Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

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What-are-you-reading-Wednesday: Book Club Choices

January 20, 2010

What are book clubs requesting from the Indiana Humanities Council’s collection? The Council makes sets of 8-25 copies of each title available to reading groups at public libraries, senior centers, and other venues, free of charge.

The following titles were requested most often in 2009. They reflect, it seems to me, the power of books to transport the reader to another time and place. Moreover, these are books that give depth and dimension to a topic for the group to think about and talk about, whether it be a moral dilemma or an occasion for reminiscing.

Historical Fiction:
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak – a recent novel, set in Hitler’s Germany
Follow the River by James Alexander Thom – a true story about a woman’s journey through the wilderness to escape Inidan captivity in the pre-revolutionary Ohio River Valley
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara – a fictionalized account of the Battle of Gettysburg
Riders of the Purple Sage – Zane Grey’s best-known novel depicting the Old West

Biography/Memoirs/Nonfiction:
First Ladies: An Intimate Group Portrait of White House Wives – portraits of several American First Ladies, from Martha Washington to Hillary Clinton, written by Margaret Truman, daughter of a President
A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel – a young girlhood in Henry County, Indiana
Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin – inspiring account of an American who repaid a kindness by leading an effort to build schools in impoverished villages in Pakistan and Afghanistan

Indiana Authors:
Freckles – one of Gene Stratton-Porter’s novels set in the Limberlost Swamp
Home to Harmony – Philip Gulley’s humorous series about a mythical Indiana town and its long-suffering Quaker pastor
In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash – Hoosier Jean Shepherd’s book, which became material for the film, “A Christmas Story”
(Haven Kimmel and James Alexander Thom are also Indiana authors.)

General Fiction:
At Home in Mitford by Jan Karon – first of a nostalgic series set in small town North Carolina
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White – a beloved children’s classic
Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns – small town Georgia at the beginning of the 20th century
A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines – a story of prejudice, injustice, and humanity set on a Louisiana plantation
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – celebrated coming-of-age novel about society and racial inequality in the Deep South

Immigrants (an Indiana Humanities Council theme program):
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros – a young girl’s view of her Chicago barrio
My Antonia by Willa Cather – classic novel of a Bohemian immigrant family in 19th-century Nebraska
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri – contemporary novel about a professional family from India
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson – Japanese-Americans in Washington State and conflict in the wake of WWII

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What-are-you-reading-Wednesday: The Lost Symbol

December 10, 2009

I just read Dan Brown’s newest book, The Lost Symbol — even though it was published in September. Here’s why: I like to buy the editions of Brown’s books that come out after they make the movie, with all the gorgeous illustrations and photographs of locations like Rome and Paris. Knowing that I will eventually purchase such a volume for The Lost Symbol, I decided to get the first edition out of the library. I put my name on the reservation list, where I was number 749 in line, and I just got a copy. Loved it, love all his books, usually read them in a day or two (509 pages), and evidently so do a lot of other people.

Maureen Dowd wrote in the New York Times: “Brown has always written screenplays masquerading as novels.” Clearly, that’s the first type of appeal in Brown’s fast-paced, suspenseful stories. He has a knack of ending a chapter with one of his characters in such a predicament that you have to skip ahead and find out how they got out of it. The second attraction in Brown’s novels is provided by Robert Langdon, his Harvard professor hero (played by Tom Hanks), in the form of arcane but fascinating historical, cultural, and artistic trivia. This erudition did not impress Time Magazine’s Lou Grossman, who commented: “Brown’s scholarship reads like the work of a man who believes what he reads in Wikipedia.”

I, however, enjoy the places Brown takes you in his whirlwind tours of famous cities. In the case of The Lost Symbol, the story is set in Washington, D.C., a place whose treasures are far more valuable than whatever the villain and hero are chasing after in the novel. Behind the scenes at the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, and the United States Capitol, there is a world of documents, artworks, and artifacts, amazing in its scope and depth. To meet the people who care for and know about them is a true pleasure. The book’s website includes a Reader’s Guide to Washington, D.C., with more about these national landmarks.

I also like Brown’s puzzles, codes, and encryptions, which are always entertaining. The key puzzle in The Lost Symbol is “a perfectly square grid of symbols from every tradition imaginable — alchemical, astrological, heraldic, angelic, magical, numeric, sigilic, Greek, Latin.” The 64 symbols in the 8 by 8 grid are somewhat familiar: a row of symbols for the planets, symbols of the great religions, astrological signs. (Mine is Gemini, which looks like the Roman numeral II.) You probably have access to many of these symbols — just open up Word and change your font to Symbols or Wingdings, and you may be able to recreate Brown’s code!

Anyway, I should stop here and return my copy to the library. There’s still a waiting list with 372 eager readers on it.

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Rediscovering “a good read”

October 21, 2009

By Rosemary Dorsa, vice president for partnerships and strategic initiatives at the Central Indiana Community Foundation, Inc., and current Indiana Humanities Council chair-elect.

As a kid I read like crazy – The Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys – all the serial books, regardless of gender-targeting.   I loved going to the library and taking out a stack of books.  The scent of old paper, the smooth slide of the card catalog drawer (yes! the card catalog) were wonderful.  Some favorites I would re-read often.   I read The Swiss Family Robinson every summer for at least five years, much to my family’s amusement.  In college, I would always treat myself to a big, fat novel the minute finals were over.

In recent years, perhaps influenced by the 24-hour news cycle and the constant barrage of information, I have gravitated more toward non-fiction.  I’ve read lots of history, politics, social commentary, economics, etc.   While I’ve learned a lot and would make a good Jeopardy contestant, it’s only been the past few months that I realize how long it’s been since I have savored a really great “can’t-put-it-down-lose-yourself in the story” book.  And so, I am now on a quest to rediscover the pleasure of “a good read.”

I had attended two really great events in the past months which have assisted my quest.  The Indiana Humanities Council hosted two author panels last week at the Meredith Nicholson Home in conjunction with the Bouchercon Mystery Conference.  This was a very special opportunity to be part of exclusive, intimate talk with seven nationally-acclaimed mystery authors.  It was such a delightful evening of animated, spirited interchange among the panelists and with the attendees and it exposed to authors I had not read.  I picked up several books, including Hallie Ephron’s Never Tell a Lie which I started reading that evening.  It is a terrific book with a really strong narrative where each chapter draws you into the next.  I am now about to start on Charles Todd’s A Test of Wills, which is the first in series of mysteries, set in England between the world wars.  I was intrigued to find out that “Charles Todd” is actually Charles and Caroline Todd, a mother-son writing duo.

The other event was the inaugural Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Author Awards dinner, very appropriately held in the beautiful Indianapolis-Marion County Central Library.  Nine Indiana authors were recognized for their contributions to the literary landscape in Indiana and across the nation.  I left with several books, and have finished Dear Mrs. Lindbergh by Kathleen Hughes.

And while I am enjoying discovering new books, I must confess that I still like rereading some old favorites.  The other day in an airport I picked up East of Eden by the incomparable John Steinbeck, which means I will soon be on to my favorite book of all time, Theodore Dreisier’s An American Tragedy.  Now that’s “a good read.”

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What-are-you-reading-Wednesday: National Book Awards

October 7, 2009

By Kristen Fuhs Wells, communications director at the Indiana Humanities Council

I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t read any of the books up for the 60th National Book Awards, which are six National Book Award-Winning Fiction books from 1950-2008. But if you have, go to www.nbafictionpoll.org to vote for your favorite. It’s the first time the vote has been opened up to the public in the award’s history.

The nominees are:
The Stories of John Cheever, John Cheever
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
Collected Stories of William Faulkner, William Faulkner
The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor, Flannery O’Connor
Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, Eudora Welty

Which one should be tops on my list?

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What-are-you-reading-Wednesday – Dying for Chocolate

September 30, 2009

Last weekend I read a mystery novel by Diane Mott Davidson, Dying for Chocolate. I was going through the Indiana Humanities Council’s collection of books for reading and discussion groups, looking for novels related to food. This book was one of several titles containing the word “chocolate” (Like Water for Chocolate, Chocolat), so I decided to give it a try.

First of all, it was a lot of fun. But I also discovered that Dying for Chocolate is a prime example of a subgenre that has become very popular in the last few decades – the culinary mystery. Like all detective fiction, it offers the satisfaction of an intellectual puzzle, on the one hand, and a morality play, on the other. The master detective solves the crime, and the wicked are caught and punished.

CookingThe culinary mystery, however, adds some delightful and delicious ingredients to the basic mix. Like other “cozy” mysteries, it often takes place in an idyllic setting, such as a small town or village, populated by easily recognizable characters, whether eccentric, endearing, or just ordinary. The detective is usually a woman who is a caterer, innkeeper, or other purveyor of food. In Dying for Chocolate, the heroine is a caterer and single mother who has to track down her boyfriend’s killer while coping with demanding clients and gourmet menus. Culinary mysteries often include recipes for the dishes described, and it’s hard to imagine the book group that could discuss this novel without at least a package of store-bought frosted brownies on hand.

The setting for Dying for Chocolate is Aspen Meadow, Colorado, but the Council’s collection also has culinary mysteries from other regions of the country. Joanne Fluke’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder is set at the Cookie Jar Bakery in Lake Eden, Minnesota, owned by Hannah Swenson. Tamar Myers’ No Use Dying Over Spilled Milk features Magdalena Yoder, Mennonite proprietor of the Pennsylvania Dutch Inn. Nancy Pickard’s The 27-Ingredient Chili Con Carne Murders takes sleuth Eugenia Potter from her New England base to her ranch in Arizona. As small business owners, these women have a lot on their plates.

For those who can’t consume just one, most culinary mysteries are part of a series of novels. Like Agatha Christie herself, these writers are very prolific. They also have a penchant for puns in their titles. My favorites: Tamar Myers’ The Crepes of Wrath and the next book by Diane Mott Davidson, The Cereal Murders.

Also recommended (by Keira Amstutz): Julie Hyzy’s State of the Onion (White House Chef Mystery series).

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What-are-you-reading-Wednesday: Prodigal Summer

July 15, 2009

By Kristen Fuhs Wells, communications director for the Indiana Humanities Council

I awoke to the sound of crickets outside today, about 20 minutes before my alarm clock was scheduled to do that job. Normally, a natural wake-up call would be cause for irritation, but I can thank Barbara Kingsolver for the peace — not anger — that overcame me. Just like a class on non-fiction writing caused me to be a different kind of reader, Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer  has caused me to be a different kind of observer.

All of the lead characters have an appreciation for nature — whether it’s moths, birds or apples — and by spending just a couple of hours with these characters, it’s given me a greater appreciation of the natural world as well. I’m in awe not only of Deanna’s ability to distinguish every piece of flora and fauna in Appalachia, but also Kingsolver’s research that went into developing Deanna’s knowledge. And, this morning, that made me think twice about shutting the window on the crickets. Were they mating calls? Simple conversational exchanges? I wanted to be Deanna so that I could understand the language of nature.

But this novel is so much more than natural observances — it’s Kingsolver’s prose and story that intertwines three summer love stories that pit human predators vs. human preys. I have a hunch everything will work out, but in nature, isn’t that always the case?

Read the book? Check out a reading discussion guide here.

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What-are-you-reading-Wednesday: The Cellist of Sarajevo

July 8, 2009

By Kristen Fuhs Wells, communications director for the Indiana Humanities Council

I was embarrassed by how long it took me to wade through All the Kings Men, so I decided to go for something much shorter this time around! Not only did the book’s title and description lure me in, but I have to admit the short length and short size of the pages was a deciding factor. This was a book I could tackle on a vacation.

Author Steven Galloway exposes us to a life many of us can’t imagine–fighting to stay alive as enemy snipers pick off neighbors and mortar shells destroy homes. He does so by employing beautiful imagery in his bloody and horrific descriptions; in his flawed, but human characters; and in the heart of the somewhat-true story–a concert cellist who risks his life by playing his cello for 22 straight days in the middle of the bloodshed, in tribute to 22 lives lost.

Although we know little about the cellist, we find out about three others impacted by his beautiful, selfless quest: a sniper named Arrow sent to protect him; Kenan, a father who traverses the city to get clean water for his family and his neighbor; and Dragan, an older man who sent his family away before the war broke out.

Galloway interviewed several survivors for the book, and it clearly provided excellent background. He captures the fears and desires of his characters so simply, yet so eloquently, that I wasn’t yet ready to give them up when I finished the last page.

It was a fitting read for Independence Day, and made me appreciate my American lifestyle. What books make you appreciate your life? Certainly The Kite Runner is one for me, as is A Thousand Splendid Suns.