Book Suggestions for Summer/Fall 2012

We will vote on the book selections at our meeting next week, April 26 at 11 AM in the Sargent Meeting Room. See you there.

The Girl in the Blue Beret by Bobbie Ann Mason
An American World War II pilot shot down in Occupied Europe returns to his crash site decades later and finds himself drawn back in time to the brave people who helped him escape from the Nazis.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a prosperous Syrian-American and father of four, chose to stay through the storm to protect his house and contracting business. In the days after, he traveled the flooded streets in a secondhand canoe, passing on supplies and helping those he could. But, on September 6, 2005, Zeitoun abruptly disappeared. Eggers’s riveting nonfiction book, three years in the making, explores Zeitoun’s roots in Syria, his marriage to Kathy – an American who converted to Islam – and their children, and the surreal atmosphere (in New Orleans and the United States generally) in which what happened to Abdulrahman Zeitoun became possible. Like What Is the What, Zeitoun was written in close collaboration with its subjects and involved vast research – in this case, in the U.S., Spain, and Syria.

Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay
A mysterious jewel holds the key to a life-changing secret, in this breathtaking tale of love and art, betrayal and redemption. When she decides to auction her remarkable jewelry collection, Nina Revskaya, once a great star of the Bolshoi Ballet, believes she has finally drawn a curtain on her past. Instead, the former ballerina finds herself overwhelmed by memories of her homeland and of the events, both glorious and heartbreaking, that changed the course of her life half a century ago. It was in Russia that she discovered the magic of the theater; that she fell in love with the poet Viktor Elsin; that she and her dearest companions-Gersh, a brilliant composer, and the exquisite Vera, Nina’s closest friend-became victims of Stalinist aggression. And it was in Russia that a terrible discovery incited a deadly act of betrayal-and an ingenious escape that led Nina to the West and eventually to Boston. Nina has kept her secrets for half a lifetime. But two people will not let the past rest: Drew Brooks, an inquisitive young associate at a Boston auction house, and Grigori Solodin, a professor of Russian who believes that a unique set of jewels may hold the key to his own ambiguous past. Together these unlikely partners begin to unravel a mystery surrounding a love letter, a poem, and a necklace of unknown provenance, setting in motion a series of revelations that will have life-altering consequences for them all.

A Tree Grown in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
The beloved American classic about a young girl’s coming-of-age at the turn of the century, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness — in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience.

Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So: a memoir by Mark Vonnegut
More than thirty years after the publication of his acclaimed memoir The Eden Express, Mark Vonnegut continues his remarkable story in this searingly funny, iconoclastic account of coping with mental illness, finding his calling as a pediatrician, and learning that willpower isn’t nearly enough. Here is Mark’s childhood spent as the son of a struggling writer in a house that eventually held seven children after his aunt and uncle died and left four orphans. And here is the world after Mark was released from a mental hospital to find his family forever altered. At the late age of twenty-eight-and after nineteen rejections-Mark was accepted to Harvard Medical School, where he gained purpose, a life, and some control over his condition. The brilliantly evoked events of Mark Vonnegut’s life are at once perfectly unique and achingly relatable. There are the manic episodes, during which he felt burdened with saving the world, juxtaposed against the real-world responsibilities of running a pediatric practice. At times he felt that his parents lives would improve if only they had a few hundred more bucks in their bank account, while at other points his father’s fame merely heightened expectations that he be better, funnier (and crazier) than the average person. Ultimately a tribute to the small, daily, and positive parts of a life interrupted by bipolar disorder.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
The Hunchback of Notre Dame has thrilled generations of readers with its powerfully melodramatic story of Quasimodo, the deformed hunchback who lives in the bell tower of medieval Paris’s most famous cathedral. Feared and hated by all, Quasimodo is looked after by Dom Claude Frollo, a stern, cold priest who ignores the poor hunchback in the face of his frequent public torture. But someone steps forward to help-the beautiful gypsy Esmeralda, whose single act of kindness fills Quasimodo with love. Can the hunchback save the lovely gypsy from Frollo’s evil plan, or will they all perish in the shadows of Notre Dame? An epic tale of beauty and sadness, The Hunchback of Notre Dame portrays the sufferings of humanity with compassion and power.

Catherine the Great: portrait of a woman by Robert K. Massie
The extraordinary story of an obscure young German princess who traveled to Russia at fourteen and rose to become one of the most remarkable, powerful, and captivating women in history. Born into a minor noble family, Catherine transformed herself into Empress of Russia by sheer determination. Possessing a brilliant mind and an insatiable curiosity as a young woman, she devoured the works of Enlightenment philosophers and, when she reached the throne, attempted to use their principles to guide her rule of the vast and backward Russian empire. She knew or corresponded with the preeminent historical figures of her time: Voltaire, Diderot, Frederick the Great, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, Marie Antoinette, and, surprisingly, the American naval hero, John Paul Jones. Reaching the throne fired by Enlightenment philosophy and determined to become the embodiment of the “benevolent despot” idealized by Montesquieu, she found herself always contending with the deeply ingrained realities of Russian life, including serfdom. She persevered, and for thirty-four years the government, foreign policy, cultural development, and welfare of the Russian people were in her hands. She dealt with domestic rebellion, foreign wars, and the tidal wave of political change and violence churned up by the French Revolution that swept across Europe. Her reputation depended entirely on the perspective of the speaker. She was praised by Voltaire as the equal of the greatest of classical philosophers; she was condemned by her enemies, mostly foreign, as “the Messalina of the north.” Catherine’s family, friends, ministers, generals, lovers, and enemies — all are here, vividly described. These included her ambitious, perpetually scheming mother; her weak, bullying husband, Peter (who left her lying untouched beside him for nine years after their marriage); her unhappy son and heir, Paul; her beloved grandchildren; and her “favorites” — the parade of young men from whom she sought companionship and the recapture of youth as well as sex. Here, too, is the giant figure of Gregory Potemkin, her most significant lover and possible husband, with whom she shared a passionate correspondence of love and separation, followed by seventeen years of unparalleled mutual achievement.

Cleopatra: a life by Stacy Schiff
Her palace shimmered with onyx and gold but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator. She was married twice, each time to a brother. She waged a brutal civil war against the first and poisoned the second; incest and assassination were family specialties. She had children by Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, two of the most prominent Romans of the day. With Antony she would attempt to forge a new empire, in an alliance that spelled both their ends. Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons. Her supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost.

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
From 1972 to 1990, Alexandra Fuller, known to friends and family as Bobo, grew up on several farms in southern and central Africa. Her father joined up on the side of the white government in the Rhodesian civil war and was often away fighting against the powerful black guerrilla factions. Her mother, in turn, flung herself into their African life and its rugged farmwork with the same passion and maniacal energy she brought to everything. She taught her daughters, by example, to be resilient and self-sufficient, and she instilled in Bobo a love of reading and of storytelling that proved to be her salvation. But Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight is more than a survivor’s story: It is the story of one woman’s unbreakable bond with a continent and the people who inhabit it, a portrait lovingly realized and deeply felt.

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