by Julie HaleJuly, 2009
July paperbacks for reading groups
This novel-about-a-novel is a smartly crafted narrative that deconstructs the writing process. John, the book’s central character, has composed a work of fiction that fails to live up to the standards of his girlfriend, Annick. She thinks it lacks life, so John undertakes an overhaul of the manuscript, ending up with a memoir about his childhood in Requiem, Massachusetts. Back then, John was known as Johnny, and—along with Audrey, his sister—he grew up mostly in the care of Frances, their crazy but loving mother. Frances, who took baths in gasoline, believed her real children were kidnapped and that John and Audrey were aliens. Their father, Rainey, a truck driver, was on the road more often than not and seemed to be hiding something from the family. The narrative juxtaposes the past and the present, comparing John’s unorthodox upbringing with his modern life, as he composes the memoir, hangs out with friends and interviews for various teaching jobs. The shifts in time and place set up a fascinating contrast that illuminates the practice of writing and the slippery nature of memory. Dufresne manipulates complex, varied narrative strands with the skill of a master storyteller. This is a multilayered novel that’s sure to appeal to fans of literary fiction. A reading group guide is included in the book.
The Little Book
Edwards’ debut novel is a whimsical story of time travel that blends fiction and fact. Magically carried into the past, Stan “Wheeler” Burden—47-year-old rock star, history buff and heir to a prestigious Boston banking family—moves from 1980s San Francisco to 1890s Vienna, without a clue as to how the uprooting occurs. Wheeler sets out to make the best of it, outfitting himself in fashionable clothes and making equally fashionable friends—a group of intellectuals that includes none other than Sigmund Freud. Freud, who listens to Wheeler’s strange stories about the future, is convinced that his new friend suffers from mental delusions and takes on the role of guardian and mentor. While stranded in this strange new world, Wheeler falls in love with a beautiful American woman and learns some incredible facts about his own peculiar family. Edwards, a retired high school English teacher and headmaster who spent more than 30 years working on the novel, fills this ingenious tale with cleverly staged incidents involving famous figures—Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler and Gustav Mahler all have roles. Fast-paced and full of wonderful dialogue, with a true hero at the helm, the novel spans nine decades, covering plenty of territory along the way. In the end, the answer to the book’s central puzzle—how Wheeler managed to travel through time—proves the most amazing story of all. A reading group guide is available online.
The Road Home
Tremain’s latest book is a powerful novel about immigration and its attendant complexities. Lev, a widower from Eastern Europe, comes to London in search of a job that will allow him to support the daughter and mother who wait for him back home. Lev—who speaks scant English and has precious little money—is anxious and skeptical about the move and soon suffers from culture shock. He doesn’t quite know what to make of Western Europe’s speed and openness—its sexy advertisements and poorly cooked food—or its inhospitable attitude toward transplants like himself. But things take a turn for the better when he’s hired as a kitchen worker in a fancy restaurant. He also befriends a lonely Irishman named Christy, who drinks too much and has his own past to mourn. Christy gives Lev a room in his house—a place that feels like home—and Lev does his best to assimilate, becoming romantically involved with a young coworker named Sophie and learning to tolerate the tyrant ways of Gregory, his boss. Intelligent, observant and open-minded, Lev is a likable central character, and his attempts to combat the homesickness that inevitably plagues him make for a poignant narrative. Winner of the prestigious Orange Prize, this is a timely, moving novel—a beautifully written account of the immigrant experience. A reading group guide is included in the book.