by Julie HaleJanuary 2009
January paperback releases offer good choices for reading groups
The Sum of Our Days
In her fourth work of nonfiction, the celebrated Chilean author offers another poignant meditation on love, loss and grief. Still haunted by the death of her daughter—a tragedy that occurred in 1992, providing the basis for her best-selling memoir Paula—Allende now looks back at the years that have passed since that heartbreaking event. Taking the measure of her life and finding much to savor despite Paula's death, she covers varied territory in this brisk autobiography. Allende examines topics like marriage, religion, drug abuse and her eventful career as a journalist and fiction writer, and she brings a special compassion to her recounting. She peppers the narrative with hard-won insights, and at times it's clear that she's writing from a place marked by incredible pain. Yet ever-present elements of warmth and humor keep the tone of the book balanced. No one can match Allende when it comes to writing about the sustaining presence of family, the evolving nature of grief or the redemption that can, at times, follow tragedy. From these subjects she has crafted a wise and generous narrative with much to offer readers. This is vintage Allende, a big-hearted book full of spirit, spice and wit.
People of the Book
Brooks, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of March (2005), blends mystery and history in this splendid novel. At the center of the story is an actual Jewish religious work called the Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the first texts of its kind to feature illuminated images. The volume endured several centuries' worth of religious conflicts and wars due to the vigilance of a brave group of individuals, who endangered their lives in order to preserve it. This fascinating fictionalization of the Haggadah's survival features Hanna Heath, a rare-books specialist in Sarajevo who is working to restore the text. Over the course of her labors, Hanna finds that the book reveals clues about itself and its background. Through small discoveries in the volume—a wine stain, a strand of hair, some salt crystals—Hanna is able to research the text's mysteries from a scientific standpoint. But these efforts only serve to lead her deep into sinister territory. In addition to Hanna's spine-tingling discoveries about the Haggadah, readers are treated to accounts of critical incidents in its remarkable history, which are presented in the form of short, beautifully crafted chapters. The Haggadah's story is compelling in itself, yet Brooks fleshes out the narrative many clever elements of suspense and an appealing love story. Complex yet wonderfully readable, this is first-rate literary fiction. A reading group guide is included in the book.
The Senator's Wife
Miller offers another intriguing look into the female psyche with this tense, well-crafted novel. Young, beautiful Meri has just wed a successful professor, and the two live in part of a New England townhouse, which they share with the sophisticated Delia and her senator-husband. Each couple has a wing of the house, an arrangement that allows Meri and Delia to become friends and confidantes. When a surprise pregnancy throws Meri into a tailspin, she must take stock of her life, beginning with her disturbing childhood and ending with her new marriage. Delia, meanwhile, dutifully suffers the indiscretions of her husband, whose affairs have earned him a reputation as a womanizer. Their marriage exists solely as a means of furthering his political career. As Meri and Delia experience their own separate emotional hardships, the bond between them grows, and their lives soon overlap in unpredictable—and damaging—ways. The book's taut, perfectly controlled plot features some surprises, and its evolution is complemented by the insight and intuition Miller brings to the book. Her uncanny ability to tap into the emotional interiors of women makes the narrative surprisingly potent. This study of two very different female characters whose private worlds unexpectedly intertwine reinforces Miller's reputation as one of our leading contemporary novelists. A reading group guide is available in print and online atreadinggroupcenter.com.
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