Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier

Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier (2008)
Raimund Gregorius teaches classical languages at a Swiss college. After a chance encounter with a mysterious Portuguese woman and the discovery of an extraordinary book by Amadeu de Prado,  he begins to question his life. Carrying with him the book by Prado, he takes the night train to Lisbon in the hope that he will begin to comprehend the author’s life. Prado turns out to be a doctor whose practice and principles led him into confrontation with Salazar’s dictatorship, and a man whose intelligence and magnetism left a mark on everyone who met him. Gregorius becomes obsessed by what he reads and his investigations lead him all over the city of Lisbon, as he speaks to those who were a part of Prado's life. Gradually, the picture of an extraordinary man emerges.

It may take a while to get involved with the story, but once there it is easy to be drawn into the events that unfolded. It is worth the effort as you begin to appreciate the thoughts that are being expressed by both Gregorious and Prado. For those who want a good, intelligent read that’s an excellent analysis of character and poses some fascinating questions about life and love, you won’t go wrong with Night Train to Lisbon.
Read the reviews at Amazon.com.

The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani

The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani (2007)
In a literal way, the title of this book refers to the dye that carpet makers make from the petals of flowers. In another more poetic way, our heroine does give her life’s blood to learn the secret of carpet making in 17th century Persia. Eventually her talented persistence permits her a spiritual rebirth and a decent life. The journey from abject poverty and helplessness to self-respect is a beautifully conceived and artfully written story. I recommend this book for its absorbing content and rich character development.

Find a reading guide, author information and reviews at Book Browse. Go to the book's website for additional interviews, reviews and related links.

The Night of the Hunter

The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Starring Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters, The Night of the Hunter is the only film ever directed by Charles Laughton. The mood of the film is unusual; Laughton features unique photography and haunting music. Harry Powell (Mitchum) is a preacher with the habit of murdering his wives. When Harry’s cellmate tells him about money he hid, Harry goes after the man’s family. Lillian Gish gives a great performance as a mother figure who helps out the children.

This fascinating movie didn’t get much play when it came out in the 1950s – and it still isn’t widely known. Roger Ebert’s explanation? Its “lack of the proper trappings.” I very strongly endorse The Night of the Hunter – not a lot of people know about it, but those who do are really impressed by it.

Control Room

Control Room (2004)
It’s an eye-opening step into what was happening during the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Told from the point of view of Arab television network Al Jazeera, the documentary follows Al Jazeera employees and covers time spent in the US Central Command briefing room in Doha, Qatar. It explores the media’s role in modern war.

The only American featured prominently in the documentary – Marine Corps media liaison officer John Rushing – later becomes a Washington, D.C.-based correspondent for Al Jazeera International (check out his YouTube channel). After I saw the documentary, I read Mission: Al Jazeera (2007) by Josh Rushing; he resigned from the Marines after he was forbidden to speak about the documentary with the press.

Read TIME's interview with Rushing shortly after he accepted the job with Al Jazeera or look at Fast Company's article.

Spotlight: Tim Burton

Spotlight: Tim BurtonThe decidedly quirky talents of director Tim Burton bring a unique pop culture sensibility to his work. From his debut film (Pee-Wee's Big Adventure) to his latest (Sweeney Todd), his movies have an engagingly bizarre look and humor about them. I appreciate his knack for visual wit. Some of the films have the added pleasure of feature scores by Danny Elfman or a performance by Johnny Depp. Try one or all of these:

The Used World by Haven Kimmel

The Used World by Haven Kimmel (2007)
Contemporary setting in small town about three women and the relationships in their lives. Fast, easy read with twists and an interesting way of life in small town USA today. The story has an interesting ending and all is well. The author's use of descriptions in her story makes for good reading flow. A person should read this book 30 years from now to know the terminology and setting of life in the beginning of the 21st century.

Read reviews at Amazon.com and visit the author's website.

The Condition by Jennifer Haigh

The Condition by Jennifer Haigh (2008)
This story of pain, beauty, sickness and health, love and betrayal revolves around the McKotch family, a flawed but very real New England family dealing with the realities of life. The characters are so well developed in this book you can feel their pain and hope they make it even when you can barely stand the choices they make. The family dynamics are palpable and "the condition" of being human draws you in. This would be a good book discussion choice. The author, Jennifer Haigh, is an exceptional writer and I have enjoyed her previous two books (Mrs. Kimble and Baker Towers) and would recommend them too.

Browse the book before you visit the library and read the New York Times review.

A Cedar Cove Christmas by Debbie Macomber

A Cedar Cove Christmas by Debbie Macomber (2008)
Mary Jo Wyse is pregnant; she heads to Cedar Cove in search of David, the father of her baby. Following her are three overprotective brothers (the three Wyse men). Although she doesn’t find David, Mary Jo is embraced by the close knit Cedar Cove community. A nice light read that’s good for the holidays.

A Very Long Engagement = Un long dimanche de fiançailles

A Very Long Engagement = Un long dimanche de fiançailles (2004) R
This French movie based on a novel of the same name is the troubling, poignant and often darkly humorous story of Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) as she searches for the truth about her fiancé during WWI. Was he the coward he was labeled? Five men, including her fiancé, were condemned to death for shooting themselves to escape the front lines. Did he survive an almost sure death in the no man’s land between the French and German lines?

In French with English subtitles.

Spotlight: Baking

Spotlight: BakingEvery year, while the men watch a Bears game, the women in my family gather to bake Christmas cookies. At the end of the day, each lady goes home with a tray of cookies. This year I looked at these books to get ideas:

Prancer

Prancer (1989) G
An oldie but goodie! Eight year old Jessie finds an injured reindeer and believes he is Santa’s Prancer. While Jessie is working on a plan to return the reindeer to Santa, her widowed father is trying to figure out how to keep their family afloat. This heartwarming tale is a great movie for the whole family.

Starring Sam Elliott, Cloris Leachman, and Rebecca Harrell.
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A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson

A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson (2008)
Mr. Malik, a widower living in Nairobi, loves his Tuesday morning bird walks--and Mrs. Mbikwa--the widow who leads them. Mr. Malik, a shy and modest man, has a dream of dancing with Mrs. Mbikwa at the annual Hunt Club Ball. First, though, he must win the right to invite her by seeing and identifying more birds species within a one week period than does his arch nemesis in life and love, the flashy Harry Khan. While Harry flies around Kenya identifying birds, Mr. Malik stays closer to home and deals with stolen cars, his lively young houseboy, and Somalian kidnappers. Will Mr. Malik’s kind and generous heart win his lady love in the end? A charming story told with affection and humor.

Read an interview with the author and reviews from Amazon.com.

Any Human Heart by William Boyd

Any Human Heart by William Boyd (2002)
Following a character through his or her life can be very absorbing. That is what this novel, written in the form of an "intimate journal," does and it includes most of the major events of the 20th century. It is fiction skillfully interwoven with history.

Any Human Heart tells the story of Logan Mountstuart through his diaries, and his experiences. Born male, rich, good looking and arrogant at the beginning of the century, he dies a modest, kinder and wiser man. Logan's life might seem preposterous but it is certainly engaging.

Find reviews, information about the author and an interview with the author at Book Browse. Read additional reviews at ReviewsOfBooks.com.

Pearl Harbor by Carl Smith

Pearl Harbor: The Day of Infamy by Carl Smith (1999)
This is Campaign Book 62 in Osprey’s superb series of combat histories. It is an extremely detailed yet concise (just 96 pages including appendices and index) telling of the events leading to and including an almost minute by minute account of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor which brought the US into the Second World War. It includes thumbnail biographies of US commanders Kimmel, Short, Stark, Marshall, Secretary of State Hull and President Roosevelt, and Japanese commanders Yamamoto, Fuchida, Genda, Nagumo and Ambassador Nomura.

Preview this book and read reviews from Amazon.

Buckingham Palace Gardens by Anne Perry

Buckingham Palace Gardens by Anne Perry (2008)
Anne Perry researches the Victorian era thoroughly so her stories are historically accurate. The real bonus in this mystery is the plot that encircles the Prince of Wales. It’s a cliff hanger. Perry also introduces a new character, Gracie into the series. Gracie infiltrates the servants’ staff of the Prince and is a source of vital information for special investigator Thomas Pitt. Perry revitalizes the historical mystery.

Visit the author's website, read reviews and an excerpt from the book.