Subject: Social issues

In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende

About the Book

In the Midst of Winter begins with a minor traffic accident—which becomes the catalyst for an unexpected and moving love story between two people who thought they were deep into the winter of their lives. Richard Bowmaster—a 60-year-old human rights scholar—hits the car of Evelyn Ortega—a young, undocumented immigrant from Guatemala—in the middle of a snowstorm in Brooklyn. What at first seems just a small inconvenience takes an unforeseen and far more serious turn when Evelyn turns up at the professor’s house seeking help. At a loss, the professor asks his tenant Lucia Maraz—a 62-year-old lecturer from Chile—for her advice. These three very different people are brought together in a mesmerizing story that moves from present-day Brooklyn to Guatemala in the recent past to 1970s Chile and Brazil, sparking the beginning of a long overdue love story between Richard and Lucia.


The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

About the Book

A chance encounter between two lonely women leads to a passionate romance in this lesbian cult classic. Therese, a struggling young sales clerk, and Carol, a homemaker in the midst of a bitter divorce, abandon their oppressive daily routines for the freedom of the open road, where their love can blossom. But their newly discovered bliss is shattered when Carol is forced to choose between her child and her lover.

Author Patricia Highsmith is best known for her psychological thrillers Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley. Originally published in 1952 under a pseudonym, The Price of Salt was heralded as “the novel of a love society forbids.” Highsmith’s sensitive treatment of fully realized characters who defy stereotypes about homosexuality marks a departure from previous lesbian pulp fiction. Erotic, eloquent, and suspenseful, this story offers an honest look at the necessity of being true to one’s nature. The book is also the basis of the acclaimed 2015 film Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.


Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

About the Book

From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class

Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.

The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.

But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.

A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.


The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

About the Book

The story begins on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when ten-year-old Handful is abruptly pulled from the Grimké’s work yard, adorned in lavender ribbons, and presented to Sarah as a gift. Sarah tries in vain to decline, but over time, the two create a bond that will ultimately and dramatically shape their destinies.

As their intertwined stories unfold in their own voices, Sarah will eventually break from the only life she knows and go north to become an exile, encountering love and heartbreak, repression and renaissance as she searches for her voice and her place of belonging. Back home, Handful will experience her mother’s mysterious disappearance, finding strength and answers in the story quilt she leaves behind. When Denmark Vesey, a free black man with messianic charisma, plots a dangerous slave insurrection in the heart of Charleston, Handful becomes embroiled in a conspiracy that threatens to shake the city to its foundations.


Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

About the Book

Despite the fact that she has fallen in love with a young man, Tita, the youngest of three daughters born to a tyrannical ranch must obey tradition and remain single and at home to care for her mother. Earthy, magical, and utterly charming, Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances and Home Remedies is a tale of family life in turn-of-the-century Mexico became a best-selling phenomenon with its winning blend of poignant romance and bittersweet wit.


Cruddy by Lynda Barry

About the Book

On a September night in 1971, a few days after getting busted for dropping acid, a sixteen-year-old curls up in the corner of her ratty bedroom and begins to write.

Roberta Rohbeson’s book starts out as a drug-fueled teenage rant that gradually fades into the story of two cross-country trips she made with her father five years earlier — a story she has kept to herself since she was found wandering the desert covered with blood.

Disguised as a boy she accompanied her father on his murderous jobs, during which she pretended to be a mute so as not to give away her voice. One of the more memorable tasks was disposing of dead mobsters in a slaughterhouse.


There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz

About the Book

This is the moving and powerful account of two remarkable boys struggling to survive in Chicago's Henry Horner Homes, a public housing complex disfigured by crime and neglect.


Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

About the Book

When federal agents knocked on her door with an indictment in hand, Piper Kerman barely resembled the reckless young woman she was shortly after graduating Smith College. Happily ensconced in a New York City apartment, with a promising career and an attentive boyfriend, Piper was forced to reckon with the consequences of her very brief, very careless dalliance in the world of drug trafficking.

Following a plea deal for her 10-year-old crime, Piper spent a year in the infamous women’s correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, which she found to be no “Club Fed.” In Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, Piper takes readers into B-Dorm, a community of colorful, eccentric, vividly drawn women. Their stories raise issues of friendship and family, mental illness, the odd cliques and codes of behavior, the role of religion, the uneasy relationship between prisoner and jailor, and the almost complete lack of guidance for life after prison.

 

The Last Duel by Eric Jager

About the Book

The gripping, atmospheric true story of the ‘duel to end all duels’ in medieval France: a trial by combat pitting a knight against a squire accused of violating the knight’s beautiful young wife. In 1386, a few days after Christmas, a massive crowd gathered at a Paris monastery to watch the two men fight a duel to the death—a trial by combat meant to ‘prove’ which man’s cause was right in God’s sight. The dramatic true story of the knight, the squire, and the lady unfolds during the tumultuous fourteenth century, a time of war, plague, and anarchy, as well as of honour, chivalry, and courtly love. The notorious quarrel appears in many histories of France, but no writer has recounted it in full, until now.


About the Author, Eric Jagel

photo of Eric Jager


“If you really want to reenact the Middle Ages, then you should drink contaminated water, contract the plague, and die very quickly.” — Eric Jager


Eric Jager is an award-winning professor of English at UCLA, where he teaches medieval literature. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and has also taught at Columbia University.

His book, The Last Duel, was featured on NPR, Radio France, and BBC radio’s “Book of the Week.” It was adapted for a BBC TV documentary and shortlisted by the Crime Writers’ Association (U.K.) for the Nonfiction “Gold Dagger.”

His new book, Blood Royal, features one of history's first detectives. The detective solves a conspiracy to assassinate a member of the French royal family in 1407. Details of which were described on a thirty-foot parchment scroll.

Listen to NPR’s interview with Eric Jager about his book and medieval dueling.

 

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The Judicial Duel: Learn more about the history of duels to enhance your discussion.


Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain

About the Book

After losing her parents, fifteen-year-old Ivy Hart is left to care for her grandmother, older sister and nephew as tenants on a small tobacco farm.  As she struggles with her grandmother’s aging, her sister’s mental illness and her own epilepsy, she realizes they might need more than she can give.

When Jane Forrester takes a position as Grace County’s newest social worker, she doesn’t realize just how much her help is needed.  She quickly becomes emotionally invested in her clients’ lives, causing tension with her boss and her new husband.  But as Jane is drawn in by the Hart women, she begins to discover the secrets of the small farm—secrets much darker than she would have guessed.  Soon, she must decide whether to take drastic action to help them, or risk losing the battle against everything she believes is wrong.

Set in rural Grace County, North Carolina in a time of state-mandated sterilizations and racial tension, Necessary Lies tells the story of these two young women, seemingly worlds apart, but both haunted by tragedy.  Jane and Ivy are thrown together and must ask themselves: how can you know what you believe is right, when everyone is telling you it’s wrong?

About Diane Chamberlain

Diane_ChamberlainredbyJohnPagliuca2013-240x300Diane Chamberlain grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey and wrote her first “novellas” at 12 years old. She describes them as “truly terrible.”

She didn’t pick up a pen to write fiction again until as an adult living in San Diego. One day while waiting for an appointment, she began writing a story germinating since adolescence. Four years later, she completed “Private Relations.” Published in 1989, it earned the RITA award for Best Single Title Contemporary Novel. She also dabbled in writing for the soap opera, “One Life to Live,” and various articles for newspapers and magazines. She focuses mainly on book-length fiction with over 20 novels completed.

The variance in relationships between the sexes, siblings, parents and children, play a strong part in her writing. She says, “I can’t think of anything more fascinating than the way people struggle with life’s trials and tribulations, both together and alone.”

Her career background and devotion for social work also provides a keystone to her stories. The impact of choices made by Jane, a social worker, and the family she serves weaves its way throughout “Necessary Lies.”

Currently she resides and considers North Carolina her true home. The state has sparked the setting for many of her stories, including “Necessary Lies.”

Visit the author’s website. The author also has an active blog that includes personal insights, weekly recipes, and a chance to share personal stories through The Story Weekend. The Story Weekend involves the author picking a theme and contributors are invited to share something from their lives that relates to that theme.