Archive for the ‘Epistolary’ Category

jacket.aspxThis very satisfying debut fiction from a seasoned food writer was delightful to listen to on audiobook CD. Julia Whelan got most of the parts spot on, and even though deepening her voice for the male characters is a bit comical, the lively reading of Ruth Reichl’s intriguing tale and multifarious characters kept my daughter and me engaged thoroughly. She and I enjoy sharing many of the same books, especially adult titles that also hold appeal for teens. In fact, I would not be surprised to see Delicious! turning up among YALSA’s 2015 Alex Award nominees for books published in 2014—I hope, I hope!

Billie Breslin, also known as Wilhelmina to the Fontanari family, where Sal calls her Willie, feels fortunate to have landed a competitive position at Delicious magazine (obviously inspired by Gourmet, which discontinued in 2009 and was last headed by Ruth Reichl as editor). It doesn’t take long for Billie’s extraordinary palate to be recognized; she has the uncanny talent for detecting even the most obscure ingredients and flavors and has a knack for suggesting the precise tweak needed to perfect a recipe. Yet, she adamantly claims that she is definitely no cook! Her new friends in New York soon suspect she’s harboring some darkly saddening secret, however. Meanwhile, she’s determined to work her way into food writing, which she quickly and very cleverly accomplishes.

Delicious magazine closes down, but Billie is retained to handle customer service matters, working solo in the Timbers mansion, where she stumbles upon a secret room. Mysteriously secreted letters slowly reveal the details of a World War II correspondence between a 12-year-old girl interested in cooking and Chef James Beard when he was on staff at the magazine. We’re also provided with letters written in the present, diary-like words Billie addresses to her older sister. This partially epistolary read brings the reader deeper into the thoughts of our leading lady. The plot revolves around Billie’s collaboration with Sammy and Mitch to preserve the historic letters and library before it’s too late.

Some of the most remarkable characters in Reichl’s very clever and page-turning tale are those who are not actually in this story but mentioned in the letters and by the characters, the librarians who organized the forbidden library and the legendary James Beard. Along the way, readers will learn fascinating details about war-time prejudices and the history of culinary challenges during rationing. Readers will even be taken on an architectural history tour of New York and learn historical tidbits about the Underground Railroad. Delicious! is delightful, and it is so pleasing to see one of America’s food-writing favorites succeed as a novelist too.

Check the WRL catalog for Delicious!

Or check out the audiobook, read by Julia Whelan.

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illbeseeingyouThis novel reveals its story through letters.  Glory, a 23-year-old, very pregnant mother of an energetic two-year-old son,  picks Rita’s address from a hat at a 4-H meeting.  The intent was to have women select an anonymous pen-pal to help ease the stress of their “situation,” that is, being at home while their husbands are at war.  Glory introduces herself in January, 1943, and tells Rita that if they are going to correspond, they should get to know each other.

Rita replies to the letter a few weeks later and we discover she is a middle-aged professor’s wife from Iowa who loves to garden.  Her husband as well as her newly turned 18-year-old son have both volunteered to serve in the war.

Both women seem to understand the same loneliness and feelings of not fitting in with their community – and they develop a deep friendship through their correspondence.

I enjoyed the intimacy of the letters.  The annoying neighbors, the new friends, what grows well in the gardens, the recipes that stretch the rations, the gossip of their community, the good memories, the very ordinary details of life fill each letter.  I was almost as excited as the characters to start a new letter and find out what would be revealed next.

There is also a bit of romance, lots of family drama, and heartbreak of celebrating holidays without loved ones. Be sure to have some tissues handy because some of the letters will surely break your heart.

Pick this book up if you enjoyed The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Plot-wise it is very different.  But I was reminded of “Guernsey” while reading I’ll be seeing you – I suppose it’s the glimpse of what happens on the homefront and the fact that both books are written through letters being passed back and forth.

Questions for discussions and a conversation with the authors are included at the end of the book.  The conversation was particularly interesting — co-authors Hayes and Nyhan wrote the book without ever having met in real life!  They only knew each other through phone calls and emails.  Perhaps this is what gives that sense of authenticity to Glory and Rita’s letters.

Check the WRL catalog for I’ll be seeing you

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Shapiro uses a true crime event, the 1990 theft of priceless works of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, as the backdrop for this engaging novel about a young artist with outstanding talent but a soiled reputation whose susceptibility gets her neck-deep into a forgery scheme. Cleverly, author Shapiro inserts a fictional masterpiece by Degas that, of course, was not among the 13 works stolen in real life. This way she is able to weave an entirely new provenance, history, and fate for her invented painting for the sake of this story, which includes a fictional alleged relationship between the museum’s founder Isabella and Edgar Degas.  Clues are slowly revealed to the reader through the inclusion of a mysterious collection of undiscovered letters composed by Isabella, telling all to her favorite niece.

Reluctant at first, but eventually coerced into accepting that her part in copying the painting is innocent—it’s apparently legal to copy art as long as one doesn’t try to pass off the forgery as the original—Clare Roth feels safely distanced from any related criminality. She convinces herself that it’s legal to create a fine copy of an original masterwork; after all, she legitimately copies masterpieces for a fine art reproduction business.  She’s in denial, however, that storing the stolen art in her studio home or developing a romantic attachment to the art dealer makes her an accessory to the crime. Feeling removed from the Gardner theft, and unconnected to any of the buyers or sellers interested in the proposed forgery, Clare still becomes increasingly enmeshed as the plot unravels, family secrets are uncovered shedding new light on the museum’s history and benefactor, and the authenticity of a valuable masterpiece is questioned.

Those who love true crimes and/or mysteries with a sprinkling of romance (that doesn’t dominate a story) are likely to enjoy this novel. It will also appeal to those who like contemporary novels based around true events.

Information on the real art theft in the wee hours following Saint Patrick’s Day reveling is described on the Gardner museum’s Website and also in The Gardner Heist, by Ulrich Boser. Art investigators are still trying to recover the stolen artworks, and a $5 million reward is offered for information leading to their safe recovery.

In The Art Forger, the device of using a bolder and smaller font to distinguish sections in the novel that describe events that occurred years earlier helps to keep time and details straight. Unfortunately, this technique was lost on me as I was reading the e-book version; it’s there but I just didn’t notice it easily on my particular device—just thought I’d mention that for those of you with e-readers.

Check the WRL Catalog for The Art Forger, available in print, large print, on CD, and e-book.

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A 2013 Alex Award winner (meaning its a book in the adult section found to be highly appealing to teen readers), Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a laughable and adventurous satire packed with hilarious characterization and witty dialogue mostly in the epistolary fashion using email correspondence, letters, police reports, report cards, and other documents.  Modest readers might find some strong language offensive yet very in-character when utilized.

You’ll find hilarious characters, some to love, some to hate, and some to drive everyone crazy!  Semple pokes fun at Seattle’s subcultures of anti-fashionable, pro-geek, tech-talking, community-oriented, hyper-diverse, ultra-green, alternative-lifestyle embracing citizens.  Semple herself is a transplant to the Seattle region from Los Angeles, as is the character Bernadette, where she wrote screenplays for “Beverly Hills, 90210,” “Ellen,” “Mad About You” and “Arrested Development.”

Caution, spoilers (because the events are revealed asynchronously and non-chronologically): Bernadette Fox has escaped her failed career as a genius architect by isolating herself in a crumbling fortress of a home where she can’t sleep and torments herself with self-pity.  She’s become so anti-social that she’s hired a virtual assistant to handle even the most mundane logistics of her life.  For years, her precious 15-year old daughter Bee has been Bernadette’s only reason for living.  Bee’s been promised this trip to Antarctica as an award for her perfect report card (Her Microsoft-guru dad can afford it).  Now, she’s having a panic attack brought on by the prospect of accompanying Bee through the sea-sickening Drake passage, “the roughest and most feared water in the world,”  and this leads to a series of outrageous circumstances that culminate in a final resolution that just might restore Bernadette’s artistic passion.

The narration, and actual singing, by actress Kathleen Wilhoite, is extraordinarily energetic and adds much to the listening experience of the audiobook version, which I was whizzed through completely enraptured with joyous laughter.  When hearing her voicing the hysterics of the ‘gnats’ (aka the condescending moms of Bee’s classmates at Galer Street School), I was reminded of Tea Leoni’s over-the-top character in the movie Spanglish.

Check the WRL catalog for the print or large print versions, too.

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confidantFor a country that won their most recent war, France in the 1920s and ’30s was in bad shape, not least because they were facing an existential crisis. 1.4 million of their men had been killed in World War I, and according to contemporaneous demographers, 1.4 million babies that should have been born weren’t. Pumping up the birth rate to replace those 2.8 million souls became a matter of national security, and it suddenly became every woman’s patriotic duty to have children. In Hélène Grémillon’s debut novel, that history creates a tragic, even ominous, setting against which the lives of the four principal characters will play out.

The story actually begins in 1975, when Camille Werner opens what she believes to be a condolence letter in the wake of her mother’s death. Written in the first person by a man named Louis, it introduces her to Annie and to their childhood friendship in an unnamed town in rural France. As subsequent letters arrive, the story of their lives, and of Annie’s relationship with the childless mistress of the local chateau, unfolds. When Annie agrees to have a baby for the couple to raise, the story deepens into a web of betrayal and misunderstanding.

Camille, an editor, is at first convinced that the letters are part of a writer’s scheme to catch her attention. With each letter, though, she becomes increasingly aware that there is another motive, until a final revelation shows her that everything she thinks she knows is a lie. But the letter writer also discovers that he doesn’t know the full story, and sends Camille one last missive. In a long and detailed confession, the childless woman reveals an alternate picture, one which recasts the first story into a dark and possibly murderous plot.

The immediate drama culminates in spring 1940 as the German blitzkrieg overwhelms France. In the chaos that follows, communications go astray, people appear and disappear, unimaginable compromises must be made, and the dangers of occupation swamp all other considerations. The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. But those problems don’t go away, even with the passage of time, and in 1975 they come home.

The Confidant is shot through with lies, misdirection, concealment, and misunderstanding. Grémillon details those in nuanced, sensuous, and beautifully evocative language, and creates a historical novel without requiring readers to understand the history. Readers will want to savor this, and to watch for subtle clues about the ripple effect these betrayals have.

Check the WRL catalog for The Confidant.

Or place a reservation for the Gab Bag

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Lincoln O’Neill is a beta hero, no ifs, ands, or buts.  He’s not going to ride into town with a travel toothbrush in his pocket to kick a little butt, make a little love, and then catch the next bus to anywhere.  He won’t sparkle in the sunlight and make you depressed when he leaves town all in the name of protecting you.  He definitely won’t rip his shirt off and go all wolfish when you’re being threatened.  Instead Lincoln will sit in a windowless room on the graveyard shift and read your e-mail.  He’s not exactly the kind of character one finds endearing but soon you can’t help but root for him.

Lincoln works for a newspaper and his job is to monitor e-mail (back when it was monitored by a person) to ensure the newfangled technology is being used appropriately.  Lincoln hates his job so much that he wants to leave.  Except he’s a little hooked on reading Beth and Jennifer’s e-mails.  So hooked that he finds himself falling for Beth and trying to figure out a way to talk to her without revealing he’s sort of a stalker, but not the freaky kind, mind you.

Beth and Jennifer are two friends sharing their life, love, and family through e-mails.  Never thinking about the person in IT that might be watching, they candidly share their thoughts on just about everything.  As you read this blend of traditional and epistolary novel you won’t be able to help yourself from laughing out loud, enjoying the glimpses of everyday life through e-mail.  Unexpectedly romantic, Lincoln will charm you as a young man that is still coming into his own.  Once you start you won’t be able to stop, after all how can two people that have never met possibly ever fall in love?

Check the WRL catalog for Attachments


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Yoda was wise beyond his 900 years, but how wise is Origami Yoda?  Or, perhaps more importantly, how wise is Dwight, the boy who wears the origami Yoda finger puppet and gives him his voice?  Because, socially speaking, Dwight seems to be pretty inept.  He is known for making a fool of himself, especially with girls, yet, when he speaks in Yoda’s voice, genius advice comes out.  Could Yoda really be speaking through the puppet, or is Dwight actually a genius?  Tommy and his friends are determined to thoroughly investigate the matter.

What follows is a diary entry formatted story, similar to the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books.  We get stories and drawings from Tommy and his friends explaining how they have benefited from the advice of Origami Yoda.  By the end of the book, you may be just as surprised with their findings as Tommy is.  Boys will enjoy the realistic portrayal of 6th grade boy conversations and interactions, but girls will find fun here, too.  Don’t miss the final section of the book, where you, too, can learn how to make an Origami Yoda!

Check the WRL catalog for The Strange Case of Origami Yoda.


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Bram Stoker was not the first person to write about vampires.  Irishman Sheridan Le Fanu, for instance, had already plopped a vampire—not just a vampire but a lesbian vampire—into popular fiction when nobody was looking. His fellow countryman Stoker was late to the game when he published Dracula in 1897.

But something about Count Dracula clicked. Helped along by screen portrayals by such icons as Béla Lugosi and Christopher Lee, the Transylvanian monster took his enduring place in pop culture. The popularity of vampires in general and Dracula in particular stems from Stoker’s horror story.

If you haven’t read the novel yet, shame on you.

This is rich, coming from me, as I only finished reading it Tuesday—but I feel really, really bad for having avoided it for so long. I had worried that the original Dracula might disappoint me, compared to a century of great imitators, and I was reluctant to attempt a novel full of purple Victorian language. I was wrong on both counts. (Both “counts”! Ha! Ha ha ha!) The titular character was brilliant, the storytelling was intense, and the prose was easy for the contemporary eye.

And, to my delight, I discovered that the story was full of surprises. We all know the basic story: there’s a centuries-old monster in Transylvania who dines on human blood, and a wise old doctor named Van Helsing intends to kill the vampire before the lovely Mina Harker becomes his next victim. But Stoker included far more material in his novel than could ever be put into film. There were characters, plot twists, and details that were unfamiliar and unexpected. Dracula, for instance, is perfectly able to walk about in sunlight. He wears no cape, though in one incongruous scene he dons a straw hat. I am not making this up.

Also unexpected was the humor. Funny turns of phrase and colorful secondary characters leavened the mood. And, if I may be so bold, certain steamy scenes also tempered the mood. Erotic passages and sensual descriptions, though muted to suit Victorian sensibilities, nonetheless suggest the perks of being undead: you have to sleep in a tomb and you face eternal damnation, but you get a really amazing sex life for your troubles.

Check the WRL catalog for Dracula


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Every year at the start of summer I take a peek at what the high schools are recommending for summer reading. Most of the time I put several of these titles on the top of my “to be read” (TBR) list and promptly bypass them when I am distracted by the bright, shiny, new books being published. As you’ve probably figured out, all those new books shoot their way to the top of the TBR list knocking the classics out of the running. But this past year I’ve made a concerted effort to read those classics and I’m glad I did because I finally “found” The Color Purple.

Celie and Nettie are sisters born and raised in the segregated South in the early 20th century. Celie’s life has been an endless cycle of hardship and loss. Separated from her sister and thinking she is dead, Celie spends her life being beaten down and worked to the bone by an abusive husband and raising his ungrateful children. Unbeknown to Celie, Nettie has made her way to Africa with a missionary family and eventually becomes a missionary herself.

Although Nettie is separated from Celie by an ocean and time, she never gives up hope that she will once again see her sister. Each woman chronicles her life in letters describing the people, the world around them, and their pain at their separation. The Color Purple opens with Celie writing letters to God and then both sisters writing letters to the other that go unanswered. Each missive chronicles a day or more of their lives and spans several decades. This format provides brief yet startling vignettes in these women’s lives and reveals significant events from the pain of rape and abuse to the first moments of new and healing love. The language is spare, direct, and meaningful. Readers who  enjoy novels with excellent character development, lyrical writing, and complex moral and social questions will find this novel an excellent selection.

Check the WRL catalog for The Color Purple


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Finally, our epistolary week concludes with a look at letter writing through the ages. Thomas Mallon writes about some of the finest correspondence down through history. In these days of text messaging and email, I have to wonder if a book like this will ever be written about correspondence in the 21st century. I suspect not. But it is comforting to someone who is a letter writer to be aware of the great letters written in the past and to feel part of that chain.

Mallon divides his book into chapters based loosely on subject (love, absence, advice) or situation (war, prison). Each chapter examines writers whose correspondence best exemplifies these themes. He draws on older and newer examples in each chapter, and the letters move easily between humor, sadness, affection, and despair. Love letters, suicide notes, and pages of advice and consolation all find their place here. Mallon ties the stories of his correspondents together with thoughtful narrative, and his insights into what drives people to write letters are invaluable.

I hope that this week of posts not only brought to light some interesting reading, but also encourages at least one or two readers to sit down and put pen to paper. Go ahead and take a few moments to write to someone, be it a family member, an old friend, a newspaper editor, or anyone else you can think of. Receiving a personal letter is such a joy, and sending one is equally joyous. It is a chance to reconnect with someone, to share your passions, or to just say hello. Letter writing also forces the writer to slow down for a moment. Not a bad thing to do in today’s hectic world.

Check the WRL catalog for Yours Ever


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When most readers think of James Thurber, long-time New Yorker writer, what probably comes to mind is humorous short fiction, often with a sharp edge, or maybe his witty cartoons, where seals, dogs, and men and women fight their endless wars, or perhaps it’s Thurber’s books for children, which blend fantasy and playful language. While all of these are parts of Thurber’s life, he also had a darker side that only occasionally surfaces in his public work.

Throughout his life, Thurber suffered health problems. In particular, an eye injury at the age of six eventually progressed to total blindness despite many operations. Thurber’s health was a constant source of anxiety and irritation to him over the years, and frequently made him a difficult person to be with. As he grew older, Thurber became increasingly less happy with the New Yorker, and his publication of a series of articles in the Atlantic Monthly (later published as The Years with Ross) were seen by many as an attack on Harold Ross, the New Yorker‘s founder.

This collection of Thurber’s letters, which runs from 1918 to his death in 1961, shows all sides of the writer. Thurber writes thoughtful and moving letters to friends in need of solace or support. His letters in the 1920s and 1930s to staff and writers at the New Yorker are a fascinating look into the mechanics of the developing magazine, and again, Thurber here is often generous with his praise. At the same time, there is a darker edge to some of the correspondence. Thurber could be brusque and abrupt with folks who wrote asking him questions that he felt were out of order. He did not suffer fools gladly, and his responses to requests from students or fans can be quite acerbic. Later letters to the editors of the New Yorker reflect Thurber’s contention that “one of us has outgrown the other.” The pain that Thurber felt over the loss of friendships through death and over the Ross book is palpable in many of the later letters.

Taken as a whole, though, the correspondence here presents a picture of a complex and often unhappy man who was at the same time able to produce some of the most witty and clever humor written in America. If you enjoy Thurber’s fiction and drawings, these letters shine a light on usually hidden parts of his life and add poignancy to his works.

Check the WRL catalog for The Thurber Letters


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While most collections of letters take a broad approach, in this fascinating compilation, editor Jay Tolson focuses on the fifty-year correspondence between writers Shelby Foote and Walker Percy. Rather than a sweeping portrait of one life, the reader of these letters gets an intimate look at the development of two thoughtful and creative writers, each of whom is both craftsman and artist.

Foote and Percy met in 1930, when Percy was sent to Greenville, Mississippi to spend the summer at his uncle William Alexander Percy’s home. The elder Percy asked the thirteen-year-old Foote, who lived in Greenville, to be sure to come over and spend time with his fourteen-year-old nephew Walker. Both boys were smart and shared a love of books.  They also shared the common experience of losing their fathers, Percy’s to suicide the previous summer. Percy ended up staying in Greenville through high school, and he and Foote continued to spend time together. Foote followed Percy to UNC, and the pair did not go their separate ways until World War II, when Foote served in the Army and Marines, while Percy was in medical school and then recovering from tuberculosis.

The letters here start after the war, as both Percy and Foote were settling down to the work of becoming writers. Many of the early letters discuss the process of writing, outlining plots, celebrating the occasional check from a publisher, and pushing each other to be better. But the pair also discuss everything from religion to art to their family ups and downs. Both men were clever, and at times acerbic, and there is a lot of humor and affection here. This correspondence is a superb portrait of a long friendship built around shared passions and, in particular, a love of words. The correspondence was broken only by Percy’s death in 1990.

Both men wrote powerful fiction rooted in their Southern upbringing. Percy’s novels explored what it is to be human and the challenges of belief. Foote, who wrote both novels and nonfiction history, later became known to viewers as the historian of record in Ken Burns’ The Civil War. Fans of either of the pair will find much to enjoy here, as will anyone who is interested in the development of a writer.

Check the WRL catalog for The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy


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Robertson Davies, who died in 1995, was a major voice in Canadian literature. Davies’ novels explore the human condition, and all of his writing is deeply rooted in his interest in Jungian psychology. In his essays and reviews, Davies wrote with lively wit and sharp eyes and ears about music, theater, literature, and art.

Davies’ interest in what it is to be human and in the arts is equally evident in his letters. This collection, selected and edited by his biographer, Judith Skelton Grant, reflects many of the same qualities that readers enjoy in Davies’ fiction and nonfiction—crisp prose; strong, carefully (sometimes sharply) expressed opinions; and a love for music, literature, and theater.

Davies is never shy about his opinions, and in his letters he expresses himself in what is at times a less than politically correct fashion, especially when critiquing modern culture. But he is also generous with his praise, as can be seen in his correspondence with the artist who designed the covers for the American editions of Davies’ novels from 1981 on. Letters to Davies’ family blend easily here with notes to publishers and fellow writers. All of the letters evidence Davies’ humor as well as his love of language.

Unlike E. B. White’s letters (reviewed yesterday), these letters were all written during Davies’ adult life (1976-1995). Nonetheless, the reader gets occasional glimpses into his youth in rural Canada in the early 20th century and into his early years as a writer, newspaperman, and actor. Anyone who enjoys Davies’ elegant prose and wit will enjoy this collection.

Check the WRL catalog for For Your Eye Alone


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Finding more about an author that you really enjoy can be a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, you might get new insights into that author’s work. But what do you do when you discover that someone whose writing moves you deeply is actually not a particularly nice person or has beliefs that are diametrically opposed to your own? In one instance, reading some of a favorite fiction writer’s political writings left me unable to continue to read his novels. The question of whether an author’s (or a musician’s or an artist’s for that matter) personal life should influence our reading of, listening to, or viewing of their work is an interesting one. Time and distance seem to play a role here. Does it matter if Shakespeare was perhaps a distant father and husband or if Benvenuto Cellini was a braggart and a thug? Maybe to some, but probably not to many. Their art has outlasted their personal lives. If you are willing to take the risk of having your favorite writer’s reputation diminished, reading someone’s collected letters is one of the best ways to get a view into that person’s life. This week, BFGB will look at several collections of letters from noted writers.

E. B. White is perhaps best known for his children’s books; Charlotte’s Web, The Trumpet of the Swan, and Stuart Little have delighted generations of readers. He was also a masterful essayist as well as a writer of light verse. During his years with The New Yorker, White had a hand in a wide variety of types of writing.

White was also a prolific letter writer, and this collection includes letters written between 1908 and 1976. Over the course of his 70-year epistolary history, White wrote to family, friends, agents and editors, fans, and other writers. The letters in this collection not only give a history of White himself but also present a view of the literary and cultural history of the U.S. in the 20th century. Of particular interest are the letters to those writers, editors, and staff at the newly launched New Yorker. White’s letters open up a new vista on the development of a magazine and on the passion and wit of the people that Harold Ross brought together in the 1920s. White’s letters of support to other writers are also fascinating. He excelled at giving a boost, or sometimes a kick, when it was needed.

Like his essays and his fiction, White’s letters reflect his concern with writing clear, spare prose. “Omit needless words” was his battle cry (learned from his Cornell professor William Strunk, Jr., whose Elements of Style White later reissued). Anyone who enjoys E. B. White’s writing for adults or children will find something to enjoy in this fascinating collection of letters.

Check the WRL catalog for Letters of E. B. White


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Behind every great fortune there is a great crime. This paraphrase from Honoré de Balzac provides the epigraph for Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, but could just as easily have fronted Aravind Adiga‘s Man Booker Prize-winning story of Indian entrepreneur Balram Halwai. The book presents Halwai’s bleak vision of India as a rising economic powerhouse, centered around the story of his sudden rise to fortune.

Halwai’s clear-eyed view of Indian society recounts the excesses and corruption of the upper class, which rules from generation to generation despite claims to democracy and egalitarianism.  He also takes to task his own poverty-stricken class, which he views as complicit in their own exploitation, providing leverage for their oppression through loyalty to family.

Halwai, whose nickname is The White Tiger, has found a way out of this cycle, and he wants to share his success story with China’s leader, Wen Jiabao.  The Chinese premier is coming to visit Bangalore, having expressed interest in India’s economic and democratic spirit, and Balram sees himself as Wen’s ideal guide.  Over the course of several nights, Balram drafts an autobiographical letter that almost immediately lets the reader know that Balram got his entrepreneurial start the old-fashioned way: he murdered for it.

Halwai is a study in contradictions – although he has rebelled against his master’s family, he still talks in the vocabulary of an obsequious servant.  He criticizes the official corruption that greases India’s economic boom, but uses it for his own ends.  And, most interestingly, although he divides India into the Darkness and the Light, and believes he has moved into the Light, the reader gets the feeling that the Darkness still surrounds him.

But this isn’t an entirely dark story.  Halwai is in some ways a naif, as seen in his addresses to Wen, in which he innocently sets himself up as an equal and claims he can teach the Chinese about democracy.  His descriptions of standing in a crowd to buy liquor for his master, getting a job as a driver in a totally unfamiliar city in which survival is the only rule of the road, or evading his grandmother’s dictates provide occasional moments of levity in a difficult story.

Adiga immerses the reader in the physical India, from the rural villages ruled with an iron hand to the cities where laws exist for the benefit of landlords and the enrichment of political leaders.  As one reviewer points out, this is not the India of recent popular fiction; no saffron and saris, but armed guards at the entrance to the malls and clubs frequented by the upper class.  This small book (276 pages) is more than equal to serve as a counterweight to those optimistic, sometimes sentimental novels that have been emerging from India.

Check the WRL catalog for The White Tiger

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guernseyPretty much everyone I’ve spoken to  about this delightful book told me that initially they had difficulty getting into the story; there’s a lot of flipping pages and looking at names to get straight who’s sending letters to whom. But after you get the main characters down, the story flows easily and it becomes quite enjoyable reading letters from all these new “friends.”

Set in London and on the island of Guernsey just after World War II, the novel focuses on Juliet Ashton, a high-spirited, independent young woman. A successful writer and newspaper columnist, Juliet is embarking on a tour to promote her book, Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War, a compilation of her lighthearted newspaper columns meant to raise morale in war-torn London.

About this time, she receives a letter from a Guernsey farmer named Dawsey Adams asking for her help in locating more books by a favorite author. He mentions belonging to the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and piques her interest for another newspaper article. She encourages him to ask others in this literary group to send her letters. They do, and she finds out more about island life after the Germans occupied the Channel Islands as a command post.

Juliet eventually visits Guernsey and her affection for these quirky islanders grows deeper.

There’s mystery, romance and history included in the letters – and a whole cast of characters. My only complaint was that the book ends. It’s a satisfying ending — but I missed hearing the latest news from Guernsey.

Check the WRL catalog for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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secret assignmentsI have somehow developed an affinity for epistolary novels, or books written in the form of letters and other documents adding up to a whole story. Jaclyn Moriarty has created a set of young adult books in this format, with The Year of Secret Assignments being the second, and my favorite, of the three. Feeling Sorry for Celia, and The Murder of Bindy MacKenzie round out the trilogy about teens attending Ashbury High in Australia. I accidentally read them in reverse order but they were just as good backwards as forwards and can really be read in any order.

Lydia, Emily, and Cassie are given an assignment in English class: the Pen Pal Project. Each student in Mr. Botherit’s class is assigned a student to write to, and receive letters from, at nearby Brookfield High. All three girls receive a male “Brooker Kid” for their pen pal, and the relationships they build with each boy range from friendship, to romance, to visceral hate, to an outlet for catharsis, to a challenging game of one-upmanship. In other words, your basic high school drama played out through the mail.

It is also worth mentioning that there is the occasional bit of strong language, typical of high school students when their parents are not around. The language, however, is a rather important aspect of the plot, and therefore I do not believe it to be gratuitous. It is a funny read, a mystery, a sob story, and every other type of high school account you can think of all rolled into one.

Check the WRL catalog for The Year of Secret Assignments.

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