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Book Reviews
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2008  
  Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
  What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn
  A Thousand Splendid Sunsby Khaled Hosseini
  A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar
  The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  House of Spirits by Isabele Allende
  The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
  Brick Lane by Monica Ali
  The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death by Jean-Dominique Bauby
  Atonement by Ian McEwan
  What is the What by Dave Eggers

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Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Sue's book of the month is Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. Probably Ms. Strout's best novel yet. It's actually a collection of connected stories about life in a small New England town. Strout draws each character, and each relationship with a keen and economic eye to detail; in just a short story we learn so much. She deftly describes the intricacies of life weaving the momentous with the mundane, just like reality does. And also like reality, people are multi-faceted. At first Olive may strike the reader as a crabby old woman, which is one facet of her character, but as the stories progress, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life-sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty. Olive Kitteridge offers profound insights into the human condition-its conflicts, its tragedies and joys, and the endurance it requires. This is simply a wonderful book. This is the kind of writing that avid readers wait for.

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What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn

Michele's book of the month is What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn. It's a bit of a social commentary on the absurdity of consumerism and the sense of alienation and crushing loneliness that afflicts individuals living in our modern age. Little Kate Meaney (the subject of the mystery at the heart of the novel), with the help of her pet monkey Mickey, lives in her make-believe world of detectives and potential victims. Little Kate's mysterious disappearance in the '80s, her pet monkey Mickey's strange but timely re-emergence 20 years later, the secrets of the protagonist cast, and the presence of ghostly ruminations after hours at the mall, all add convincingly to the spook factor that turns this quite wonderful and difficult to categorize book into a serious page turner as one works through its final pages. What Was Lost is altogether more than an ordinary suburban thriller and a huge breath of fresh air.

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A Thousand Splendid Sunsby Khaled Hosseini

Sue's book of the month is A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. Set in Afghanistan, the story twists and turns its way through the turmoil and chaos that ensued following the fall of the monarchy in 1973, but focuses mainly on the lives of two women, thrown together by fate. The story starts decades before the Taliban came into power in 1996, and ends after the era of Taliban rule. The main character, Mariam, begins life as a Harami--the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy man and one of his housekeepers. Mariam has an arranged marriage to a much older man, a shoemaker, whose views on the rights of women mirror those that the Taliban would soon enforce. During the time that Mariam is dutifully enduring her unhappy marriage, a neighbor gives birth to a baby girl, whom they name Laila. By the end of communist rule in 1992, Laila is fourteen and beginning to see her friend, Tariq, in a different way that she does not quite understand. The enthusiastic rejoicing at the end of the jihad is silenced by the internal battles of the Mujahideen, and when the bombs start falling on Kabul, Laila and Tariq are forced apart. Circumstances can make strange things happen, and Laila soon becomes a part of Mariam's husband's household, by necessity rather than choice. The rest of this unforgettable story reflects the heart-rending sacrifices of these women, and allows the reader a peek behind the burqa, to the heart of Afghanistan. Hosseini's simple but richly descriptive prose makes for an engrossing read.

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A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar

Sue's book of the month is A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar. This is Jarrar's debut novel about an audacious Muslim girl growing up in Kuwait, Egypt, and Texas. Nidali Ammar is born in Boston to a Greek-Egyptian mother and a Palestinian father, and moves to Kuwait at a very young age, staying there until she's 13, when Iraq invades. A younger brother is born in Kuwait, rounding out a family of complex citizenships. During the occupation, the family flees to Alexandria in a wacky caravan, bribing soldiers along the way with whiskey and silk ties. But they don't stay long in Egypt, and after the war, Nidali's father finds work in Texas. At first, Nidali is disappointed to learn that feeling rootless doesn't make her an outsider in the States, and soon it turns out the precocious and endearing Arab chick isn't very different from other American girls, a reality that only her father may find difficult to accept.

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz is darkly funny and at times heartbreaking, The Brief Wondrous Life is about Díaz's unlikely hero Oscar, an obese Dominican Trekkie terrified of dying a virgin. With a rich narrative voice that compels sympathy over pity as the inner workings of both Oscar and his native Dominican Republic are laid bare. Things have never been easy for Oscar, a sweet but disastrously overweight, lovesick Dominican ghetto nerd. From his home in New Jersey, where he lives with his old-world mother and rebellious sister, Oscar dreams of becoming the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien and, most of all, of finding love. But he may never get what he wants, thanks to the Fuk, the curse that has haunted the Oscar's family for generations, dooming them to prison, torture, tragic accidents, and, above all, ill-starred love. Oscar, still waiting for his first kiss, is just its most recent victim. This is a fierce, funny, tragic book that is just what a reader would have hoped for in a first novel.

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House of Spirits by Isabele Allende

Lauren's book of the month is House of Spirits by Isabele Allende. This epic story, written in the backdrop of 20th-century Chilean history, focuses on the Trueba family. Each member of that family is introduced in the initial chapters and eventually the reader understands them as if they are people from real life. Wrapped in magic realism, this is a story of Chilean history, family, individualism, life, and of the genetics of prejudices and fears.

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The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

Sue's book of the month is The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. He writes about how our food is grown--what it is, in fact, that we are eating. The book is really three in one: the first section discusses industrial farming; the second, organic food, both as big business and on a relatively small farm; and the third, what it is like to hunt and gather food for oneself. What should we have for dinner? To one degree or another this simple question assails any creature faced with a wide choice of things to eat. Anthropologists call it the omnivore's dilemma. Choosing from among the countless potential foods nature offers, humans have had to learn what is safe, and what isn't. Today, as America confronts what can only be described as a national eating disorder, the omnivore's dilemma has returned with an atavistic vengeance. The cornucopia of the modern American supermarket and fast-food outlet has thrown us back on a bewildering landscape where we once again have to worry about which of those tasty-looking morsels might kill us. At the same time, we're realizing that our food choices also have profound implications for the health of our environment. The Omnivore's Dilemma is Pollan's brilliant and eye-opening exploration of these little-known but vitally important dimensions of eating in America.

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Brick Lane by Monica Ali

Mama-san Carol's book of the month is Brick Lane by Monica Ali. This phenomenally original novel entwines Pakistani traditional beginnings with a gradual transformation into modern, multicultural life in contemporary London. Ali's narrator, Nazneen, holds all of her experiences close at hand and maintains a connection to both worlds, considering fate and observation as her beacons. Brick Lane tells the parallel stories of two sisters: one in London, the other back home in Bangladesh. The story unfolds over the course of 20 or so years. The story alternates between the daily life of Nazneen and letters written by her sister Hasina. Ali's writing is funny, sharp, and deeply moving; and she explores the power of personal choice and the sometimes-suffocating disillusion of immigrant life.

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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death by Jean-Dominique Bauby

Sue’s book of the month is The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death by Jean-Dominique Bauby. It’s 1995, Bauby was the editor-in-chief of the French magazine Elle, the father of two young children, a 44-year-old man known and loved for his wit, style, and impassioned approach to life. By the end of the year he was also the victim of a rare kind of stroke to the brainstem. After 20 days in a coma, Bauby awoke into a body which had all but stopped working: only his left eye functioned, allowing him to see and, by blinking it, to make clear that his mind was unimpaired. Almost miraculously, he was soon able to express himself in the richest detail: dictating a word at a time, blinking to select each letter as the alphabet was recited to him slowly, over and over again. By turns wistful, mischievous, angry, and witty, Bauby bears witness to his determination to live as fully in his mind as he had been able to do in his body. Again and again he returns to an inexhaustible reservoir of sensations, keeping in touch with himself and the life around him.

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Atonement by Ian McEwan

M & M's (Mom & Michelle's) book of the month is Atonement by Ian McEwan. This haunting novel is McEwan at his finest. It is in effect two, or even three, books in one, all masterfully crafted. The first part ushers us into a domestic crisis that becomes a crime story centered around an event that changes the lives of half a dozen people in an upper-middle-class country home on a hot English summer's day in 1935. Young Briony Tallis, a hyperimaginative 13-year-old who sees her older sister, Cecilia, mysteriously involved with their neighbor Robbie Turner, a fellow Cambridge student subsidized by the Tallis family, points a finger at Robbie when her young cousin is assaulted in the grounds that night; on her testimony alone, Robbie is jailed. The second part of the book moves forward five years to focus on Robbie, now freed and part of the British Army that was cornered and eventually evacuated by a fleet of small boats at Dunkirk during the early days of WWII. This is an astonishingly imagined fresco that bares the full anguish of what Britain in later years came to see as a kind of victory. In the third part, Briony becomes a nurse amid wonderfully observed scenes of London as the nation mobilizes. No, she doesn't have Robbie as a patient, but she begins to come to terms with what she has done and offers to make amends to him and Cecilia, now together as lovers. In an ironic epilogue that is yet another coup de the tre, McEwan offers Briony as an elderly novelist today, revisiting her past in fact and fancy and contributing a moving windup to the sustained flight of a deeply novelistic imagination.

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What is the What by Dave Eggers

Sue's book of the month is What is the What by Dave Eggers. Sue could not be more in agreement with Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, who reviewed of this book: "I cannot recall the last time I was this moved by a novel. What Is the What is that rare book that truly deserves the overused and scarcely warranted moniker of sprawling epic. Told with humor, humanity, and bottomless compassion for his subject, one Valentino Achak Deng, Eggers shows us the hardships, disillusions, and hopes of the long-suffering people of southern Sudan. This is the story of one boy's astonishing capacity to endure atrocity after atrocity and yet refuse to abandon decency, kindness, and hope for home and acceptance. It is impossible to read this book and not be humbled, enlightened, transformed. I believe I will never forget Valentino Achak Deng."

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