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  1. ** The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (2012)

    This is not an easy book to read. Not because it isn’t well-written – it most certainly is – but due to its horrendous content about deprivation, torture, and totalitarianism in North Korea. My book club members universally disliked it (and many stopped reading) due to the disturbing content. It was indeed beyond disturbing, but I also thought it wonderfully crafted and incredibly eye-opening. I had previously read a book on N. Korea, a nonfiction work about a defector, so what I read here wasn’t totally surprising. But it is hard going nonetheless. The first half of the book is about an orphan boy, Jun Do, and the path his life takes, from the orphanage to working as a telecommunications eavesdropper on a fishing boat, to having to kidnap Japanese and South Koreans, to his overnight visit to Texas as a translator, and then to ending up stuck in a work mine. This is where his life would normally end. But in the second half of the book, he transforms himself into a new person. He reaches Pyongyang, the upper echelons of the military, including coming to know the “Dear Leader”, Kim Jong Il, and even finds love and family, albeit for a short time. I loved the way the two sections of the book interconnected. The author did extensive research, visited Pyongyang and interviewed many defectors. If you can stomach it, I recommend it. It won the Pulitzer for fiction. (Fiction)


  2. ** Infidel By Ayaan Hirsi Ali (2007)

    This is an amazing story of resilience, will and determination. The author was born in Somalia in 1969 into a strict Muslim family with a very strong clan heritage. She grew up in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya during a time of civil war in Somalia and Ethiopia. Her upbringing was defined by Islam and clan culture, and it’s not pretty. Somehow she managed to develop a sense of self and equality and justice that brought her to eventually question the basic tenets of Islam. This was the most interesting part to me, though she can only touch the surface. She disputes the notion that Islam is a religion of peace and cites passage after passage in the Koran in which inequality and violence are prescribed. En route to an arranged marriage in Canada she stops in Germany to await her visa, and while there escapes to Holland and obtains refugee status. She eventually wins citizenship there and works to publicize the plight of Muslim women in that country, arguing that the tolerance by the Dutch of a separate culture (including schools) for Muslims served to prevent their assimilation into society and to isolate women and foster the barbaric practices such as beatings and genital mutilation of women that were standard practice in their home countries. After completing her university degree, she was elected to Parliament where she continued her mission for the rights of Muslim women. The filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was a close friend with whom she had made a short political movie before he was murdered for his role in it. She later came to the US where she works as a political analyst at a Washington think tank. The book is well written and hard to put down. (Autobiography)


  3. ** The Cruise of the Snark by Jack London (1911)

    After recently reading Call of the Wild and White Fang (which I somehow missed up until now) I was so taken with Jack London’s writing that I wanted to read something else. In perusing the long list of books he wrote, this one popped out at me. I have always been fascinated by stories of oceanic exploration. This did not disappoint. London was an incredibly multi-talented individual with an insatiable quest for adventure (he was a seaman off Japan at age 17 and headed to the Klondike before age 21). He decided he wanted to sail the world and to see the places Melville and Stevenson had described so he built a 43 foot (on the water line) ketch and departed San Francisco with his wife and crew of 7 in 1907 at age 31. The Snark visited Hawaii, the Marquesas, Tahiti, Fiji, the Solomons and a few others en route finally ending his voyage early in Australia in 1909 due to illness. Along the way he became a skilled navigator (having to learn en route to Hawaii), picked up dental and medical skills, defied the trade winds by taking previously unheard of routes across the Pacific, continued to write en route so he could fund the trip, and met innumerable colorful people on the many islands he visited. These stories are priceless. He was not afraid to try anything. This all 100 years ago! He was an exceptional individual and this comes through clearly in this book. Anyone with an affinity for sailing and an interest in exotic islands should enjoy this! (nonfiction)


  4. ** Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne (2010)

    When most of what you know about Indians comes from TV shows from the “60s, one undoubtedly has gaps to fill. I certainly did. This book began to fill that gap with its well-balanced story of the Comanche Indians, the fiercest, most independent of all the southern Plains tribes (and perhaps of all tribes) and their 40 year battle with the white settlers for the West. There are really two interwoven stories here, one of the Comanches and their neighboring Plains tribes, and one of Quanah, last and greatest of the Comanche chiefs whose mother was a white woman who was captured at age 9 from her family’s fort in Texas in the 1830s by Comanche Indians and grew up to marry a Comanche chief. The Comanches ruled the southern great plains (Texas, Oklahoma, and into New Mexico and even Mexico) until the white man began encroaching in the 1800s, and by about 1870 had taken all the buffalo and the Comanche homeland in the Texas panhandle, forcing the Indians to their ultimate fate on the reservations. Quanah and his band were the last Comanche holdouts to come in (to the reservation) but when he finally did he managed to adapt very well, learning the white man’s ways and continuing to lead his people in their much reduced circumstances. The Comanche culture was an incredibly brutal one (they basically hunted buffalo, raided, killed and stole horses and people). But they had done that for hundreds of years or more before the white man came. They did the same to the white man when he encroached on their land and livelihood, and that was the beginning of their end. I think the saddest line in the book was when Quanah and his people (already on the reservation) were allowed to go out on one last buffalo hunt in their old canyon homeland and returned a few weeks later emptyhanded…..”The buffalo were all dead, and the white man owned the sacred canyons.” This book is historical, educational, mind opening, inspiring, and sad. I found it very moving.


    • This looks really good and will go on my to-read list. I have to admit that Dances with Wolves is a guilty pleasure. Perhaps I can indulge once in a while if I add accurate stories to my repertoire.


  5. * The Emperor of All Maladies – Siddhartha Mukherjee (2010)

    The author describes this book as a “biography of cancer”. Given the role that cancer seems destined to play in some way in all of our lives, this is well worth reading. The author, an oncologist and researcher, chronicles the history of cancer’s occurrence (it’s likely been around since earliest time) as well as the evolution of its treatment, from radical surgery to radiation to chemotherapy to today’s targeted therapies. Along the way we learn about many of the key research milestones that led to a better understanding of this disease (or really, many diseases) and how to treat it. Lots of interesting information, such as the denial by the tobacco companies that their product caused cancer, highlights (or should we say lowlights) of tobacco advertising, who “Jimmy” of the The Jimmy Fund was, and so on. The book occasionally gets somewhat technical (at least for a non-biology person like me), but really, that is the subject matter at the core – cells, genes, chromosomes etc. I came away with a real appreciation of how incredibly complex cancer is, and with many new insights. For example, all human cells contain in their genetic material potential cancer cells which may become activated by genetic mutations (internally or externally caused). A cancer can have 150 of these mutations, tho likely a much smaller number are the drivers. It’s pretty much a matter of time (will you die of something else before getting cancer) and luck. The genomes for each type and subtype of cancer must be identified and therapies developed that custom target these mutations – and their pathways – in order to win this battle. It seems a daunting proposition. While this is in fact happening today, it seems to be the tip of the iceberg. Tell every aspiring young science-inclined person you know that this is a field where they are badly needed. I really liked the book – it’s historical, educational, hopeful, and relevant.


  6. ** Mudbound by Hillary Jordan (2008)

    Mudbound is the story of a farming family in the Mississippi Delta in the years immediately post-WWII. It is narrated by various family members, alternating with their black sharecropper tenant family. The book is a vivid portrait of the hardships endured on a rural “mudbound” farm in the 1940s (no electricity or plumbing, to start) and of the deplorable state of race relations in the South in the pre-Civil Rights era. I found it an incredibly moving story, not to mention a valuable reminder of history. This first novel won the 2006 Bellwether Prize for Fiction , awarded biannually to a debut novel addressing a social justice issue. Barbara Kingsolver, as the founder of the Prize, played a mentoring role to the author. (Fiction)


  7. ** Homer and Langley by E. L. Doctorow (2009)

    Homer and Langley are brothers, one blind and the other suffering the after effects of gasing in WWI, who spend their entire lives together in their family mansion on Central Park. Their parents die early on, and they depend on each other for the next 50+ years. While neither is employed, they each have their own life mission that keeps them happy and fulfilled. Over time they become more and more eccentric and reclusive, and somewhat like the hoarders we seem to read about so often today. It is a very poignant story, and takes us thru the world wars, the cold war, and the anti-war periods from a unique perspective. The writing is beautiful and the character development really makes the story, which is narrated by Homer. You won’t look upon eccentric “bag” people the same way after reading this. (Fiction)


  8. I am currently rereading the trilogy written by Stieg Larsson before he passed away in Sweden in 2004. The three books are entitled The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornest’s Nest. These books are amazing; they are part thriller, part mystery, part social commentary, part pure grit and sometimes downright violent, but boy, are they addictive. A real triumph for the author who sadly never knew how his brilliant work would be received.


  9. Half The Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
    *** = don’t miss!

    “Awareness” books typically cater only to a certain audience, usually those who are already aware of the issues. Yet, Half the Sky is fantastic–whether know matter what you already *think* you know about gender inequality and the oppression of women. It’s not an upper; the authors recount tough, true stories about sex slavery, war violence, and maternal mortality and injury. But hope is not absent, with heroic women highlighted and concrete steps the global community can take to empower women. “Girls aren’t the problem. They’re the solution.”

    I saw the authors, wife & husband, speak on book tour twice in the past week. They really are trying to kindle broader public engagement in the movement. As they write: the 19th century’s fight was against colonial slavery; 20th century against fascism; this century for gender equality.

    Check out the website above. And can’t resist linking this cool video, too:

    1. I’m not quite finished with the book, but wanted to post while still psyched about it.
    2. I read Kristof’s NYT columns almost religiously, so am biased.


  10. Brother, I’m Dying — Edwidge Danticat

    My mom doesn’t remember buying, borrowing, or receiving this book for me, but it mysteriously–fortuitously–found its way to my bedside.

    Well-known Haitian novelist Edwidge Danticat tells the story of her own transnational family. How her father migrated to the States when she was four, leaving her to be raised by her father’s brother. How she identified with, and loved, both men. She recounts her Uncle Joseph’s bravery in ministering to the people of one of Port-au-Prince’s most dangerous areas. And while Joseph endures dictatorships, juntas, and coups, his brother struggles to build a new life as a Brooklyn cabbie. Edwidge watches from the middle.

    The family’s story saddens as the situation in Haiti becomes more dire, making for a gripping plot later in the book. Not a total downer, the book ends hopefully.

    Having spent time in Haiti, I appreciated Danticat’s imagery of the country as right on. Read for an honest description of a vibrant, yet desperate, place and its people. A quick 250-pager, worthwhile read.


  11. ** The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

    I always wanted to read something by Rushdie after he became famous with his Satanic Verses, and this popped up at Costco (they are getting some really good books there!). It was a lovely story set in about 16th century India and Florence. A strange traveler shows up in the Mughal court with a tale that unwinds as the book progresses, about an enchantress of Florence who as it turns out, has a connection to the Mughal ruler. It was well-written, and while a bit confusing at times, it kept me on the edge of my seat as the tale unfolded. (Fiction)


  12. Hunting and Gathering – Anna Gavalda (2004)

    ** This is a lovely French contemporary novel of four unlikely characters (societal misfits) who manage to find each other and over time become “family”. I just loved these people! Each had an awful start in life, but with this familial suport they overcame their adversity in spades. The relationships that develop among them are delightful to witness. It’s funny, sad, hopeful, heartwarming and downright joyful. Beautifully written. (Fiction)


  13. Birds without Wings by Louis De Bernieres (2004)

    This is a beautifully written story about the inhabitants of a small village in Anatolia in the final days of the Ottoman Empire. They are a diverse group: Greeks, Armenians, Turks, and Italians. Most are either Orthodox Christian or Muslim, but there are a few Jews and the Italians are all Roman Catholic. A few are literate, but most are not. A few are rich (at least by their standards) but most are poor. They are bigoted and superstitious and sometimes cruel to each other, but they know that they must depend on each other and have learned to live together. It will make you laugh and cry.


  14. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1902)

    I read this book in my teens and kept waiting for the plot to begin. I read it in college just to get through it for class and was outraged by the injustice of colonialism in the African Congo, but skipped over all of Conrad’s imagery. I picked the book up again a few years ago and will never be the same. The story exposes the hypocracy, greed, and inhumanity of the British colonial administators, but it was Conrad’s language and imagery that made me grasp the real horror (as they say in Alocalypse Now) of the dark recesses of “civilized” society. Take your time with this book – it will haunt me forever.


  15. What is the What – Dave Eggers (2006)

    * * This book is labeled “fiction” but is based on the actual experiences of a Lost Boy of Sudan, Valentino Achak Deng. Because the story goes back 15+ years, many details had to be created, but the basic story is true, and surely represents the story of many thousands of the Lost Boys. This is truly an unbelievable story – his trek across southern Sudan as a 6-year old to escape the various factions in the civil war (which a great many did not survive due to hunger, disease, lions, you name it) to his 13 years in two refugee camps and his eventual landing in the US, where life did not get a whole lot easier for some years. It is very well written, and certainly captivating. I am now reading “Three Cups of Tea”, which also tells a fascinating story, but What is the What is so much better written. And of course, with all the news of troubles in Sudan, this provides valuable perspective. (historical fiction)


  16. I second Laurie McMahon’s recommendation of the historical fiction book “Loving Frank.” I found it very interesting and engaging read.


  17. Loving Frank by Nancy Horan (2007)

    This is about the affair that Frank Lloyd Wright had with a client (Mamah) at the turn of the century. It’s an early picture into women’s lib, and the struggles women had to realize a non-traditional path in those days. Mamah had to make some very difficult choices, which brought both fulfillment and despair. The window into Frank Lloyd Wright was also fascinating. My book club read this (we all liked it), and then toured Wright’s home and studio in Oak Park, IL. Now I want to visit Taliesin! (historical fiction)


  18. The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin (2007)

    This is a fascinating recent history of the Supreme Court. The current justices are profiled as well as some of their predecessors – talk about a cast of characters! You wonder how they all got along, with their widely differing opinions, but somehow they did. There is a lot more politicking that you might imagine. The hero of the Court, if there can be one, turned out to be Sandra Day O’Connor – I hate to think where some cases would’ve gone in Bush’s conservative court without her. The book would actually be very depressing, given the more recent conservative appointments to the Court by Bush, if not for Obama’s election and the fact that several retirements are undoubtedly looming which he will get to replace. I read about the Court with much more interest after this book. (non-fiction)


  19. Purple Hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

    Adichie’s first sentence clearly nods to Things Fall Apart, THE famous African novel: “Things started to fall apart at home when…”

    Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and other African works focus on the convergence of two worlds, the West and Africa, Christianity and paganism, tradition and progress. Yet in this novel, those existential conflicts are simply background. Modern African issues are different, and Adichie beautifully weaves them into a story about a 15-year-old girl searching her identity.

    Kambili and her brother live under their father’s Catholic fanaticism and dangerous temper at a chaotic time in their country. Throughout the story, we gain a view of life in 1980s Nigeria: ethnic discord, corruption, and military repression. But Kambili’s battles are closer to home. She struggles with her faith, romantic tendencies, and feelings about her troubled family.

    This book does end with ‘things falling apart,’ but there is also redemption. I was completely absorbed in the final pages.

    As a final note: my Africa-specialist professor who assigned Purple Hibiscus said Adichie could be the new great novelist of Africa. Check out her work!


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