Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague
This national bestseller by Brooks, a former war correspondent, was inspired by true events that occurred in the English village of Eyam in 1666. Full of vivid historical detail, the novel focuses on 18-year-old Anna Frith, a widow and mother who serves as maid to the town's vicar, Michael Mompellion. When bubonic plague strikes the little village, the vicar pronounces it a judgment sent by God and advises the community to shut itself off from the world. Isolated and grief-stricken, the town struggles to survive, as Anna and Elinor, the vicar's wife, nurse the growing number of victims. It's through Anna's recollections that the trials of a community under siege are unforgettably brought to life. Brooks expertly captures the superstitions and habits of the 17th century, as well as a fear that transcends the era. A reading group guide is included in the book.

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World
By Michael Pollan
In this surprise bestseller, nonfiction writer Pollan combines history, literature and philosophy as he looks at the reciprocal relationship that has developed between humans and four plants everyone takes for granted: apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes. Examining each, as well as the corresponding desires they fulfill in their partakers sweetness, beauty, intoxication and control Pollan shows how these species evolved to answer mankind's cravings, becoming indispensable over the centuries as a result. From modern-day marijuana gardens, to the story of Johnny Appleseed, to the tulip explosion that swept Holland in the 1600s, this provocative and wide-ranging book probes the myriad ways in which all forms of life are intertwined. In refined, accessible prose, Pollan presents solid proof that plants use us just as much as we use them.

Empire Falls
By Richard Russo
No one portrays the comedy and drama of middle-class existence more believably than Russo, who scores again with this small-town epic. Set in a depressed mill community in Maine, the book focuses on single dad Miles Roby, owner of the Empire Grill, a local diner that attracts an eccentric clientele from every spectrum of the community. The diner as well as most of the town is owned by Francine Whiting, a wealthy widower who has promised to leave Miles the grill when she dies. In the meantime, Miles' wife is divorcing him, and his daughter, an angst-ridden teen named Tick, is struggling though school. The story of how Miles copes with family and community makes for a wonderfully resonant novel. Russo continues to write with the humor and insight that's made him a favorite with readers and critics alike. A reading group guide is available in print and online.

John Henry Days
By Colson Whitehead
This ingenious examination of the significance of an American folk hero follows freeloading hack writer J. Sutter as he travels to a small town in West Virginia to report on its John Henry Days celebration. In a crowd of wise-cracking New York correspondents, he is the only black reporter, and his experience provides a juxtaposition to that of the famed railroad worker who died after defeating a steam drill in a much-mythologized contest. While the novel focuses on Sutter and the idiosyncratic folks he meets at the festival, it also traces the development of the John Henry ballad and flashes back in time to introduce real-life figures like Paul Robeson, and of course the steel-driving man himself. A sophisticated study of race, media and modern American culture, this ambitious book has earned the 32-year-old author comparisons to Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen. A reading group guide is available in print and online.

 

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