Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Genre Reading Group Recap - Salon Discussion

Twice a year, the Genre Reading Group (GRG) takes a break from assigned reading with a Salon Discussion! There is no assigned topic, no reading list, we just meet to enjoy each other's company and talk about books!

Next month's topic is Cozy Mysteries. These types of novels generally feature a small town setting, an amateur detective, "clean" content (violence and/or sex occurs behind closed doors, little to no foul language), and a generous dose of humor. The selection of books I pulled for this genre were picked at random from Not necessarily "cozy" but still "clean" are books that have won the Agatha Awards, named for legendary mystery novelist Agatha Christie.

Without further ado, here's what we've been reading (and loving!) lately:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
From a single, abbreviated life grew a seemingly immortal line of cells that made some of the most crucial innovations in modern science possible. And from that same life, and those cells, Rebecca Skloot has fashioned in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks a fascinating and moving story of medicine and family, of how life is sustained in laboratories and in memory. Henrietta Lacks was a mother of five in Baltimore, a poor African American migrant from the tobacco farms of Virginia, who died from a cruelly aggressive cancer at the age of 30 in 1951. A sample of her cancerous tissue, taken without her knowledge or consent, as was the custom then, turned out to provide one of the holy grails of mid-century biology: human cells that could survive--even thrive--in the lab. Known as HeLa cells, their stunning potency gave scientists a building block for countless breakthroughs, beginning with the cure for polio. Meanwhile, Henrietta's family continued to live in poverty and frequently poor health, and their discovery decades later of her unknowing contribution--and her cells' strange survival--left them full of pride, anger, and suspicion. For a decade, Skloot doggedly but compassionately gathered the threads of these stories, slowly gaining the trust of the family while helping them learn the truth about Henrietta, and with their aid she tells a rich and haunting story that asks the questions, Who owns our bodies? And who carries our memories?

Gnosticism was a wide-ranging religious movement of the first millennium CE—with earlier antecedents and later flourishings—whose adherents sought salvation through knowledge and personal religious experience. Gnostic writings offer striking perspectives on both early Christian and non-Christian thought. For example, some gnostic texts suggest that god should be celebrated as both mother and father, and that self-knowledge is the supreme path to the divine. Only in the past fifty years has it become clear how far the gnostic influence spread in ancient and medieval religions—and what a marvelous body of scriptures it produced.

Dead and Buried by Barbara Hambly
New Orleans, 1836. When free black musician and surgeon Benjamin January attends the funeral of a friend, an accident tips the dead man out of his coffin – only to reveal an unexpected inhabitant. Just one person recognises the corpse of the white man: Hannibal Sefton, fiddle-player and one of January’s closest friends. But he seems unwilling to talk about his connection to the dead man . . .

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family's apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours. Paris, May 2002: On Vel’ d’Hiv’s 60th anniversary, journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article about this black day in France's past. Through her contemporary investigation, she stumbles onto a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah. Julia finds herself compelled to retrace the girl's ordeal, from that terrible term in the Vel d'Hiv', to the camps, and beyond. As she probes into Sarah's past, she begins to question her own place in France, and to reevaluate her marriage and her life. Tatiana de Rosnay offers us a brilliantly subtle, compelling portrait of France under occupation and reveals the taboos and silence that surround this painful episode.

If you've ever wondered what your dog is thinking, Stein's third novel offers an answer. Enzo is a lab terrier mix plucked from a farm outside Seattle to ride shotgun with race car driver Denny Swift as he pursues success on the track and off. Denny meets and marries Eve, has a daughter, Zoƫ, and risks his savings and his life to make it on the professional racing circuit. Enzo, frustrated by his inability to speak and his lack of opposable thumbs, watches Denny's old racing videos, coins koanlike aphorisms that apply to both driving and life, and hopes for the day when his life as a dog will be over and he can be reborn a man. When Denny hits an extended rough patch, Enzo remains his most steadfast if silent supporter.

Behind a french twist and sensible clothes, forty-year-old librarian Alison Sheffield hides an extravagant nature. But after last night, even her most proper attire can't disguise the signs-the pink cheeks, the extra-poufy hair, the bounce in her step. Alison Sheffield is in love. The heart-palpitating, nausea-inducing, silly, inexplicable, absurd and pointless kind of love found in a romance novel. And for once in her life, what Alison needs to know she can't find in any reference book-she can only live it...

The reader shared a wonderful quote from the book on importance of reading to the main character's life. This reminded another participant of an Atlantic Monthly article, Is Google Making Us Stupid? (July/August 2008).

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Early responses to Jane Eyre, first published in 1847, were mixed. Some held the book to be anti-Christian, others were disturbed by a heroine so proud, self-willed, and essentially unfeminine. The modern reader may well have trouble understanding what all the fuss was about. On the surface a fairly conventional Gothic romance (poor orphan governess is hired by rich, brooding Byronic hero-type), Jane Eyre hardly seems the stuff from which revolutions are made. But the story is very much about the nature of human freedom and equality, and if Jane was seen as something of a renegade in nineteenth-century England, it is because her story is that of a woman who struggles for self-definition and determination in a society that too often denies her that right. But self-determination does not mean untrammeled freedom for men or women. Rochester, that thorny masculine beast whom Jane eventually falls for, is a man who sets his own laws and manipulates the lives of those around him; before he can enter into a marriage of equals with Jane he must undergo a spiritual transformation. Should the lesson sound dry, it's not. Jane Eyre is full of drama: fires, storms, attempted murder, and a mad wife conveniently stashed away in the attic. This is very sexy stuff - another reason Victorian critics weren't quite sure what to make of it.

He was a brilliant teller of tales, one of the most widely read authors of the twentieth century, and at one time the most famous writer in the world, yet W. Somerset Maugham’s own true story has never been fully told. At last, the fascinating truth is revealed in a landmark biography by the award-winning writer Selina Hastings. Granted unprecedented access to Maugham’s personal correspondence and to newly uncovered interviews with his only child, Hastings portrays the secret loves, betrayals, integrity, and passion that inspired Maugham to create such classics as The Razor’s Edge and Of Human Bondage. Hastings vividly presents Maugham’s lonely childhood spent with unloving relatives after the death of his parents, a trauma that resulted in shyness, a stammer, and for the rest of his life an urgent need for physical tenderness. Here, too, are his adult triumphs on the stage and page, works that allowed him a glittering social life in which he befriended and sometimes fell out with such luminaries as Dorothy Parker, Charlie Chaplin, D. H. Lawrence, and Winston Churchill. The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham portrays in full for the first time Maugham’s disastrous marriage to Syrie Wellcome, a manipulative society woman of dubious morality who trapped Maugham with a pregnancy and an attempted suicide. Hastings also explores Maugham’s many affairs with men, including his great love, Gerald Haxton, an alcoholic charmer and a cad. Maugham’s courageous work in secret intelligence during two world wars is described in fascinating detail—experiences that provided the inspiration for the groundbreaking Ashenden stories. From the West End to Broadway, from China to the South Pacific, Maugham’s restless and remarkably productive life is thrillingly recounted as Hastings uncovers the real stories behind such classics as “Rain,” The Painted Veil, Cakes & Ale, and other well-known tales. An epic biography of a hugely talented and hugely conflicted man, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham is the definitive account of Maugham’s extraordinary life.

All review material pulled from

Happy reading!

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