by Julie HaleSeptember 2009
Best paperbacks for reading groups
By Marilynne Robinson
Robinson’s best-selling follow-up to the Pulitzer Prizewinning Gilead is another beautifully crafted meditation on the nature of family and matters of the spirit. Set in Gilead, Iowa, in the 1950s, Home is centered on the family of Reverend Robert Boughton, who is widowed and slowly dying. After a 20-year absence, his trouble-making son, Jack, has returned to Gilead. Shifty and mysterious as a lad, Jack left Gilead in disgrace, deserting his young girlfriend and their child. Now 43 and a belligerent alcoholic, he argues with his father but soon tries to make peace, and he grows close, for the first time, to his youngest sister, Glory. Weighed down with her own share of troubles, 38-year-old Glory has also recently returned home to care for their father. Both she and Jack have tempestuous personal histories they’ve tried to bury—a fact that draws them together. The family is soon turned upside down when Jack reveals the truth about his restless life. A compassionate and wise writer, Robinson has a gift for portraying the dynamics of family and the motivations that drive human relationships. In Home, she captures with realistic rawness the tensions that exist between generations of kin as they come to terms with hard truths. Melodically written and skillfully plotted, her latest book—a finalist for the National Book Award—is everything her many fans hoped it would be.
A reading group guide is available online.
Beat the Reaper
By Josh Bazell
Josh Bazell’s much-praised debut is a fast-moving mystery filled with edgy humor, smart dialogue and unpredictable plot twists. The antagonist of the tale, an unassuming doctor named Peter Brown, isn’t quite the person he seems. A former hitman known as Bearclaw, Peter was in deep with the mafia until he entered the Federal Witness Protection Program and embarked on a new life. He now works at Manhattan Catholic Hospital, a dilapidated establishment that serves all sorts of characters. When a patient with ties to the mafia—a cancer victim named Nicholas LoBrutto—recognizes him, Peter knows he’s in danger. But LoBrutto strikes a bargain: if Peter can treat him, LoBrutto won’t rat him out; if LoBrutto dies, the mafia will come for Peter. As Peter works to keep LoBrutto alive (with the aid of a less-than-expert medical team), he gets mistakenly injected with fluid from a patient who has a strange illness. Entwined with this slightly screwball storyline is the fascinating tale of Peter’s past, including the murder of his grandparents, which led to his involvement with the mafia. During those years, he modeled himself after Robin Hood, eliminating the worst gangsters he could find. Can he muster his old powers now and save himself? Bazell, an M.D. who wrote the book while completing his medical internship, delivers a very funny and entertaining first novel.
A reading group guide is included in the book.
The China Lover
By Ian Buruma
Based on the true story of Asian movie star Shirley Yamaguchi, this meticulously researched novel spans decades and continents, offering readers a fascinating look at Japan’s film industry. The book’s opening section is recounted by Sidney Vanoven, a gay film buff who moves to Japan during America’s occupation of the country after World War II. Sidney— a narrator of great wit and intelligence—is swept away by Japan and its customs, and he soon becomes obsessed with the glamorous Yamaguchi. Moving backward in time, the novel’s second part takes place before World War II and is narrated by Sato Daisuke, who has mysterious ties to the movie business, and who bears witness as Yamaguchi scales the heights of stardom. The book’s final segment is set in recent times and related by a Japanese scriptwriter, who becomes embroiled in problems in the Middle East. Through the overarching story of one mysterious movie queen, Buruma traces the lives of three very different cinephiles. He’s an expert at blending fact and fiction, and his remarkably detailed account of Japan’s invasion of China makes for thrilling reading. Buruma’s affection for Japan and for the movies shines through in this fascinating novel.