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Dreamers of the Day: A Novel Paperback – December 16, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Russell's enjoyable latest historical is told in the exuberant, posthumous voice (yes, it's narrated from the afterlife) of Agnes Shanklin, a 38-year-old schoolteacher from Cedar Glen, a town near Cleveland, Ohio. After the influenza epidemic of 1919 strikes down Agnes's family, a childless and unmarried Agnes settles the family estate, acquires financial independence and adopts an affable dachshund named Rosie. Accompanied by Rosie, Agnes travels to Cairo during the Cairo Peace Conference, where she befriends Winston Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia among other historical heavy hitters. She also falls in love with the charismatic Karl Weilbacher, a German spy whose interest in Agnes may have less to do with romance than Agnes will allow herself to believe. Agnes's travelogues, while marvelously detailed, distract from the increasingly tense romantic play between Agnes and Karl. When a more worldly-wise Agnes returns home, her life—first as an investor wrecked by the Depression and then a librarian until her death in 1957—remains low-keyed. Though the bizarre, whimsical ending doesn't quite gel, Russell (The Sparrow; A Thread of Grace) has created an instantly likable heroine whose unlikely adventures will keep readers hooked to the end. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

On the heels of a family tragedy precipitated by the influenza epidemic of 1919, middle-aged spinster schoolteacher Agnes Shanklin inherits enough money to embark on the journey of a lifetime. Traveling to Egypt, she settles in at the Semiramis Hotel, where she meets and becomes involved with a number of members of the Cairo Peace Conference, including T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), Winston Churchill, and Lady Gertrude Bell. As these luminaries begin to carve up the Middle East, the unassuming Agnes wins the confidence of the conference attendees and attracts the attention of a dashing German spy. Narrated by Agnes from beyond the grave—a twist that is not revealed until the end of the book—this atmospheric entrée into a bygone time and place provides a first-person peek into the international political machinations that forged the contemporary Arab world. A natural for book-club discussions. --Margaret Flanagan --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books; Reprint edition (December 16, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345485556
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345485557
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (138 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #129,224 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Mary Doria Russell has been called one of the most versatile writers in contemporary American literature. Her novels are critically acclaimed, commercial successes. They are also studied in literature, theology and history courses in colleges and universities across the United States. Mary's guest lectures have proved popular from New Zealand to Germany as well as in the U.S. and Canada.

Her debut novel, THE SPARROW, is considered a classic of speculative fiction, combining elements of First Contact science fiction and a tense courtroom drama. Its sequel, CHILDREN OF GOD, is a sweeping three-generation family saga. Through the voices of unforgettable characters, these novels raise respectful but challenging fundamental questions about religion and faith. Together, the books have won eight regional, national and international awards. They have also been optioned for Hollywood movies starring Antonio Banderas and Brad Pitt, and they have inspired both a rock opera and a full-scale bel canto opera.

Next, Russell turned to 20th century history. A THREAD OF GRACE is the story of the Jewish underground near Genoa during the Nazi occupation of Italy. Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, this thriller "moves swiftly, with impressive authority, jostling dialog, vibrant personalities and meticulous, unexpected historical detail. The intensity and intimacy of Russell's storytelling, her sharp character writing and fierce sense of humor bring fresh immediacy to this riveting WWII saga," according to Publisher's Weekly.

Her fourth novel, DREAMERS OF THE DAY, is both a romance and a disturbingly relevant political novel about the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference, when Winston Churchill, T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell invented the modern Middle East. The Washington Post Book World called it "marvelous and rewarding... a stirring story of personal awakening set against the background of a crucial moment in modern history." Nominated for the 2008 IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize, Dreamers of the Day is also being adapted for the stage by Going to Tahiti Productions in New York City.

As a novelist, Mary is known for her exacting research -- no surprise, when you know that she holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology from the University of Michigan. Before leaving Academe to write, Mary taught human gross anatomy at the Case Western Reserve University School of Dentistry. That background came in handy for her fifth novel, DOC, a murder mystery set in Dodge City in 1878, when the unlikely but enduring friendship between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday began, four years before the famous shoot-out at the O.K. Corral.

"It's about vice, bigotry, violence, and living with a terminal disease," Russell says. "And Doc Holliday is going to break your heart." DOC was nominated for the Pulitzer in 2011, named a Notable Book by the Kansas State Library and won the Great Lakes Great Reads prize. The story has been optioned by Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman for an HBO series.

Mary is currently at work on the story of the Tombstone gunfight (working title: THE CURE FOR ANGER). "DOC is The Odyssey," she says. "What happened in Tombstone forms the basis of an American Iliad." Expect it in late 2014 from HarperCollins Ecco imprint.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

85 of 87 people found the following review helpful By Patrick Shepherd VINE VOICE on March 11, 2008
Format: Hardcover
In her prior books, Russell has clearly shown that she knows how to delineate very real characters. With this book of historical fiction, centered around the events of 1918-1921, this attribute shows just as clearly, with a fine portrait of Agnes Shanklin, her protagonist, but perhaps even more significantly, her pictures of historical luminaries such as T. E. Lawrence and Winston Churchill.

Agnes has quite an inferiority complex engendered by her mother's constant criticism, a lack of self confidence about her looks and her abilities. The first section of this book details her upbringing and shows just who she is, a living, breathing person. Almost as a sidelight to this exemplary characterization, this section informs the reader of effects of the Great Influenza pandemic of 1918-9 and is a great depiction of the mores, customs, and daily life of that time, making some great commentary on just why that way of life disappeared so suddenly, to be replaced by the `roaring twenties'. But this first section of the book is merely an introduction, for when the flu kills off everyone else in her family, leaving Agnes the sole inheritor of various estates, she decides to take a trip to Egypt and the Holy Land, inspired by her late sister's forays in this area of the world.

The second section is the heart of this novel, as Agnes arrives in Egypt and through some fortuitous circumstances becomes a distant part of the group of people present at time in Cairo, from Churchill and Lawrence to Lady Gertrude Bell, who would eventually determine the political landscape of the middle east for many years to come, and the effects of which are still being felt today.
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38 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Mary Lins TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 18, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Mary Doria Russell's wonderful new novel "Dreamers of the Day" serves to remind us that much of what we rail against today such as lying politicians, "spin", jingoism, sloganism, manipulative advertising, fear of a flu pandemic and xenophobia, aren't new phenomenon at all. Yet we repeat the same mistakes. Ultimately this is an eloquent novel about our human addiction to war.

Speaking from somewhere beyond the grave, our protagonist, Agnes Shanklin, a very plain spinster schoolmarm from Ohio, takes us through WWI, the Spanish Flu pandemic and finally to Egypt on the brink of the Cairo Conference where, somewhat arbitrarily, the Middle East was divvied up and which set into motion the history that we are now experiencing. Of course we have perfect hind-sight, but that makes Agnes' observations all the more interesting. And then there is romance...just the right amount for this sweeping story and completely within context and character of our delightful narrator.

I've been a Russell fan since a friend urged me to read a novel she said was about "Jesuit priests who go to a distant planet"...and I thought to myself "is she KIDDING?" I agreed to give "The Sparrow" a try and then couldn't put it down and raced out to get the sequel before I was half-way done. Her novels get better and better, and though I tried to make this one last by slowing down...I couldn't. Now I'm sad because I have to wait for the next one which can't come soon enough for me.
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66 of 77 people found the following review helpful By zsuzsanna22 on May 23, 2008
Format: Hardcover
It saddens me to give this book such a poor rating as Mary Doria Russell is one of my favorite writers. When I was only 100 pages into The Sparrow, I was hooked on this author. The sequel was even better, and then comes A Thread of Grace, a very different kind of story, but beautifully written, and very moving, with characters we come to care about. Like many fans, I waited with great anticipation for Dreamers of the Day, and purchased it as soon as it was available. But, alas, while informative, I found it disappointing and a very dull read.

It seems as if Russell couldn't decide if she should be writing a non-fiction history of the era and events that transpired, or a novel. In the end, this book fails on both accounts and just seems contrived. Agnes Shanklin, the main character, is "described" to us through her narration about herself and her life, but we never feel we really know Agnes. In fact, we don't really get to know anyone, nor invest any feeling in any of the characters. Each and every one of them, from the the nobodies, to the history makers, come off as nothing more than summaries of themselves and their world.

This is a very short book, and an easy read, but it drags, so seems much longer. Russell could have made this such a better book. Had it been 2, or even 3, times longer, with fleshed out characters and more fictional imaginings woven into the history, this could have been a truly great book. Clavell, McCullough, Rutherford, George, Penman, Follett and many, many more - all have written much more gripping and engaging stories that kept the reader involved, even riveted, against a background of very real historical facts.

Though this is Russell's 4th book, I consider it a first attempt in the historical fiction genre . I am very surprised by all the great reviews this book has garnered. I just hope Russell doesn't believe them all and gives us something more worthy next time.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By JGrace VINE VOICE on June 30, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell

3 stars
Ms Russell clearly set out to accomplish many things with this book. She had a history lesson to teach and some philosophical and political opinions to put across. It's not surprising that she would select an elementary teacher as her narrator and protagonist. (We do tend to be pedantic.) Agnes is a 40 year-old spinster fifth grade teacher at the time of the 1918 flu epidemic. The epidemic wipes out her entire family and leaves her with enough money to quit her job and seek personal liberation in Egypt and Palestine. Up to this point the book is probable historical fiction. The description of the great flu epidemic gives a clear picture of the devastation.
Once she arrives in Egypt, the story veers into the range of historical fantasy. How likely is it that a fifth grade teacher from Ohio would not only meet but socialize with T.E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell and Winston Churchill? However, given that the author's goal is to insure that we are all smarter than a 5th grader regarding the history of our current mess in the middle east, the story is at least an entertaining lesson. I think Doria Russell chose the perfect narrator for her book. She wanted to teach and preach. Who better than a school teacher to tell the story?
This story did not measure up to Ms Russell's previous books, but taken on its own, it was an enjoyable read.

Oh, did I mention that the school teacher had a dog? A dachshund, called Rosie. I really enjoyed the dog.
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