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BCC recommendations: Synopses of top 5 fiction titles

Over the past few weeks, dozens of BCC book clubs have sent in reading recommendations in the genres of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and drama.

Over the past few weeks, dozens of BCC book clubs have sent in reading recommendations in the genres of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and drama.

Here are synopses — culled from publishers’ descriptions, awards citations and the like —  of the most-recommended fiction titles.

1.  “The Help,” Kathryn Stockett (2009, Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam)

Set in 1962 in Jackson, Miss., Stockett’s novel chronicles the clandestine, collective writing project of three women: Skeeter Phelan, a recent Ole Miss grad disturbed by the unexplained disappearance of the family’s black maid, Constantine; Aibileen, a black maid raising her 17th white child; and Minny, a black cook/housekeeper who speaks her mind and often finds herself unemployed because of it.  

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Against the backdrop of the nascent civil-rights movement, the women’s book serves as an exposé of the lives of Mississippi families and their domestic help, revealing the injustices and hypocrisy of a society that relies on black women to raise their children but mistrusts them in every other regard.

Olive Kitteridge

2.  “Olive Kitteridge,” Elizabeth Strout (2008, Random House)

Winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, “Olive Kitteridge” is a novel composed of 13 linked stories set in small-town Maine.

Olive, the title character, is blunt, flawed, and often unlikable. She faces one hardship after another, but always endures. A force of nature, she’s exceptionally realistic, complex and fascinating.

The intimate tales, not all of which focus on Strout’s heroine Olive, cover a period of 30-odd years. As the townspeople lead lives of quiet grief interspersed with brief human connections, Olive comes to better understand herself and her life.

Haunting themes of loneliness and loss are balanced by Strout’s polished prose, gentle humor, and nourishing hope.

3.  “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,” Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows (2008, Dial Press/Random House)

Written in the form of letters, this novel has been described as “a celebration of the written word” that “affirms the power of books” to pull people through the bleakest of times.

As London emerges from the shadow of World War II, writer Juliet Ashton discovers her next subject in a book club on the island of Guernsey.

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Created as an alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying the island, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a group whose  members exchange correspondence with Juliet, sharing their wartime experiences.

4.  “The Elegance of the Hedgehog,” Muriel Barbery (translation by Alison Anderson: 2008, Europa Editions)

Barbery’s international best-seller revolves around life in an exclusive Parisian apartment building inhabited by bourgeois residents with lavish but vacuous existences.

Renée Michel, a 54-year-old concierge who deliberately hides her radiant intelligence and cultured interests from her employers, and Paloma Josse, a precocious 12-year-old who has secretly decided to commit suicide, provide a double narrative. Renée and Paloma find kindred spirits in each other and in the new Japanese tenant, Kakuro Ozu.

Filled with reflections on beauty, art, time, and the meaning of life and death, this satirical novel celebrates life’s tiny triumphs.

5.  Sarah’s Key,” Tatiana de Rosnay (2007, St. Martin’s Press)

De Rosnay’s historical novel follows the investigation of Julia Jarmond — an American journalist living in Paris in 2002 — into the July 1942 Paris roundups and deportations, in which thousands of Jewish families were arrested, held at the Vélodrome d’Hiver outside the city, and later transported to Auschwitz.

Through her dark and compelling portrait of occupied Paris, de Rosnay exposes a little-known, deliberately-hidden episode in French history.

Tomorrow: BCC members share their nonfiction recommendations.

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To share your book club reads — good or bad — email aotto[at]minnpost[dot]com.