Truth is Stranger Than Fiction: The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss 
submitted by Rob

While it may ring of cliché, truth is indeed stranger than fiction at times, and Tom Reiss’ most recent book, The Black Count, would seem to vividly support this notion. To many, if not most, the name Alexandre Dumas is instantly recognizable and conjures images of valiant fighters, desperate times, and hard-won victories. How many of these same persons, I wonder, would also be familiar with the familial lineage that bore Mr. Dumas to this world? Before The Black Count, I freely admit that I would have been counted among those completely unaware, and as a result of having read this fascinating book, I shall nevermore have the same thoughts and experience whilst eating a favorite sandwich of mine, the Monte Cristo, and I am the better for it.

Several of Mr. Dumas’ ancestors have fascinating stories to be sure, but it is the tale of his father, Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, that so surpasses the rest, that Mr. Dumas looked no further than the details of that life for the inspiration of his novels The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.

Thomas-Alexandre was the son born of a wayward French aristocrat, Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, and his African-born slave and mistress, Marie-Cessette Dumas, in Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti) on March 25, 1762, a time when that region supplied much of the world with its sugar; the Davy de la Pailleterie family even utilized a local island by the name of Monte Cristo as a smuggling point during the Seven Years’ War with Great Britain.

The real adventure begins in 1776 when Alexandre Antoine sold his son in order to pay for his passage for a return to France to claim the title of Marquis, as his two elder brothers had both died. Once in France, he bought back his son, sold his family’s estate, and the two moved to Paris in 1777, where Thomas-Alexandre was provided an upper-class education and life of luxury funded by his father.

This situation changed considerably when in February of 1786 Alexandre Antoine married, and the generosity previously showered upon his son was greatly lessened. Subsequently, on June 2, 1786, Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie entered into the Queen’s Dragoons as a private under the name of Alexandre Dumas, taking the surname of his mother. Over the next few years, he advanced quickly eventually attaining the rank Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the Alps, where, at the age of thirty-two, he led an army of over fifty thousand to victory.

After further campaigns in Europe and drawing the attention and admiration of not only his own men and Napoleon, but those of the enemy, he accompanied the French on the bold and reckless invasion of Egypt, but it was during this time that his luck began to fade, something that coincided with his open and public criticism of Napoleon.

Through the excellent writing of Mr. Reiss, the captivating journey of Thomas-Alexandre is told, and it is through this story that certain aspects of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, which may not be terribly familiar to the reader, are conveyed, and the context and impact of this time may be better and more fully understood.

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A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick 
submitted by Tommy

An old friend of mine, who was 22 at the time, told me to read this book about 15 years ago. I’m not really into Science Fiction and when I hear this term I usually resist. Since then, a few other people have told me to read it too. LFPL recently got a few brand new shiny copies of it and this time I could not resist. Firstly, I’m sorry that I waited this long to read this wonderful, twisted book. Secondly, I don’t think it is Sci-Fi.

The process of getting to know A Scanner Darkly was in reverse of how it probably should be. I watched the movie first, which came out in 2006. Yeah, a few friends had tried to get me to watch that too. Much to my surprise I liked the movie. And with each viewing (4 times) I liked it more and more.

Two friends told me the book was better. Because of time constraints, I read the Graphic Novel which is based on the movie version. It is a nice concise version. Then on to the actual book, which is better.

It is an honest book of what drugs can do to an individual, but it isn’t a moral tale against drugs. It is also a book of paranoia, both for the protagonist and society at large. It was written in 1977 and is set slightly in the future (1994), but it isn’t a futuristic novel. It is just one man spying on himself and his friends trying to figure out what is real. The imagination rules supreme in this book. With all the current controversy over who is listening in on your conversations, it is definitely a book that could have been written today.

Recently, I realized that it has been mostly younger people who wanted me to read A Scanner Darkly. Even though the book is of the generation slightly older than me (I’m 49), I think every adult should read this!

To Reserve A Scanner Darkly in its many forms (book, Graphic Novel, Audio CD), click here.

Editor’s note: Please use the comment button below to leave any response you may have about the book or the review.

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“For heaven’s sake, what kind of superhero types?”  
submitted by Natalie

Newberry Award winner Kate DiCamillo’s latest story, Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, is one of a girl and her superhero squirrel. She creates a cast of quirky characters that slowly rolls out through mishaps, disappointments, as well as small victories.

Flora Belle Buckman is a bit of an outsider and self-proclaimed cynic living with her mother. She spends much of her time reading. Flora often references her favorite superhero comic and a work of nonfiction titled "Terrible Things Can Happen To You!"

One afternoon, Flora’s reading is disturbed by the sound of neighbors vacuuming their yard. This strikes Flora as very odd so she decides to investigate the occurrence. As she looks out her window, Flora witnesses a squirrel being vacuumed up.

After the incident, we gain the unusual vantage of the squirrel’s perspective.
“His brain felt larger, roomier. It was as if several doors in the dark room of his self (doors he hadn’t known existed) had suddenly been flung wide.”

Not only has the squirrel has gained in consciousness but also in super rodent powers. He is surprisingly now strong enough to pick up the out of control vacuum and lift it over his tiny head. Other abilities come into play with flying being the least remarkable. Flora finds herself drawn to care for the injured squirrel and decides to name him Ulysses, likening his transformation to that of the hero in her beloved comic.

We are introduced to a whole host of characters that occupy Flora’s life:
  • Phyllis Buckman, her mother, an often preoccupied recently divorced romance novelist. She takes up a campaign to snuff out the squirrel and hands her ex-husband the shovel to do it with thus cementing her status as the villain of the book.
  • George Buckman, her socially anxious father, who bonds with his daughter by using comic book catchphrases such as “Holy unanticipated occurrences” and “This malfeasance must be stopped.”
  • Tootie Tickham, the neighbor who is constantly vacuuming.
  • William Spiver, the great-nephew of Tootie, who is temporarily (though questionably) blind.
  • Mary Ann, an ornamental shepherdess lamp. She is quite possibly treasured more than Flora by Phyllis.
There is a lot of loneliness in this menagerie. And a lot of snacks. With sprinkles even.

I was endeared to the pencil drawings of K.G. Campbell that "illuminate" Flora and Ulysses. They have a soft and kind quality that mirror the way the characters in the story slowly begin to interact with one another. Sometimes scenes are enacted in comic panels and other times small or full page illustrations accent DiCamillo’s writing.

It wasn't until the very last page that I felt the overall effect. It wasn’t nearly the tearjerker that was The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane or as great an adventure as The Tale of Despereaux but it left me with a happy feeling and a definite tendency to look a little closer at the squirrels.

Make sure to check out the book’s website, The Illuminated Adventures of Flora & Ulysses.

If you are interested in Kate DiCamillo and her other works, visit her website.

Editor’s note: Please use the comment button below to leave any response you may have about the book or the review.

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Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry 
submitted by Rob

"The chance you had is the life you've got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people's lives...but you mustn't wish for another life. You mustn't want to be somebody else.”

Let me begin by saying Hannah Coulter is, in my view, a philosophical work of fiction, and let me also say that Hannah Coulter is perhaps the most accessible work of philosophy that I have ever read. It is by far the most relatable, as it is about life as it is – labor and repose, highs and lows, love and loss, and how the individual can simply live and find beauty in the seemingly mundane and ordinary.

Hannah Coulter was published in 2004 and is one in a series of books penned by famed Kentuckian Wendell Berry, which are all set in and around the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky during the twentieth century. This particular installment in the Port William series focuses on the life of Hannah Coulter, who narrates and provides the reader with the details of her life and thoughts, and it is through this narration that one is given a sense of what it is like to live in a community where “membership” draws people close together and creates a sense of belonging that can be difficult to find in the world today.

For the reader who is currently seeking a book with a fast-paced plot, I would not recommend Hannah Coulter, and even though there is not constant action, the story is engaging in a different way. The rhythm of life in Port William captivates with the interwoven lives of those who tend to its land and quietly face the challenges of life with strength, endurance, and dignity. In modern life filled with glitzy advertising and reality television, expectations of what life should be can be quite different from what life actually is, and Hannah Coulter can serve as a powerful reminder that the most amazing aspects of life are found in everyday living.
"Living without expectations is hard but, when you can do it, good. Living without hope is harder, and that is bad. You have got to have hope, and you mustn't shirk it. Love, after all, 'hopeth all things.' But maybe you must learn, and it is hard learning, not to hope out loud, especially for other people. You must not let your hope turn into expectation."

Editor’s note: Please use the comment button below to leave any response you may have about the book or the review.

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Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien 
submitted by Lynette

Though Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien was written in 1974, you’d never know it without looking at the original publication date. O’Brien really didn’t do anything that dates the book as one from the 1970's. That’s a hard thing to do but easier when your story is set in a country valley – one so big you can’t even see your neighbor’s house when you stand outside.

This is the kind of place where Ann lives. She used to live there with her family. Now it’s just her and no family. So what happened to Ann’s family?

When we meet Ann she’s living alone on the farm, too scared to leave the valley where her home is for fear of what she imagines to be radiation poisoning. She remembers hearing how the families who ran the local stores were getting so sick. Then there was the pond on her property with all those dead fish floating in it.

Her family suspected nuclear war but had no choice but to go into town when their supplies got low on the farm. They asked Ann to stay behind in case anyone came to their house looking for them. Ann waited and waited, but no one ever came home – not one single family member.

A year later is where we first meet her. At this point she’s given up hope they will return. She believes they are dead or had to leave the valley – with no time to return for her. Then, one day, she sees a thin coil of smoke in the distance horizon. Each day she can see it get closer and can tell that whoever is out there is headed her way.

Ann knows she might not be alone for much longer. Is this the best thing she can hope for or the worst? If there might not be any other survivors left, what terrible things might this person have done to stay alive?

Z for Zachariah kept me on my toes. There were several parts that literally made me say something out loud to the book (as if Anne could possibly hear me!). The book opens up a lot of questions which would make it fantastic to read for a book group. This is a definite recommendation for those who read, and loved, Lois Lowry’s The Giver. It is appropriate for middle school age through adult – hey, I’m an adult and I ate it up!

Editor’s note: Please use the comment button below to leave any response you may have about the book or the review.

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