by Julie HaleSeptember 2007
Paperback picks for reading groups
THE ECHO MAKER
Winner of the 2006 National Book Award, this poignant novel offers further proof of Powers' remarkable abilities as a fiction writer. The Echo Maker tells the story of Mark Schluter, a 27-year-old meatpacker who lives in Nebraska and nearly dies in a car accident. Mark sinks into a coma after the crash, and his sister, Karin, becomes his caretaker. When Mark comes out of the coma, he refuses to believe that Karin is really his sister he thinks she's an impostor. Desperate to help her brother, Karin gets in touch with noted neurologist Gerald Weber, who confirms that Mark has a disease called Capgras syndrome. Those who suffer from this strange (and real) condition are unable to believe that the people closest to them are who they really say they are. Weber and his wife, Sylvie, are two members of a large and well-rounded cast of characters that includes Karin's eco-conscious boyfriend, two of Mark's pals from the meatpacking plant and a mysterious nurse named Barbara. Powers builds a rich, complex narrative, with mysteries stemming not only from Mark's strange disease, but from the accident itself and the events that led up to that night. He skillfully handles these multiple plot strands, building a wonderful work of literary fiction that succeeds on every level. A reading group guide is available online at www.picadorusa.com.
THE BOOK THIEF
The narrator of this highly original novel is none other than Death himself. With Nazi Germany as its backdrop, Zusak's sprawling tale focuses on a nine-year-old girl named Liesl Meminger, whom Death meets when he comes for her brother. A sympathetic figure, Death is drawn to Liesl and dismayed by the number of victims gassed Jews, dead soldiers, bombed-out civilians the war has produced. Liesl, an orphan who lives with a foster family that's harboring a Jew, provides a sort of relief for Death. She lives outside of Munich, with Rosa, her careworn foster mother, and Hans, her foster father. After Hans teaches her how to read (using The Grave Digger's Handbook as a guide), Liesl steals books from the mayor's wife, from the Nazis, from any place she can find them. Again and again, books provide relief for her during the war, and so it only seems natural that Liesl herself should start writing, telling her own story. Death, meantime, recounts the events of Liesl's life in a detached fashion, in sentences that are clipped and minimal yet full of meaning. His relationship to Liesl is skillfully portrayed by Zusak, an Australian writer who has created a touching and poignant narrative about the redemptive power of art. Although it's being marketed in the U.S. for young adults, this is a provocative and critically acclaimed novel that adult reading groups will find richly rewarding. Discussion questions are included in the book.
THE LOOMING TOWER
Wright offers a timely and haunting work of nonfiction with this in-depth look at Islamic fundamentalism and the ascent of al-Qaeda. Encompassing five decades, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 traces the roots of the contemporary Islamic movement back to its founder, Sayyid Qutb, and examines how the religion grew to dominate the Arab world. Wright presents the background of Osama bin Laden in vivid detail, from his wealthy upbringing to his turn to terrorism to his existence as the world's most wanted criminal. He also tells the tragic yet fascinating story of FBI counterterrorism chief John O'Neill, who was aware of the threat presented by al-Qaeda back in the 1990s, tried hard to dismantle that threat and died in the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11. This is a work that answers pressing questions about Islam and al-Qaeda, ties up loose ends regarding the events of 9/11 and reveals much about the fallibility of U.S. intelligence a brilliant synthesis of history, religion and international politics. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award finalist, Wright's unforgettable narrative will change readers' perceptions of religion and how it can function or dysfunction in the modern world.