Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

The morning book group will discuss A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick on Friday, April 1 at 10:30 a.m. All Berkeley Heights residents are welcome to join the library book groups. We'll even borrow a copy of the book for you.

In 1907, a wealthy but lonely businessman puts the following advertisement in newspapers in different cities in the United States:
Country businessman seeks reliable wife. Compelled by practical, not romantic reasons. Reply by letter. Ralph Truitt. Truitt, Wisconsin. Discreet.
The woman who Ralph selects, Catherine Land, is not who she appears to be. But once you think you know about her past and her reasons for replying to the letter, the plot twists again and again. Discussion questions and an interview with the author are available at ReadingGroupGuides.com, not to mention a blog post by Goolrick that's up there too. The interview mentions how Goolrick was inspired by the Greek myth of Phaedra, Theseus and Hypollitus.

One question that made me think is: "How does A Reliable Wife play with the conventions of Gothic novels?" The book group read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier last year, so I know the desolate setting of an isolated mansion is one thing the two have in common. What character from A Reliable Wife is most like Rebecca? Is Ralph Truitt anything like Maxim de Winter?

The Daily Beast's Sara Nelson has a great interview with Robert Goolrick here.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Night of the Witches, folklore, traditions & recipes for celebrating Walpurgis Night

Book Review: Night of the Witches, folklore, traditions & recipes for celebrating Walpurgis Night by Linda Raedisch. Woodbury, MN: Llewllyn 2011

In Germany and other Northern European countries, Walpurgis Night is celebrated on the evening of April 30th with bonfires, mischief, noisemaking, dancing and of course, drinking. In Night of the Witches, author Linda Raedisch explains that this traditional witches’ meeting on the highest mountain in Northern Germany is comparable to the American Halloween, although it shares May 1st eve with the Celtic celebration of Beltane. In a charming storytelling voice, Raedisch takes readers through the history of this ancient festival, weaving art, music, literature, linguistics and stories from around the world into her narrative. In keeping with her vast knowledge of folklore, the author connects the dots from the Walpurgis Night scenes in Goethe’s Faust, to references in Grimm’s fairy tales, Fraser’s Golden Bough and Mendelssohn’s music. But this is no dry academic tome. Night of the Witches presents the history and ancient lore of Walpurgisnacht with sly humor and provides recipes and crafts for readers who would like to celebrate the beginning of spring in their own households.

With the current interest in witches reflected in the bestseller list by Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches, perhaps the vampire craze of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series is giving way to another form of supernatural beings. If you want to know how these beliefs began and persisted through the ages, Night of the Witches will entertain and enlighten you. Do you know why loud noises are commonly favored at many celebrations? “Noisemaking remains a time-honored method of driving out evil at important turning points of the year, such as New Year’s Eve…” (6) Raedisch tells us.

What’s up with bonfires? “Our ancestors understood, perhaps better than we do today, that there is no such thing as a free lunch. If they wanted their crops and livestock to flourish, they had to offer something in return to the source of the abundance.” (7) The bonfires were used for live sacrifices, later straw substitutes. In chapter 5, A Field Guide to Witches, Raedisch describes thirteen kinds of witches, from hags to Valkyries to weathermakers, ending the chapter with a recipe for Poor Hags (similar to French toast), an origami kitchen witch, and a paper crone’s mask – one of which hangs in our library staff room. Full disclosure: why does the library have a crone’s mask? No, we are not a coven of witches, at least I don’t think we are. Author Linda Raedisch is a colleague at the library where I work, a friend, and the only person I know who has not only an encyclopedic knowledge of folklore, a knack for languages, a talent for arts, crafts and cooking, all wrapped up in a wry sense of humor.

This book is recommended for anyone interested in folklore, fairytales, German traditions, cultural studies, and of course, witches. Teenagers who enjoy fantasy books like Harry Potter and the Twilight series should read this non-fiction exploration of the subject. College students of linguistics and anthropology would also find this title fascinating.

Night of the Witches author Linda Raedisch will visit the Berkeley Heights Public Library Blog on Friday, April 1st for a question and answer session.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

N.J. Author Linda Raedisch to Visit Library Blog

It’s no April fool’s joke! Local author Linda Raedish will visit our blog on Friday, April 1st for a question and answer session. Ms. Raedish will also visit the library in person on Saturday, April 2 between 2:00 and 3:00 p.m. to teach us how to make an origami kitchen witch and to share recipes and food from her book, Night of the Witches: Folklore, Traditions & Recipes for Celebrating Walpurgis Night (Llewellyn Press, 2011.) Check back with us this week as we prepare for her visit on Friday April 1. Please email any questions you have for the author to reference[at]bhplnj[dot]org or write them in the comment section of this blog post.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Eat Your Newberies!

When I was a kid, my local library had a poster that listed all of the Newbery Medal winners. If they had it, I read it (except Jacob Have I Loved, because that sounded like it might have kissing). Some of my favorite books were The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. The library didn't have the enticingly titled The Door in the Wall (which I thought was fantasy, not medieval historical fiction) but I never thought to ask for it. I'm really glad they had the poster. In a time before Internet, I'm not sure how I would have otherwise found so many good books.

I recently looked up the list of Newbery winners to see what's won since I've grown up. I somehow had already read Holes by Louis Sachar, which is an imaginative, funny, modern fable and instant classic, and The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo ("the adventures of Desperaux Tilling, a small mouse of unusual talents, the princess that he loves, the servant girl who longs to be a princess, and a devious rat determined to bring them all to ruin") and loved both of those.

I started with The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, which mainly I had heard of because it was banned from some libraries. Lucky is eavesdropping on the Alcoholics Anonymous, one of whom found his "higher power" after a snake bit his dog on the scrotum and the dog lived. Lucky doesn't understand the word, and only at the end of the book does she ask what it is. It does seem like the author was hoping for some controversy, since where the dog got bit is incidental, but this article says it's the sound of the word that interested her and shows that she's growing up. I liked it, but it just wasn't exciting like my favorite Newberies. I'm thinking of trying Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi next.

Are there any other adult readers of children's lit out there? Isn't it satisfying how you can finish a book in just a few days?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Mutant Message Down Under: Hoax or Truth?

Mutant Message Down Under is the story of a white American woman who claims to have gone on a three or four month walkabout in Australia with a group of Aborigines called the Real People, during which time she learns their ways and is mystically transformed into a better person. The book started life as a sales brochure that Morgan wrote when she was selling Ti-tree oil products, then became a self-published non-fiction memoir and finally was picked up by a major publishing house which corrected some factual errors and typos and marketed it, mystically transformed, as fiction. The book became a huge success in the new age market and Morgan made lots of money from the book and from lecture tours, but after a while there arose a controversy about the authenticity of the story. A group of Aborigines travelled to the United States to confront the author and to ask her to admit, not only that the work was completely fabricated, but also highly insulting to Australia's native people. Morgan did apologize, but later retracted her apology and wrote a sequel of sorts.
Many people recommended this book to me over the years so when I started reading it several things surprised me immediately. The book is very badly written. The story is completely, transparently incredible in the true sense of the word. The author's attitude towards Aborigines is very condescending, but wrapped in a kind of 18th century "noble savage" guise. It really is awful dreck, but yet, may people I know loved it.
You can easily find websites that both praise and debunk the book. In addition to reading what is available by "Googling", I searched on EBSCO and found a scholarly article from an Australian academic journal that gives the facts of the case*.
Here are a few passages from the book that made me question the whole premise of Marlo Morgan's adventure in Australia:
In her forward, "I have saved you a trip the public library by including important historical information....What I can't save you from is the Mutant message!" (xiii) In fact, the book has no information about Australia that could not be gleaned from a Qantas ad and for Morgan to equate what she provides as sufficient research is rather condescending towards the reader, I thought.
In the beginning, the author meets a fortune teller who intones "the reason you have come to this place... is destiny." (33-34) Morgan has a very inflated view of herself as the appointed person to carry a message from the Aborigines to the rest of the world, but arrogance is one thing, belief in the fortune teller that no one else sees in the tea room, is just silly and, perhaps worse, a terrible literary cliche.
She describes the country and people with tourist brochure superficiality and then adds, "There was only one thing about the country I did not enjoy. It appeared to me the original people of the land, the dark-skinned natives called Aborigines, were still experiencing discrimination." (35) This would have been in the mid 1980's perhaps, so conditions and legal protections for Aborigines were worse then than now, but it just sounds naive and condescending to say she did not "enjoy" the discrimination as though the rest of the world does enjoy it or does not notice it. Let's just say that sentence would have been red-pencilled as "awkward" by any English teacher. She claimed earlier in the book that she always read everything about Australia since she was a child, (25) although in interviews and elsewhere in the book, she says she knew nothing about Australia before going there. OK, which is it? Similarly, as she sets out totally unprepared for a very long cross-continental hike, she claims to be both a "bubble bath" person and an outdoorsy person. Her caginess about her health care credentials made me very suspicious, and her obsession with the callouses developing on the soles of her feet, which she describes as "hooves" on the Aborigines (seriously!) and then her description of the natural oils the Aborigine women used to treat it, seems to fit into what I have later pieced together about the author, which is that she might (or might not, she never says) be a chiropodist and she sold Ti-tree oil for its healing properties. Why was she not more forthcoming and specific about the exact nature of her "health care" background? Vagueness in the service of self-aggrandizement is rather suspicious. If you read Cath Ellis' article, you might, probably correctly, conclude that the whole book began as an ad for a foot callous treatment Morgan was selling. It's impressive that snake-oil salesmanship was still alive in the latter part of the 20th century.
The bottom-line here is that if you like new age books with messages about how technologically advanced cultures are ruining the earth and can learn a lot from cultures that are not as technology-dependent, regardless of how badly this message is delivered, you might like this book.If you liked Paul Coelho's the Alchemist and James Redfield's the Celestine Prophecy, you might like this book too.
If, like me, you would agree that technology is not a totally benign force and that we Westerners should not be ethnocentric about our culture, but you don't like to be lectured at in bad prose, and with simple-minded platitudes and downright fabrications of events, you will not like this book. If you tend to be highly empirical and rational and skeptical in your approach to claims that seem unbelievable, you will not like this book.

Reading this did make me think about frauds and hoaxes not only in the world of memoir publishing, but also in the field of anthropology which would make an interesting piece for the blog. Do any of you remember Carlos Castaneda's The Teachings of Don Juan (1968)?

*Helping Yourself: Marlo Morgan and the Fabrication of Indigenous Wisdom.

Authors: Ellis, Cath
Source: Australian Literary Studies (University of Queensland, School of English, Media Studies & Art History); 2004, Vol. 21 Issue 4, p150-164, 16p

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

I Forgot My Library Card

This afternoon at the Circulation Desk a gaggle of middle-school boys walked up with a friend who had forgotten to bring his library card - to the library. The library card barcode is required to log onto the public internet terminals; after school hordes of students race to log on to play computer games, er do their homework, I mean.
Middle-school boy: "Can you give me my number? I forgot my card."
Me: "Didn't you memorize your number? Or write it down on a notebook?"
MSB:  shakes head negatively.
Me: "Do you have a cell phone? You could program the number into your cell phone. I bet you never forget your cell phone." (That may be true, but losing a phone is quite common as our lost and found box will attest to. Can a box attest?)
MSB: "OK."
So I ask the boy's name, look him up in our system, quiz him ruthlessly on his home address to prove that this is serious business, and hand him his number on a slip of paper. He and his friends leave.
Before I can escape from the Circ Desk, another MSB comes up and asks for his barcode.
Me: "Weren't you just here with your friend?"
MSB: nod.
Me: sigh.
Lather, rinse, repeat.

Monday, March 21, 2011

4 Books in 4 Days

I took a day off last week with plans to start my garden seeds indoors on the windowsill, but instead I got some kind of virus which ko'd me for 5 days. I read every book I had checked out of the library plus a paperback from my emergency paperback pile:
Herewith, very brief summaries of books for waiting out a stomach virus, with links to longer reviews:
The Postmistress, a novel by Sarah Blake. The hype on this book, it was being compared to The Help and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society which I liked, made me eager to read it. This story of a radio war correspondent during the London Blitz intertwined with the story of a small town on Cape Cod before the U.S. joined the war passed the time pleasantly. I would not rate it as highly as The Help and Guernsey, but it would make a pretty good book club pick because of its "discussable" qualities. Read the NYT's somewhat negative and snarky review here http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/09/books/09book.html

Sherlock Holmes and the Shakespeare Letter by Barry Grant. The premise here is that Holmes had been frozen since his early 20th century demise and then defrosted and reconstituted in present day. Holmes's new Watson is journalist Wilson and Inspector LeStrade's grandson is his contact at Scotland Yard. I recommend this for all Sherlock fans and liked it much more than this reviewer from the Cleveland Plain Dealer did.

Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt. I had started this book before I got sick and set it aside, but being desparate, as only the thought of endless daytime television can make you, I picked it up again. The premise, or conceit, here is that what Winston Churchill referred to as the 'black dog' of depression that plagued him all his life, is in fact a real dog. So real that he answers an ad that a House of Commons librarian puts in the paper to rent out her spare room. "Black Pat" the dog takes the room and so the lives of the librarian and Winston Churchill who lives nearby are interwoven. I found the idea of depression as a big, drooly, clumsy, insistently intrusive dog disturbing but effective. I'm glad I finished this short, first novel and it piqued my interest in reading more about Churchill. Don't wait to get sick to read this one. I liked this review from the Telegraph, partly because it uses the word "twee" which is not alowed on this side of the pond.
That brought me to the bottom of my library pile, so I turned to my emergency back-up pile of paperbacks and found The Ghost by Robert Harris. "Ghost" refers to a professional ghostwriter who is chosen to write the memoirs of a recent British Prime Minister who is retired and living on Martha's Vinyard while lecturing all over the U.S. where he is much more popular for his support of the previous U.S. president and the Iraq war than he is at home. I assume the P.M. is mostly Tony Blair, but have not read the reviews yet. This book was one of those un-put-downable bestsellers, perfect for airplanes, beaches and, yes, being sick in bed. Here is a brief NPR interview with the author. For some reason while reading the Ghost, knowing the P.M. was Tony Blair, I kept picturing Gordon Brown, because the physical description seemed to fit him better. In either case, is it just me, or do British politicians seem smarter to Americans than to their compatriots if only because of their accents and their sense of humor?

So then, I was getting tired of reading and finding it hard to choose what to read next from my sludge pile, so I read one chapter of Moby Dick and skimmed Mutant Message Down Under, but I'll save that for another day along with a list of library DVD's that are good for sick, or well, people.

image of  B.R.A.T. diet foods from N.I.H.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Just Another Saturday at the Library

A lady who we helped sign up for a free Yahoo email account at the library a week ago has heard back from her friend in Japan. The friend lives in Tokyo and is OK but they have been losing electrical power.

Genealogist Tony Lauriano is regaling the audience in the meeting room with stories of how he found the maiden names of the women he descended from using various records. Church records brought to his attention a family member he had never known about because she died young, born and died between Censuses.

Mrs. Fuhro the children's librarian is talking about Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater with the children's book group. They are making penguins and icebergs out of clay and she is telling them, "Mr. Popper had a subscription to National Geographic and that's how it all started . . . "

Someone who saw last month's book display on solar energy wanted to know where all the solar energy books had gone (back on the shelves at 331 and 697). Miss Pettigrew's Last Stand and the dog mystery Play Dead were sought by others but they're out right now.

A lady and the circ staff wondered about someone who asked the patron why she had a library card. This question could be renamed, "Why aren't QVC and books purchased at Costco enough for you?"

Funny Book Titles

I thought I blogged about this years ago, but maybe I just tweeted it! Enjoy these real books (most of them owned by BHPL) whose titles made me smile.

No, I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club! by Virginia Ironside
You’re Smarter Than You Look by Judge Judy Sheindlin
Among Other Things, I’ve Taken Up Smoking by Aoibheann Sweeney
Elvis is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself by Lewis Grizzard
You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop by John Scalzi
Disregard First Book by Terry Martin Hekker
Trespassers Will Be Baptized by Elizabeth Emerson Hancock

Have you run across any books with a funny title?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh (Happy St. Patrick's!)

What better day than today to start learning the Irish language? The library offers an online Irish Gaelic course, along with dozens of other languages, through Mango Languages.

Mango Languages Basic Irish Course

A conversation in Irish from the Mango Languages course

You can also check out the great Irish writers at BHPL. As well as plenty of books by Irish authors, BHPL has poems by W.B. Yeats to listen to on CD, and the Modern Scholar audio course The Giants of Irish Literature : Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett. Watch the DVD Beckett on Film: 19 Films x 19 Directors for the "comprehensive cinematic interpretation of [Samuel] Beckett's plays". If you want to finally tackle James Joyce's Ulysses, you could try listening to the audiobook, a whopping 40 CDs - Joyce must have kissed the Blarney stone!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Local Public Medical Library

Today one of the medical librarians from the Overlook Hospital library in Summit stopped by to tell us about CLIP, which is an Atlantic Health program that provides free medical information to the public.

[Picture my head spinning around on my shoulders here.]

Do you know how rare it is for hospital libraries to be open to the public?! This is amazing, folks. You can "get answers to your health questions" from a medical librarian (I'm quoting the poster the librarian gave me). You can go in and look at their books and search their databases and journals. You can even call, fax or submit your request online if you can't get to Overlook or Morristown Memorial Hospital in person.

And, as always, you are welcome to consult these ever-popular reference books at BHPL: The Official ABMS Directory of Board Certified Medical Specialists, Physician's Desk Reference, Current Medical Diagnosis & Treatment and Current Surgical Diagnosis & Treatment, among others, and the database Health Source.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Bastard of Istanbul

The Bastard of Istanbul, a novel by Elif Shafak (Viking 2007)

“My family is a bunch of clean freaks. Brushing away the dirt and dust of the memories! They always talk about the past, but it is a cleansed version of the past,” (147) complains Asya Kazanci, the nineteen year old rebellious daughter and youngest member of her extended family of women that lives together in Istanbul. The three generations of Turkish women are at the center or The Bastard of Istanbul, a novel by Elif Shafak. Asya is the bastard of the title, daughter of Zeliha who owns a tattoo parlor, and niece to three eccentric aunts. Across the world in San Francisco, in an extended Armenian-American family, an aunt declares, referring to a relative who is dating a Turk, “In an ideal world, you could say, well, that’s her life, none of our business. If you have no appreciation of history and ancestry, no memory and responsibility, and if you live solely in the present, you certainly can claim that.” (55) The Bastard of Istanbul is about the Turkish denial of the Armenian holocaust, but it is also about the role of memory and denial within families, cultures and countries. If the Turks are as guilty of “brushing away the dirt and dust of memories” as Asya claims her family is, then the book seems to suggest that Armenians cannot escape their memories and how can the two cultures ever reconcile, acknowledge or forgive their shared history?

When the library book group discussed the book on Tuesday night, everyone said they enjoyed reading the book which, despite its serious themes, can be quite funny at times. Shafak, a Turkish author, was famously accused under Turkish law of being un-Turkish because of her writing, as has Turkish author and Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. Shafak’s book reveals Istanbul as a beautiful, progressive city and the Turks as a unique mixture of East and West, European and Middle-Eastern, traditional and modern. The book presents no resolution to the problem of Armenian and Turkish animosities past and present, but the book makes a beautiful attempt at addressing the issues and introducing readers to Istanbul and Turkish culture.

Agatha Raisin and the Day the Floods Came by M.C. Beaton

After spending 2 months listening to one audiobook, I needed something light and short to listen to in the car. Hamish MacBeth mysteries have a cult following among some of the staff at BHPL, but I had read them all, so I thought I'd try M.C. Beaton's other series - the Agatha Raisin books.

Agatha is a retired public relations executive living in the Cotswolds of England. She's very prickly and gruff, and at times downright rude, and I like the novelty of a cozy/domestic mystery sleuth who isn't amiable. I didn't really care about "whodunit" in Agatha Raisin and the Day the Floods Came, the 12th in the series - like the Hamish MacBeth mysteries, the victims are easy to dislike and the plot is swimming with red herrings.
What really appealed to me was the idea of retiring to the Cotswolds, having chats with Mrs. Bloxby, the vicar's wife - everyone in the Ladies' Society calls each other Mrs. - and consulting with a baron and a bestselling novelist on the latest developments of a case. Anne tells me that the early Agatha Raisin novels are the best, so I'm going to start at the beginning next time with Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death. If you enjoy listening to audiobooks on an iPod or your computer, ListenNJ.com has most of the Agatha books and even the Agatha Raisin BBC radio dramas.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Middling Folk by Linda Matthews

In Middling Folk: Three Seas, Three Centuries, One Scots-Irish Family, Linda Matthews traces the story of her family, the Hammills, from Washington state all the way back to 17th century Scotland.

Booklist called it "simply splendid".

LibraryThing thought that I would love it.

And I'm here to say . . . . meh. It was OK.

If you're a Hammill, or have ancestors who were Scots-Irish, or who lived in colonial Maryland/ Civil War Virginia/ pioneer-era Washington, it will be fascinating. If you don't, then it's like being cornered at a party by someone who wants to tell you their family history in excruciating detail.

Having been involuntarily told many people's genealogies before, I was aware of the risk, but I wanted to learn more about genealogy. By that I mean the kind of searching through archives that Matthews did, not the plug-your-grandmother's-name-into-Ancestry kind that I resort to. I found out mostly that to get past the 20th century, you need property-owning ancestors from counties whose records have been preserved, or literate ones who wrote to people whose families kept the letters in archives. You need wills, deeds, claims, property tax records.

I'm not done with my genealogy-book quest yet. I'm thinking about reading Shaking the Family Tree: Blue Bloods, Black Sheep, and Other Obsessions of an Accidental Genealogist by Buzzy Jackson, just for the entertainment value - one of the chapters is called "Hitting the Road to Alabama with Cousin Mooner" - or Faces of America: How 12 Extraordinary People Discovered Their Pasts by Henry Gates (which talks about DNA testing - maybe you don't have to be related to the upright citizens of the world to learn your history!).

And anyway, LibraryThing says that I will like them.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall fictionalizes the life of Thomas Cromwell, a chancellor of Henry VIII who helped engineer his marriage to Anne Boleyn and modernized English government. It won the Booker Prize in 2009. In Wolf Hall, Thomas runs away from home as a teenager after his alcoholic blacksmith of a father tries to kill him, and learns resourcefulness as a mercenary soldier in Europe. He becomes a trader in Antwerp and eventually returns to England as a lawyer. In case you're wondering if Oliver Cromwell makes an appearance in this book: no. He's Thomas' great nephew.

You may remember Cromwell as the villain from the play A Man For All Seasons by Robert Bolt. Cromwell is a more complex character in Wolf Hall, trying to persuade More to sign the oath which recognized Henry as the head of the Church in England, to save his life. But eventually Sir Thomas More is given the same death sentence as More ordered years earlier for Protestant heretics. For his part, Cromwell has memorized the Bible in English and is friends with the Bible printers and smugglers, despite being loyal to his politically unpopular employer Cardinal Wolsey, even after Wolsey's death.

I did enjoy the book, but wish I hadn't listened to the audiobook. There's just something about driving home in the gloominess of January and February nights (that's how long it took me to finish) listening to a tale set in times when life was nasty, brutish and short. A multitude of flashbacks and characters with the same name is a challenge when you can't flip through an actual book!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

The Friday morning book group is discussing Patricia Highsmith's classic 1955 novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, this Friday, March 4 at 10:30 a.m. Tom Ripley is a ne'er-do-well who runs into an acquaintance's father at a bar in New York. Mr. Greenleaf sends Tom to Europe talk his son Dickie, a painter in a small Italian village on the coast, into returning to the United States.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Ripley is an essay by James Campbell that appeared in the New York Times Book Review for the occasion of what would be Tom Ripley's 80th birthday. Spoiler warning: don't read it if you plan to read the next four Tom Ripley novels! Patricia Highsmith died in 1995 and was a non-conformist to the end; you can read about her life on Wikipedia.

Discussion Questions (These have plot spoilers)

Do you think Tom was born a sociopath, or did he become one because of the way he grew up?

The Talented Mr. Ripley was Patricia Highsmith's favorite novel and she sometimes signed letters as "Tom". Could you identify with Tom? Did you like or dislike him or both? Why?

Why did Tom kill Dickie? Was he infatuated with Dickie, or frustrated by him?

When Tom is in Paris, he felt that "This was the clean slate he had thought about on the boat coming over from America. This was the real annihilation of his past and of himself, Tom Ripley, and his rebirth as a completely new person" (page 127 in the paperback). Why isn't Tom comfortable being himself?

Have you read Henry James' The Ambassadors, the novel Tom tries to borrow in the ship's library? How did it inspire the premise of The Talented Mr. Ripley?

If you saw the movie version, how is it different from the book? Which did you prefer? You can read the movie's plot here.