July 15 - Character-driven

This is the place to report on two character-driven books of your choice.

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Your Name
1 —
Author's name. Title of book. Year of publication. Number of pages.

Plot Summary: approx. 3-line plot summary.

Appeals: pacing, characterization, story line, frame
2 —
Author's name. Title of book. Year of publication. Number of pages.

Plot Summary: approx. 3-line plot summary.

Appeals: pacing, characterization, story line, frame

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Oleg Kagan
1 —
Bourdain, Anthony. Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. 2000. 302.

Plot Summary: A series of semi-chronological biographical essays(pre-Food Network) that begins as an exposé of the restaurant industry and end as an ode to the characters Bourdain met along the way to his dream job.

Appeals: Bourdain writes with the voice of a no-nonsense cowboy proud of his exploits - the constant references to drugs, criminal activity, and the bad language may be too much for some. Despite the moral ambivalence, we meet some truly interesting characters (including Bourdain himself) and may learn something about cooking/food generally and the restaurant industry from Kitchen Confidential. Despite the 300 pages, Bourdain's conversational style makes this book a fast read. Recommended for readers with strong stomachs.
2 —
Martin, Steve. The Pleasure of My Company. 2003. 176 pages.

Plot Summary: Daniel Cambridge is an obsessive-compulsive who is calmed by magic squares and cannot cross the street unless two driveways align, and these are just two of his idiosyncrasies - The Pleasure of My Company follows Cambridge on his journey to love and a "normal" life.

Appeals: The idiosyncratic main character will strike the fancy of readers who crave detail but causes the novel to develop at a pace that may be too slow for some. The characters, especially Daniel Cambridge, can be slightly off-kilter; they are what give The Pleasure of My Company its charm. Certain appeals are similar to Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time especially that of a 'disabled' main character overcoming life's obstacles, however Steve Martin's book has an adult protagonist and no overarching mystery (in favor of various smaller adventures).

Marita Klements
1 —
Chabon, Michael. The Final Solution: A Story of Detection. 2004. 131 pages.

Plot Summary: In Sussex, England an old man (who resembles Sherlock Holmes) meets a young mute German refugee and his pet parrot. When the parrot disappears and a man is killed the old man's former skills of detection are tested.

Appeals: multiple introspective points of view, mystery, a well known popular character.
2 —
Hickman, Katie. Courtesans. 2004. 336 pages plus notes.

Biographies of Sophia Baddeley, Elizabeth Armistead, Harriette Wilson, Cora Pearl, and Catherine Walters. The most renowned, accomplished, and elite courtesans in an era of high glamor.

Appeals: colorful characters, well researched historical details, sex drugs and luxury.

Danica Sheridan

1. Stinson, Susan. Venus of Chalk. Ann Arbor, MI: Firebrand Books, 2004. 207 pages.

Plot Summary: Carline, a seemingly content home-economist takes an unexpected expedition back to Chalk, Texas to visit a beloved aunt and learns that "a few things [she] had been absolutely sure of" are not quite as she thought them to be.

Appeals: Quirky characters, languid descriptions, and a 1st-person narrative that allows the reader to become deeply involved in Carline's journey of self-discovery.

2. Taulbert, Clifford. Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored. Tulsa, OK: Council Oaks Books, 1989. 153 pages.
Plot Summary: The author's real-life account of growing up in a small, southern town during the last years of segregation is a tender snapshot of the "nourishing love" found in an extended family of "aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, cousins, neighbors, and friends."

Appeals: Coming of age stories, rural, mid-twentieth century, african-american history.

Elizabeth Guth
1 —
Rodriguez, Deborah. Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil. 2007. 270 pages.

Plot Summary: As the only non-medically trained person in the relief group, Deborah Rodriguez was worried about her ability to make a difference and actually help the people of Afghanistan. However, her skills as a hairdresser turn out to be extremely useful as she becomes involved with the effort to open a beauty school in Kabul, which would allow Afghani women to make a living for themselves. This book chronicles the challenges Rodriguez had to overcome to get the school open and running as well as the personal stories of several of the students and employees of the school.

Appeals: This book will appeal to readers who like strong female characters. It will also appeal to those wanted to learn about a unfamiliar culture, it was fascinating to learn about the culture of Afghanistan and read about the daily life of the women.
2 —
L'Engle, Madeline. A Severed Wasp. 1982. 388 pages.

Plot Summary: Katherine Forrester Vigneras, of L’Engle’s The Small Rain, returns to New York City to retire from her career as a professional concert pianist. However, retirement is not as relaxing and quiet as Katherine had hoped as she comes into contact with people from her past and becomes involved with a benefit concert that causes her to reflect on her long and interesting life.

Appeals: Well developed, unique and complicated characters – even secondary characters are multi- dimensional. Good characters have dark sides and secrets and bad characters have redeeming moments. Lots of flashbacks, slow pacing. This book will probably appeal to those who love music and New York City.

Kim Tocco
1 —
Farrow, Mia. What Falls Away. 1997. 341 pages.

Plot Summary: Mia Farrow's elegantly written prose fills the pages as she tells of her childhood with famous parents, her battle with polio, her marriages to Andre Previn and Frank Sinatra, her multitude of children, and her agonizing relationship with Woody Allen. Thoughtful, rich with detail, and sprinkled with enough celebrity names to make it interesting, (but not so many it feels tedious), this book examines the life of a fragile-appearing woman who actually has an iron fortitude in dealing with disaster and difficulty.

Appeals: In terms of character appeal, this book presents a cast of characters who run the gamet from kind of scary (Frank Sinatra) to just plain looney (Woody Allen is terrified of squirrels, for instance, and shower drains). Mia Farrow herself is the star character in the book, not out of any preening hubris, but just by her quiet dignity and strength. Readers who are riveted by a checkered life with many ups and downs will empathize and identify with Ms. Farrow as she navigates life's waters as a daughter, wife, lover, mother, and public figure.
2 —
Galant, Debra. Rattled. 2006. 243 pages.

Plot Summary: Heather Peters comes off as the typical monied soccer mom with her carefully coiffed blond hair, her high-powered executive husband Kevin, and her eight-year-old son, Conner. Of course, when this couple goes house shopping, they want their own McMansion, complete with Jacuzzi, a basement gym, the works. However, this new housing development sits on environmentally challenged land, and some environmentalists choose Heather to unleash their ire on - complete with "liberated" lab rats, snakes, the works. On top of this, everyone hates Heather, and her equally obnoxious son, and the McMansion residents group together to force Heather's family to move. What's a girl to do? Heather goes from one-dimensional ditz to defensive dynamo as she battles these forces. As she does so, she learns something about herself, her family, and her community.

Appeals: Heather's character starts out as unsympathetic, and readers won't mind when she's set upon by snakes or terrified by rats. But as she stands up for herself and learns to stop being a brain-dead Barbie, her character evolves into one that someone could actually have empathy for. This book would appeal to those who like environmental themes along with some humor, character development, and subterfuge and suspense in the suburbs.

Sarah Clark
1 —Fiction
Dave Eggers. What is the What. 2006. 475 pages.
Plot Summary: Based on true life experience, Valentino Achak Deng recounts his life as a refugee from the Sudanese civil war. Starting with his life in America, the book traces Achak's story back to his native village of Marial Bai and his exodus through Ethiopia and Kenya. Told with clarity, humor, and unflinchingly, this tale defines the strength and resilience of the human spirit.

Appeals: Framed with a robbery experience while living in the States, readers unfamiliar with the subject and with Sudan are given a gateway to another part of the world. Amazing sense of closeness to the narrator. While enduring unthinkable hardship, any reader can relate to Achak's universal feelings of confusion, hope, love, crushes, friendship, loss and survival.
2 —Non-Fiction
Motley Crue with Neil Strauss. The Dirt: Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band. 2001. 431 pages.
Plot Summary: Tommy Lee, Mick Mars, Vince Neil and Nikki Sixx, notoriously known as Motley Crue, tell all in this wild ride through the band's history. Replete with drugs, sex, alcohol, addiction, ratted hair, playmates, hookers, incarceration, death, and plenty of Jack Daniels, no topic is sacred. Decadence at its finest.

Appeals: getting the gossip from the inside point of view of a wildly decadent world full of celebrities and porn stars. Each page shocks and demands that the next be read. Multiple points of view flesh-out the story. Whether the reader loathes or admires the lifestyle of the band, he is in for emotional surprises during the moments of sobriety, love, loss, compromise, and sometimes a tone of maturity. Appeals to the rebellious, disgusting, goofy, wild teenage boy in all of us.

Sheila Purcell
1 —
Kotzwinkle, William. The Fan Man. 1974. 191.

Plot Summary: A drug-addled pack rat named Horse Badorties is trying to put together a love concert in early-seventies New York, but he has no attention span. The author of Walter the Farting Dog brings us one of the most eccentric characters in literature as we follow his meandering journey throughout the city, buying junk for unimaginable purposes and attempting to seduce teenage runaways with comically poor results.

Appeals: Horse’s ability to recover from (or forget) the wretchedness of his surroundings makes him a likeable person despite certain vices. The beat-poetry flow makes for an easy read. Tone is quirky and optimistic.
2 —
Chang, Pang-Mei Natashsa. Bound Feet and Western Dress. 1996. 215.

Plot Summary: An assimilated second-generation Chinese American tells the story of coming to terms with her Chinese identity along with the story of her great-aunt. In the early twentieth century, as China became exposed to Western culture, her great aunt continually defied misogynistic customs and eventually became the first Chinese woman to have a modern divorce.

Appeals: strong female character, alternating 1st person narration shows generation gaps in perspective, detailed account of Chinese culture, fast and compelling

Michael Habata
Sebold, Alice. The Lovely Bones. 2002. 329 pages.

Plot Summary: A thirteen-year old girl is raped and murdered by a serial killer in 1973. From her personal heaven, she is able to observe her family members and others in the town as they try to cope with the aftermath of her murder and missing body over the next ten or fifteen years.

Appeals: Semi-omniscient first-person point of view as an ethereal spirit/ghost. Multiple characters with intertwined lives richly developed slowly over time. Complex narrative style, conversational style. Story emphasizes people; focus is interior and psychological. Time period is important because set when mass murders were less common, people were less wary about personal safety.
2 —
Lopez, George, with Armen Keteyian. Why you crying?: My long, hard look at life, laughter, and love. 2004. 194 pages.

Plot Summary: Comedian and tv sitcom star George Lopez recounts growing up and being raised by his critically acerbic grandmother, who served as the source of his outlook on life, and on his career as a stand-up comedian and tv star.

Appeals: George Lopez's voice is immediately recognizable to fans of his tv show and stand-up act, and includes selections from his comedy routines interspersed throughout the book. His character is supposed to be explored through the narrative, how he became who he is now: low self-esteem because of his ethnicity and being overweight, and how his background (poverty, grandmother's influence) led to his outlook on life. The distinctive tone or style is probably the most important aspect of the book.

Cathy McGowan
Dische, Irene The Empress of Weehawken. 2007. 307 pages.

Plot Summary: Through this humorous narrative in first person, we follow the life of the strong-willed Elizabeth Rother from her early adulthood and marriage to Carl, a Jewish doctor who converts to Catholicism for her, their subsequent escape from Nazi Germany, their travails as immigrants in America, and then the non-traditional paths of her daughter and grand-daughter, who is the author of the novel, speaking in her grandmother's voice.

Appeals: This is an engrossing character and family centered tale that is at times suspenseful and oddly heartwarming, given our narrator's opinionated and controlling nature, who, in the end is influencing the characters she cares about even after her death.
2 —
Andrews, Julie. Home. 2008. 320 pages.

Plot Summary: This is a very involving memoir that is striking as the turbulent, early life of a character we think we know is unfolded. Singing for Queen Elizabeth I at age ten, and working in the English theater as a young teenager and contributing money for the family, the excitement builds as her famous stage career comes to fruition.

Appeals: This candid story is driven by the events in the life of our narrator, Julie Andrews, that are interesting to theater buffs, as well as to anyone who likes a fascinating life story.

Simon Lee
1 —
Gaiman, Neil. Anansi Boys. 2005. 384 pages.

Plot Summary: Fat Charlie’s ordinary life changes when his father drops dead singing karaoke. He discovers two things: 1) his father was an African trickster spider god named Anansi, and 2) he has a brother named Spider. When Spider uses his powers to take over his brother’s life, Fat Charlie fights back, knowing little of his own inner abilities..

Appeals: Suggested for readers who have an interest in a seemingly ordinary character that gradually develops over time. Secondary characters like his brother help drive Fat Charlie’s development. May appeal to those with an interest in a cast of quirky, ill-mannered animal/insect gods with unique powers. Self-discovery; identity; reunion; sibling rivalry; third person narrative; revenge; gods; animal gods; powers; magic; betrayal; fast paced with frequent dialogue; story has a bleak but sometimes uplifting tone.
2 —
Burroughs, Augusten. Possible Side Effects. 2006. Audiobook (9 hrs 59 mins).

Plot Summary: A compilation of Augusten’s unusual past, highlighting (mostly) his childhood years. Numerous irreverent but humorous vignettes in his life – from stories of his psychotic mother, ungrateful father, delightful and hateful grandmothers, and “lipstick” lesbian friends, to learning about the tooth fairy, sniffing money and turpentine, odd stories of bleeding fingers and blood-stained bras.

Appeals: Popular for his memoirs; introspective first person narrative; centered around author with intertwining secondary characters (family, relatives, and friends) that influence his character, inner life, and the outrageous thoughts and actions he takes. Suggested for people with an interest in audiobooks, humor, and unusual vignettes of a man’s past. Dysfunctional family; profanity; homosexuality; relationships; plenty of dialogue with fast paced short stories; silly and humorous tone.

Rachel Longaker
1 —
Steve Martin. Shopgirl. 2000. 130 pages.

Plot Summary: Martin's first novel traces a love affair between a successful entrepreneur in his fifties and a twenty-something aspiring artist who works at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills for her day job. They come from different worlds and each have much to learn from the other as their romance unfolds.

Appeals: Martin creates revealing psychological portraits and the book has humor and poignancy. The narrative voice is engaging, and this makes the story compelling.
2 —
Elizabeth Gilbert. Eat, pray, love. 2006. 334 pages.

Plot Summary: In order to recover from a difficult divorce and heartbreaking love affair, Gilbert decided to leave her usual routine and travel for a year, spending four months each in Italy, India, and Bali. Each place helps her heal and gather insights: in Italy her senses restore her, in India she experiences spiritual devotion, and in Bali her life finally comes into balance and she meets a new man who restores her faith in love.

Appeals: The story is redemptive and shows how Gilbert overcomes intense despair and heartache and comes out on the other side at the end of her journey. It also has the appeal of the travel novel where the journey helps the protagonist grow and gain insights into him/herself. Gilbert's narrative voice is conversational and funny and keeps the story moving at a good pace.

Glenda Gamboa
1 —
Jon Lee Anderson. Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. 1997. 814 pages.

Plot Summary: Anderson's biography is a definitive work on Che Guevara that traces his life from his parents' courting, his youth in Argentina, to his life as a revolutionary. Its telling separates the man from the myth.

Appeals:The work is detailed and filled not before seen facts in the Che Guevara's life. Many of Che's comrades who have not previously shared their experience of him have done so for the first time. This work will call to both Che enthusiasts as well as to those newly acquainted with this legendary revolutionary.
2 —
Yxta Maya Murray. The Conquest. 2002. 288 pages.

Plot Summary: Sara is a rare book restorer who has many parts of her life unresolved: with her family, her career, and the man she loves. Working for the Getty, she finds herself assigned to restore a manuscript that was supposedly written by a decadent priest in Europe during the time of the conquest of the New World, but Sara is convinced that the manuscript was indeed written by an Aztec princess who smuggled herself as as juggler on a one of Cortes' ships filled with his loot returning to Europe; she had sworn to destroy those who were responsible for the death of her people. Through her work on the manuscript, Sarra discovers which of her passions truly matter to her.

Appeals: This book is filled with pictures of life in Europe during the time of the conquest. There is a juxtaposition of the present time of the story to the manuscript's past that many readers inclined to historical details will enjoy.

Cindy Mediavilla
Freeman, Judith. Red Water. 2002, 324 pages

Plot summary: The story of Mormon leader John D. Lee, the only man convicted of participating in the Mormon Meadow Massacre of 1857, as told by three of his nineteen wives: Emma, an English woman who fell in love with the middle-aged Lee when she was 21; Ann, who married Lee when she was just 13; and Rachel, his second and most devoted wife.

Appeals: Beautifully written. Fast-paced. 1st-person narratives. Fascinating look at polygamy from the inside. Author received Guggenheim grant to research Lee's story.

2 —
Franks, Lucinda. My Father's Secret War. 2007. 311 pages

Plot summary: When the Pulitzer Prize-winning author gets a call from her father's landlord threatening eviction, she and her daughter begin organizing her father Thomas Franks' belongings and discover a box of mementos that seem to indicate he was a spy during WWII.

Appeals: Journey of discovery as author unravels real-life mystery. Fast-paced. Beautifully written. Father-daughter relationship.

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