite prostitute; when Ned trades the car for a stolen horse, they must win three long-odds races to get the car back and pay for the horse.  Filled with digressions about the nature of horses, the unstoppable quality of women, and an ongoing tussle between Virtue and Non-Virtue, this is Faulkner at his finest and most accessible.  See why Andrew thought this was worth reading and re-reading.

The Reservoir- John Milliken Thompson

Virginia in 1885 is recovering from the Civil War.  Richmond is once again a bustling city and there is room for an up-and-coming lawyer to make a name and fortune for himself.  Tommie Cluverius is such a young man, although he is distracted by a young man's passions, including one for his cousin, Lillie Madison.  When Lillie's body surfaces in the Richmond reservoir and she is discovered to be pregnant, Tommie is quickly found, arrested, and charged with her murder.  We know he was present - that's plain from the beginning - but as the trial and the story of their relationship develops, the reader becomes more uncertain about the actual events.  Along with the details of Virginia country life, we see the bond between Tommie and his brother Willie, who adamantly defends his brother throughout the ordeal.  Andrew and Jeanette both reviewed the book for our blog.

The Road Home - Jim Harrison

Harrison explores the tortured legacy of the Northridge family in the American West. Five narrators give insight and tell the tale of this racially-mixed family which lives by its own rules: John Wesley II, the brutal rancher with an artistic soul; Nelse, the illegitimate child returning to his birth family; Paul, the second son forever alien to his father; Naomi, John Wesley’s daughter-in-law rooted in her love of Nebraska’s natural world and her memories of her dead husband; and Dalva, the willful, strong woman coping with her own secrets as she comes to know the son she gave up at age 15. Beautifully written, The Road Home explores the idea that not only can we never fully know each other, we can only have a partial knowledge of ourselves.

The Royal Physician's Visit - Per Olov Enquist

Enquist explores different kinds of power in this tragic love story set in the highest circles of the Danish court.  Using the points of view of King Christian VII, Queen Caroline Matilde, lowborn courtier Ove Guldberg, and the royal physician Johann Struensee, Enquist recounts Struensee's rise to the head of government, his tender affair with the Queen (encouraged by the King), and the burst of reforms he made during the Enlightenment.  Enquist also sets Struensee's reformist zeal against Guldberg's puritanical ideals, which led to Struensee's downfall, but in the end proved hollow.  A thoughtful piece of historical fiction.  Check out Andrew's review, and consider watching the award-winning film A Royal Affair.

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The Scarlet Pimpernel - Baroness Orczy

At the height of the French Revolution's excesses, a bold Englishman is cheating the guillotine of its aristocratic victims.  Nothing is known of this adventurer, or of his band of courageous followers, except his sign - the small red flower he dangles teasingly before the authorities.  Lady Marguerite Blakeney, the stylish French wife of a foolish nobleman, is blackmailed into discovering and revealing the identity of the Pimpernel, with consequences that will strike close to her heart. 

The Sex Lives of Cannibals - J. Maarten Troost

Overeducated and underemployed, Troost joins his girlfriend on an international development mission to Tarawa, an atoll in the Pacific.  The realities of tropical life quickly drive out his romantic notions, but his response is a comic masterpiece.  Poking fun at the misguided missionaries of progress, at the inhabitants' strange combination of traditional and modern values, and most of all at himself, Troost also highlights real life on the most densely populated place on Earth.  By turns funny, serious, and beautiful, The Sex Lives of Cannibals is anything but boring. If you need to explain it to someone, send them to Andrew's blog review.

Shadow Divers - Robert Kurson

Wreck diver Bill Nagle, a legend for his retrieval of artifacts from the Andrea Doria, learns of a possible sunken U-boat at the edge of divers' capabilities.  Assembling a crew of other divers - some cautious, others reckless, all experienced - he leads them to dive on the wreck.  Two of those divers, John Chatterton and Richie Kohl, become obsessed with exploring the wreck, which cannot be identified through artifacts or history books.  Combining details of the dangers of deep diving (several men would die on this wreck), and the detective work in historical archives that led Chatterton and Kohl to positively identify the wreck with stories of life aboard a U-boat, Kurson turns this high-risk adventure story into a white-knuckle mystery. 

Snow Falling on Cedars - David Guterson

Fractures are everywhere in this gripping yet poignant tale of justice, community, love and suspicion in the Northwest.  On the island of San Pietro, the fears and divisions of World War II surface again when a Japanese-American fisherman is charged with the murder of an Anglo rival.  At the same time, newsman Ishmael Chambers reconnects with Hatsue Miyomoto, his high school sweetheart, now married to the accused man.  Shadows of internment, of combat, and of prejudice on both sides hangs over the town right through the gripping courtroom climax of the story.  Made possible by donations from the William and Mary Law and Society Book Group.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan - Lisa See

In nineteenth century China, two girls' fates are entwined in a matchmaking arrangement that is as binding as marriage.  Lily, the ambitious farmers' daughter, and Snow Flower, daughter of a privileged family, are chosen as laotongs ('old sames') at the age of 7, and begin a friendship that will end with a tragic misunderstanding.  The process of footbinding (an essential quality of a woman's eligibility for marriage), life in times of revolution and upheaval, and the mysterious written language of women (nu shu) are the backdrop for this exploration of women's friendships in a time and place where women had little power or place in the world.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers - Paolo Giordano

In achingly beautiful language, Giordano tells the story of Mattia and Alice, two damaged people whose relationship never quite takes off.  Mathematical genius Mattia punishes himself for the childhood disappearance of his mentally handicapped twin sister; crippled in a ski accident, Alice turns to anorexia.  The outsiders form as much of a bond as they can but their need for each other is overwhelmed by their inability to communicate.  Giordano is the youngest winner of Italy's premier prize in literature.

Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat - Hal Herzog

Why does cockfighting anger decent society, while 30,000 chickens are slaughtered each day for our dinner tables?  How does breeding show pets endanger them?  And why shouldn't pet snakes be allowed to eat kittens? Anthrozoologist Herzog, a pioneer in the study of human interactions with animals, digs into science, surveys, and anecdotes to discuss our contradictory relationships with animals in a conversational, entertaining way.  Sure to leave readers asking themselves some important questions.  See Jessica's review at Blogging for a Good Book.

The Sparrow - Mary Doria Russell

When transmissions from an alien society reach Earth, a Jesuit-sponsored mission is sent to make first contact. Told in two timelines – the discovery and journey, and the investigation of sole survivor Emilio Sandoz – the story slowly uncovers the love, learning and ultimate misunderstandings that doom the mission. Beautifully drawn characters, a convincing journey that doesn’t rely on fantastic details, and an exploration of individuals’ relationships with God, The Sparrow is science fiction with a strong moral and spiritual core. It also won the 1996 Booklist Editors’ Choice Awards, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, The Tiptree Science Fiction Award, and was named a Book-of-the-Month selection.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down - Anne Fadiman

Asian culture and Western medicine clash during the treatment of a three-year old Hmong girl for her epilepsy.  Allies of the US, the Hmong were relocated from their mountain homes following the Communist victory in Vietnam, and resettled in urban California.  Their culture shock was compounded by doctors accusing the family of child abuse for relying on their traditional animist practices.  But the doctors were trying to find a medical solution to prevent Lia's seizures from causing her brain damage.  Fadiman also writes in detail about the Hmong culture and beliefs, and their experiences in the war.  Medical schools now use this book to teach students about understanding and communicating with patients from different cultures.  

Stardust - Neil Gaiman

A fantasy set in both Victorian England and the world of Faerie, a young man crosses the wall between his village and a mysterious land, searching for a fallen star. What he finds is that the star is actually a young woman, and that her power has drawn ambitious and cruel seekers. Gaiman takes the familiar fantasy themes, and turns them into a fresh fable about pursuing one's dreams.

Starting Out in the Evening – Brian Morton

At 71, author Leonard Schiller is reconciled to his life. His books are out of print; his wife is dead; after two heart attacks, his body is failing. His well-loved 39-year-old daughter, Ariel, is single and wants to have a relationship and a baby, but doesn’t like the men she knows. Into their lives blows the dynamic Heather Wolfe, a twenty-three year old graduate student who wants to write a thesis, and perhaps a book, on Leonard’s work. In her mind, the hero-worshipping Heather is rescuing Schiller from oblivion; seduced, perhaps, by the prospect, he helps Heather, but their relationship fosters jealousy in Ariel. Poignant, intimate, funny and sad, Starting Out in the Evening was named one of the best books of the year by Publisher’s Weekly and Salon Magazine.  See Andrew's review for the Library book blog, as well as Frank Langella's brilliant portrayal of Leonard in the movie version.

State of Wonder - Ann Patchett

Pharmacologist Marina Singh is sent from her Minnesota home to the depths of the Amazon jungle to find out what happened to one of her colleagues.  The man had been on his own quest to locate Dr. Annick Swenson, whose top secret research into a fertility drug stands to make a fortune for their employer.  The dangers and revelations of her journey upriver makes the story feel like an adventure, but Patchett's characters are drawn into ethical conflicts even as they are attracted to the simple ways of the Lakashi tribe.  353 pages

The Stone Angel - Margaret Laurence

Margaret Laurence was perhaps the leading Canadian writer of the 20th century; with The Stone Angel all of her powers as a writer are evident.  Hagar Shipley, now 90, tells the story of her birth and childhood in the frontier town of Manawaka, where her father was a leading citizen; of her flight from a marriage that turned her into a broken drab; and of the sons who were the delight and despair of her life.  Hagar is living with one of her sons, but her daughter-in-law can no longer care for her; Hagar flees from the prospect of a nursing home, living in an abandoned warehouse as long as she can.  Laurence creates Hagar as a disagreeable, willful woman slowly (if grudgingly) coming to accept that she has denied herself happiness. 

The Submission - Amy Waldman

New York City is finally prepared to establish a memorial to the terrorist attacks of September 11.  From among 5,000 blind entries, the committee picks one by an architect with a Muslim name, and a firestorm of public protest erupts.  Journalists, rabblerousers, politicians, grieving families, activist groups - all clamor to make a public case for or against the chosen memorial.  The architect at the center of the controversy, Mohammed Khan, considers himself an ordinary American, but he will not relinquish his victory.  Waldman presents a sympathetic but unwavering look at all sides in a dramatic and tragic story.  Here's a review from the Library's Blogging for a Good Book site.

Sutton - J.R. Moehringer

Infamous bank robber Willie Sutton spent his first day of freedom touring the New York of his youth with a newspaper reporter and photographer.  From the Coney Island boardwalk where he met the love of his life to the various banks he robbed, Willie's journey helps him relive the days when he was a folk hero sticking up the hated banks.  But he also tells the stories of his prison years, of his attempts to go straight, and the economic prison he could not escape.  But is the notorious criminal telling the truth?  Neil reviewed it at Blogging for a Good Book.

Tara Road - Maeve Binchy

Irish storyteller Binchy weaves her multiple plotlines into a tight canvas depicting the everyday life of Tara Road - an up-and-coming address peopled with characters that live the burdens and victories of daily life.  At the center of the bustle is Ria Lynch, whose kitchen is the gathering place for her friends and family, and whose life is centered at home - until the day her husband leaves her for his pregnant mistress.  Devastated, Ria arranges to swap houses with Marilyn Vine, who is seeking to escape her home in Connecticut following the death of her son; in their new settings, each woman learns more about herself and her strengths, while discovering the value of her friends. 

Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe

Ruled by a rigid self-imposed code of ethics, an Ibo man confronts his conflict between upholding the ancient ways and saving the people he loves.  Okonkwo is admired for his strength, but is driven by his contempt for his father; asked to raise an adopted boy, Okonkwo develops his own complicated relationship with the boy.  Sent into exile for transgressing the village's laws, Okonkwo is then confronted with the arrival of the first Christian missionaries and the profound changes it represents. Filled with images and stories of traditional Nigerian life, Achebe's groundbreaking novel of African literature also examines human society through Okonkwo's experience. Donated in honor of Janet Tuthill by Nathan Altschuler. (209 pages)

A Thousand Splendid Suns - Khaled Hosseini

Mariam and Laila are united by one thing - their fear of their husband Rasheed.  Mariam is an illegitimate child, sold into marriage at the age of 15 and forced into the traditional life Rasheed demands.  Laila is beautiful, educated and pampered, but when she loses everything, she agrees to marry Rasheed out of desperation.  As the Afghan civil war rages through the countryside, followed by the occupation of Kabul by the Taliban, Mariam and Laila form an unlikely relationship.  Hosseini's powers of description bring Afghanistan to life, illuminate the troubled history of the country, and delve into the special friendship shared by these very different women.  Here's more from Andrew's review.

To Say Nothing of the Dog - Connie Willis

A satiric romp through Victorian morals?  A twisted time travel tale?  A love match that can change the fate of England?  To Say Nothing of the Dog is all these, wrapped in a humorously literate package that plays with chaos theory, mysteries, penwipers and a particularly ugly example of Victorian decor.  Along the way, university politics, male/female roles, the English class system, and ordinary science fiction writing take it on the chin.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - Betty Smith

The classic novel of growing up impoverished in turn-of-the-century New York. Francie Nolan, avid reader and saver of pennies for candy, observes the people around her.  Her brother, always the favorite; her sternly realistic mother; her wayward aunt; and her idealistic alcoholic father, all teach her in their own ways the things she needs to survive the squalor of the city.

True Confections - Katharine Weber

In the course of preparing a legal deposition, Alice Ziplinsky dishes the dirt on the family she married into, and reveals the truth behind the signature candies their company makes.  From Zip's Candies' murky start to the scandal that lies behind the lawsuit against her, Alice opens doors into skeleton-filled closets, while giving an industry insider's view of the whole candy industry.  But little clues along the way make the reader wonder if Alice is as reliable as she promises to be in recounting the tale.  Andrew wrote about it here.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie - Ayana Mathis

The long shadow of slavery hangs over the linked stories in this novel.  At its heart is Hattie Shepherd, who joined the Great Migration to Philadelphia after seeing her father murdered.  Poverty, injustice, and illness affect Hattie's 11 children and grandchildren (the twelve tribes of the title), while she herself deals with an unfaithful husband.  Hattie's stony reserve masks a woman who will do anything to protect her children, even to the point of driving them away.  But her story is also one of survival told in beautiful and intimate language.  Given by the Williamsburg Landing Book Group in honor of librarian Andrew Smith.

Two Old Women - Velma Wallis

In a time of famine, an Indian tribe abandons two old women, leaving them to die.  Summoning the will to stay alive, and calling on the skills they learned throughout their lives, the two work together to build a home and cache of food to see them through.  They also come to know the other's stories, and learn why the tribe thought them useless.  A short book based on an Athabascan legend, it carries a strong message about the role of women and the elderly in society.

Unbroken - Laura Hillenbrand

The author of the runaway bestselling Seabiscuit takes on the story of another underdog who survived and overcame horrendous odds.  Louis Zamperini, a bad kid from rough streets, had channeled his energy into running, and became an Olympic athlete at Hitler's 1936 BerlinGames.  During World War II, his plane was shot down over the Pacific Ocean, where he and two companions survived 47 days in an open boat.  Landing on a Japanese-held island, Louis was imprisoned in the most brutal of Japanese concentration camps for more than two years, where ingenuity, humor, and sheer will kept him alive.  His post-war life continued his tribulations, until he finally triumphed.  An amazing story that Hillenbrand tells with lively but sometimes heart-breaking detail. Read Andrew's review on Blogging for a Good Book.  

The Uncommon Reader - Alan Bennett

Becoming a reader is neither easy nor safe, as Queen Elizabeth II discovers.  After mistakenly wandering onto a bookmobile, she discovers the pleasures of good books, and the royal household begins to fall apart.  Initially guided by a thoroughly unpresentable page named Norman, she soon strikes out on her own and starts reading widely and critically, bringing chaos to everyone from the Prime Minister to the royal corgis.  And what could be more natural for a reader who makes comments in the margins than to begin writing her own book?  Bennett keenly criticizes the nature of the royal household, and takes on the decline in readership lamented far and wide.  Barry's review is on Blogging for a Good Book.

The Uninvited Guests - Sadie Jones

Sterne, the beloved home of the Torrington family, is overwhelmed by debt, and on the eve of Emerald Torrington's twentieth birthday her stepfather leaves to raise money to save the house.  While he's gone, Emerald's birthday party goes on, but not smoothly.  A wreck on the nearby railroad brings smelly third class passengers to their door to await transportation; Emerald's party guests throw her off balance; her mother and brother will not help, and her much-younger sister has A Great Undertaking in mind.  Then another guest - a first class passenger - arrives and takes over the entire evening, which becomes progressively stranger and spookier.  An atmospheric "country house" story that also pokes sly fun at Edwardian England's class system, The Uninvited Guests gives an odd twist to the Downton Abbey-like setting. 262 p.

The Viscount's Daughter - Phyllis Hall Haislip

Like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Empress Matilda of England, Ermengarde of Narbonne was a woman who exercised her rightful power despite the men who opposed her.  When her father was killed in battle, the five year-old Ermengarde became a political pawn in the divided region, but chose her own dangerous path.  Williamsburg author and historian Phyllis Hall Haislip brings the courageous and headstrong young woman to life in this first volume of a trilogy.  (Given by the Counselors Close Book Group.)  325 p.

A Very Long Engagement – Sebastien Japrisot

What really happened in front of the trench called Bingo Crepuscule? In January 1917, five French soldiers were tossed, arms bound, over the parapet, sentenced to death for self-mutilation. One, the fisherman Manech, left behind a willful and spoiled fiancée, Mathilde, who is determined to dig at all costs against the wall of official lies, misremembered events, and deliberate concealment to find out what happened to her lover. Years of investigation, questions and personal heartache lead Matti to the answer – but is it the one she wants?  Andrew explains his view of the book on the Library blog. 327 p.

Waiting - Ha Jin

Tradition meets revolution in Ha Jin’s National Book Award-winning second novel.  Chinese Army doctor Lin Kong is stationed in a city he can only leave 12 days a year.  On those vacations, he tries to divorce his village wife to marry the more sophisticated Manna Wu, a nurse serving with him in the army hospital.  Lin is attracted to her, but the two cannot break Communist Party rules to even hold hands while he is married.  For 18 years, Lin fails to get the divorce, but Manna stands by him.  Ha Jin’s deliberate language conveys the oppression of waiting in circumstances where centuries of inertia combine with the judgment of peers to keep two people apart.

Water for Elephants - Sara Gruen

90 - or 93 - year old Jacob Jankowski remembers his own days on a traveling circus.  In the heart of the Depression, after losing his parents, Jacob accidentally hops a show train, then becomes the circus veterinarian.  Gruen captures the glitter, the rivalries and manipulation of circus life while telling the story of a difficult time.  In Jacob, she has created a memorable narrator who is still fighting for his dignity and independence even as he loses himself in memories of his young adulthood.  Jessica shares her thoughts at Blogging for a Good Book.

We Die Alone - David Howarth

Respected historian David Howarth tells the gripping tale of Jan Baalsrud, a Norwegian agent betrayed to the German occupiers.  When his landing is revealed and his companions are killed, Baalsrud, unarmed, unequipped, and unprepared, gets a lead of only a couple of hundred yards on his pursuers and heads off into the Arctic wilderness.  With one foot bare, he still manages to evade capture and make his way to friendly territory - but the adventures he has along the way rival the greatest survival tales ever told.

Welcome to the World, Baby Girl - Fanny Flagg

You'd think Dena Nordstrom has it all - ethereal beauty, wealth, and rising success as a television journalist.  But she frequently drinks herself into a stupor, impulsively lies to her family and friends and hides the fact that she often spends holidays in bed with the curtains drawn.  Forced to begin therapy, Dena slowly comes to realize that she is not alone; but a terrible secret from her past, brought out by a vindictive rival, threatens to destroy her fragile new world.

The Welsh Girl - Peter Ho Davies

In the summer of 1944, three very different people are caught up in the circumstances of World War II.  Esther works in a Welsh bar serving British soldiers, one of whom leaves her pregnant.  Karsten is a young English-speaking German corporal imprisoned in a POW camp near Esther’s home town.  And Captain Rotherham, called a Jew and driven out of Germany, is sent to interrogate Rudolf Hess, Adolf Hitler’s former deputy.  All three search for identity in places where they feel no connection.  Davies’ beautiful descriptions, including memorable scenes in the bar, make this a portrait of an overlooked place overshadowed by the war. Here's more from the Library's book blog.

West With the Night - Beryl Markham

What makes an adventurer, an explorer, a pioneer? Markham’s autobiography, which Ernest Hemingway called “bloody marvelous” takes her from girlhood on a frontier Kenya farm playing with Masai warriors to flying scouting expeditions with legendary big game hunters. On a whimsical dare, but with all the skill and caution of her life, she undertakes a cross-Atlantic flight and becomes the first person ever to fly nonstop from England to North America. Thoughtfully written, the book captures images and episodes rather than following chronology, and can be favorably compared to many works of great literature.

When We Were Orphans - Kazuo Ishiguro

Booker Prize winner Ishiguro tells the story of Christopher Banks, an English consulting detective who takes on the greatest case of his life - the disappearance of his own parents nearly twenty years before.  Returning to his boyhood home in Shanghai, he begins his search in the protected International Settlement but must soon venture into a city riven by poverty, civil war, and the Japanese invasion of China.  The devastation of the outside world begins to mirror his own uncertainty as he learns more about who, and what, he really is.

The White Tiger - Aravind Adiga

Balram Halwai made his money the old-fashioned way - he killed for it.  In the course of writing a letter offering to teach the Chinese premier the secrets of entrepreneurship, Balram tells his life story.  Born in an impoverished village, he blackmailed his way into the household of a (comparatively) wealthy family, where he witnessed the corruption that infests every part of Indian life.  Scenes of appalling poverty are set alongside moments of levity, creating a memorable story that keeps the reader off balance.  Here's Andrew's take on it from Blogging for a Good Book.

The Wild Trees - Richard Preston

The largest living things in the world - coastal redwoods - are found in uncharted areas of California.  Left behind in their inaccessible groves, these trees harbor thousands of species of plants and animals, create their own ecosystem, and keep themselves alive by methods still not fully understood by scientists.  So who studies these 35-story giants, and how do they climb trunks that can measure thirty feet in diameter?  Preston tells the story of the loners, rebels, and adventurers who move to soaring heights to find a frontier unlike any in the world, and asks what role they - and the trees - play in a modern world.  Here's a review with more detail.

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts - Maxine Hong Kingston

One of the landmarks of feminist literature, Kingston moves between two worlds – that of her traditional Chinese parents, now emigrated to America, and that of the American culture that does not see her and her family as full members. Negotiating the “talk-stories” her mother tells, in which girls are worthless, with the inspiration she can draw from strong women like the legendary Fa Mu Lan and her own mother, Kingston matures walking the ever-present barriers between male and female, Asian and Caucasian, immigrant and native.

The Wreath (Kristin Lavransdatter, Book 1) - Sigrid Undset

The willful Kristin grows up in 14th century Norway surrounded by the deep faith and ancient superstitions of her family and rural neighbors. Adored by her father, she is raised a proper young woman, but eventually must choose between the man her father has chosen for her and the man she really loves. Undset captures the medieval setting beautifully and with scholarly accuracy, but it is the timeless story of a young woman's coming of age that makes this memorable. Undset won the Nobel Prize in 1928. Although this is the first in a trilogy covering Kristin's entire life, it holds up as a single novel.

Year of Wonders - Geraldine Brooks

What happens when disaster strikes a small community, picking its victims seemingly at random and leaving lives in ruins?  This question inspired Geraldine Brooks to tell the story of a English village which voluntarily quarantined itself to ride out the Black Plague.   Anna Frith, a young widow, rector Michael Mompellion, and his wife Elinor provide comfort and leadership to the people of the village, but as the disease progresses more and more of the institutions that held the village together disappear.  Jan's review at Blogging for a Good Book has more.

Zealot - Reza Aslan

Palestine in the first century A.D. is rife with political and religious factions, many of which were preaching the imminent end of the world.  Occupied by the Roman Empire, the troublesome province was proving to be one of the most difficult for them to govern.  When an itinerant preacher gathers a public following and calls for an end to the religious dynasty that supports Rome, he is arrested, convicted, and executed for sedition.  Aslan takes a close look at the culture of that time and place to develop a picture of Jesus of Nazereth the man, not the Jesus who would become the Christ to his followers. (269 pages)