by Julie HaleJanuary, 2008
Best bets for book clubs
Travels in the Scriptorium
Mysterious, complex and challenging, the new novel from one of America's foremost fiction writers offers plenty for readers to contemplate. Mr. Blank, the elderly lead character, is trapped in a room, where he struggles to regain his memory. He has no recollection of arriving in the room, nor any idea of how much time has passed since he got there. On a desk in the room, Mr. Blank finds a manuscript, which he begins to read, only to discover that it tells the story of another captive, one Sigmund Graf a man not unlike himself. Soon, people from the manuscript visit Mr. Blank in his room, relating pieces of the story of his life. One visitor, Anna, gives Mr. Blank sponge baths and offers him sexual comfort. Other characters include James P. Flood, a former policeman, and Samuel Farr, a doctor, both of whom hint at dangerous journeys Mr. Blank forced them to embark on in his past life. The manuscript itself, meanwhile, describes the development of a new country called the Confederation and recounts the adventures of Graf as he travels to a place known as the Alien Territories. Auster uses the parallel stories of Blank and Graf to build suspense and tension, luring the reader into a world of narrative illusion. As usual with the novelist, all is not as it seems, and the book features an abundance of surprises. Fans of literary fiction will relish this cleverly constructed book the latest from a master of the genre.
The Knitting Circle
Set in Providence, Rhode Island, Hood's poignant new novel tells the story of a grieving mother who finds comfort in an unexpected source knitting. When Mary Baxter loses her five-year-old daughter to meningitis, she struggles to get on with her life. She and her husband, Dylan, are drifting apart, and her job as a writer at the local newspaper requires more attention than she is capable of giving. Mary's own mother, who lives in Mexico, is unable to provide support, except to suggest that Mary join a knitting group. Mary soon takes her advice, joining a circle of spirited, open-hearted knitters who offer the companionship and support she needs to cope with tragedy. Each member of the group teaches Mary a new aspect of the knitting craft, sharing with her along the way their own stories of loss. Their encouragement and care contribute to Mary's healing process, as does the therapeutic quality of knitting itself. Hood, who learned to knit after she lost her own daughter, offers a realistic depiction of grief and renewal that is moving without being overly sentimental. She writes beautifully about the art of knitting, using it throughout the novel as a symbol of regeneration. This is a sensitive and touching portrayal of one mother's struggle with loss.
A reading group guide is available online at norton.com/guides.
Focusing this intense, insightful nonfiction narrative on her experiences with patients who died, Chen presents a compelling account of her career as a surgeon. A gifted writer, she offers a perceptive look at what it's like to be a doctor at a time when the medical industry equals big business and seems to lack a human face. Taught to remove herself emotionally from those in her care, Chen finds herself in conflict with what she learns as a medical student. Her first encounter with a dead body occurs in her anatomy class an incident that is eclipsed over the years by episodes with patients whose lives she couldn't save. Chen writes unflinchingly about the accidental death of one of her own patients, a tragedy for which she holds herself accountable. Thinking back on what she has learned from these varied encounters with mortality, she gradually comes to terms with the guilt that has long haunted her a sense of regret at being emotionally absent when her patients and their families needed her. Chen also presents evidence of reform within the medical industry, as more and more physicians are acknowledging that the healthcare profession needs to be humanized. Fans of Atul Gawande will savor this timely, precisely crafted narrative.
A reading group guide is available online at readinggroupcenter.com.