Book group tips, reading lists, & lively talk of literary news from the experts at Booklist Online
Sunday, September 29, 2013 2:15 pm
Middle Age Crisis
Posted by: Neil Hollands
What if we had the capability to travel back in time to see what life was trulylike in distant eras? Pretty exciting, huh? Wouldn’t it be great to be a witness to history?
Well, maybe not.
Connie Willis’s classic The Doomsday Book was published in 1992. It’s a work of science fiction, but is written in a style that should appeal to historical fiction readers, literary fiction readers, or anyone who just loves immersing themselves in a great book. In the world Willis creates, travel back in time is possible, not to change history, but just to witness events. As the book opens just before Christmas, an Oxford student named Kivrin is sent back to the Middle Ages. While a little bit of “slippage” is always possible, the target for her trip is in the 1320s. She’s going to observe the locals, then return to the rendezvous point a few weeks later where she’ll be returned to the present.
Kivrin’s adventure quickly goes awry. In the present day timeline, we see through the eyes of Dunworthy, Kivrin’s mentor who has objected to the trip’s high level of danger since its conception. The historians planning her trip aren’t entirely competent in his eyes and there is too much risk in a trip to an era where women were often the victims of violence, where superstition and accusations of witchcraft ran rampant, and where disease and accidents were common. He’s overruled, but his worries become very real when the technician who sent Kivrin back comes down with a mysterious illness before he can confirm the success of the drop.
Meanwhile, in the past, Kivrin’s immediately in trouble. She’s ill (which wasn’t supposed to be possible given the antivirals she received before the trip) and immediately loses the location of the rendezvous point when she is rescued by a somewhat mysterious middle ages family.
I don’t want to give away too much, but the problems escalate as plagues wreak havoc in both the past and alternate present timelines. Willis draws wonderful, sympathetic characters and includes a fair dose of comedy of manners as Dunworthy tries to cope with a missing department head, an undergraduate Lothario and his overbearing mother, a touring group of American bell ringers, and the unexpected visit of Colin, a fourteen-year old boy stranded by the outbreak.
Willis’s book is at turns funny and deeply poignant. Her history is spot on and very easy to believe. She takes her time with the pace: this isn’t a book for readers who want all plot and instant gratification. It’s for readers who like slow building suspense and deep characterizations. Willis uses the same theory of time travel to good effect in other adventures as well. To Say Nothing of the Dog (1998) is a more comic book that involves a trip back to 1940 to gather details for a restoration of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in German bombing runs. The duology Blackout and All Clear (2010) may be the best books ever written about life during the London Blitz. Seek out Willis for your book group, and get ready for armchair time travel adventures unlike any others.
Thursday, September 26, 2013 9:22 am
Mysteries: One Book or Many?
Posted by: Neil Hollands
The mystery genre has some books that can support a discussion on their own, some that will leave the group without much to say after a too-brief conversation. How do you tell the difference?
For instance, I just read my first of Craig Johnson’s delightful Longmire mysteries. Junkyard Dogs was a fast moving, clever read with great quirky characters led by the cantankerous first-person voice of Sheriff Walt Longmire. I actually listened to the book on audio, and although he’s not always my favorite, narrator George Guidall was perfect for this part, with a great range of voices for the crusty, sassy, or loopy eccentrics with which Johnson peoples small town Durant, Wyoming. I really enjoyed the book and will read more in the series.
But was this a good choice for a single book discussion? Probably not. We could talk about the mystery puzzle, but it isn’t especially complex here and in my experience, discussions about plot only go so far. We could talk about our favorite characters, but that wouldn’t take up much time. We could probably get a little mileage from Johnson’s troubled deputy or his on-again/off-again relationship with Victoria Moretti or even his relationship with animals. A gifted discussion leader might be able to get some talk out of how well Johnson creates the atmosphere of the place or about the first-person narration, but when all of these topics were used up, it still might be a lean meeting.
I want to be clear that this doesn’t mean that Johnson’s book is in any way deficient. It’s just that what it’s good at–humor, voice, fast pace–aren’t easy to talk about, and in some ways, the book’s easy likability would work against much back and forth between readers. You could still use the book in your group, but it would probably be more successful to open the discussion up to Johnson’s whole series, or even better, to compare it with other great outdoorsy Western mysteries like those by C. J. Box, Nevada Barr, Tony Hillerman, or the second series by Robert Parker or James Lee Burke.
For a crime novel that works on its own, look for books that explore the motivation for crime, the sometimes fine edge between good and bad behavior, the psychological aspects of committing or surviving crime, the nature of justice and the justice system, or external forces that complicate the detection process. More secondary characters and suspects equal more discussability. If the crime novel explores secondary issues that’s a bonus.
The bottom line is that when selecting books for your group, careful forethought can prevent many inadequate future meetings. If you’re at all concerned about whether one book can carry the day, add others to the mix. Let your readers pick which title they want to read, mixing snippets of conversation about the individual books with a broader discussion of their shared author or theme.
Tuesday, September 24, 2013 1:02 pm
Into the Muck with You
Posted by: Neil Hollands
Should your book group read sports books? Many would quickly say no, but I beg to differ. In the last ten years, I’ve become a much less regular watcher of sports, but I still read sports books. An individual game is mostly about the competition–the winner and the loser–but looked at in its broad sense, sports is about so much more–about preparation, determination, about handling success and handling failure, about grace under pressure and courage through adversity. These are the big human questions, about our universal ideas, not just short term excitement about which player or team goes home the winner.
An outstanding recent example is Bryan Mealer’s Muck City: Winning and Losing in Football’s Forgotten Town. It’s set in Belle Glade, Florida, a central Florida community which once supplied the world with sugar and vegetables, making some companies wealthy on the back of the tough migrant farmers who live in the muck. In recent years, agriculture is on the decline and violent ghettos stricken by drugs, AIDS, and poverty dominate the sad town. But Belle Glade still has one great claim to fame: it’s an assembly line for great college and professional football players. Despite the fact that impoverished Belle Glade High and a couple of neighboring schools don’t have big money boosters or first-class facilities to train and play in, they remain football powerhouses, regularly claiming state titles in football-mad Florida.
But that environment creates a pressure cooker for the young athletes and coaches of Belle Glade, they’re not just competing for football success like other high-powered programs. They’re working to keep their community’s head high and competing with other gifted players for the best path out of poverty. Almost nothing but another championship pleases fans used to the best, and the second guessing can ruin idealistic coaches and brave young athletes alike.
Mealer followed the team for a season, focusing on coach (and former NFL star) Jessie Hester, about eight of his players, and in an interesting contrast, young Jonteria Williams who is trying to find an alternate route out of poverty, using not her athletic skills but her academic skills in a quest to get to a good college and become a nurse. There’s Mario Rowley, a quarterback with average skills but a big heart. He’s trying to succeed despite debilitating injuries. a town full of critics, and the loss of both parents. Kelvin Benjamin is the wide receiver blue chip, a player with unbelievable skills but a troubling attitude.
Readers will have plenty to discuss after reading this book: how much importance should high school sports be allowed to assume in a community? How much access should recruiters have to students? What is the role of a coach in an impoverished community? Do sports truly provide a way out for many students or are they another pitfall for lost dreams? Whether you love sports or hate them, there’s a lot to think about here in a work of nonfiction that has characters as complicated as those in the best novels.
Monday, September 23, 2013 12:29 pm
Jack Glass: the Story of a Murderer
Posted by: Gary Niebuhr
Adam Roberts’s new book, Jack Glass: the Story of a Murderer, is a book that attempts to link the classic mystery pattern of the locked room puzzle with a space adventure with political overtones. While science fiction is not normally what I read anymore, I was attracted to this title by the idea of, not one, but three crimes being committed in a confined area with no access or egress.
To get the plot out of the way, the three stories are connected by the fact that they all involve the galaxy-famous murderer, Jack Glass. Jack is a legend in many interstellar communities, not unlike Jack the Ripper. He is feared most by the Ulanov family, the ruling dynasty in the galaxy. The careful alliances of lesser family dynasties is held together by the Ulanovs by a fierce police force that roams from planetary body to planetary body maintaining order. In reality, it is less Jack’s murderous ways and more his revolutionary ones that keep him in the forefront of everyone’s concern.
The first novella in the book concerns a crew of seven prisoners dumped on an asteroid called Lamy306 to mine for eleven years in order to work off their sentences. Abandoned with nothing but a meager ability to build atmosphere and grow a low-level food source, the men quickly form alliances that may be symbolic of the families that rule the galaxies. It is not giving anything away to say that one of the men is Jack.
The second novella is almost Nancy Drew like in its setup. Two young sisters, Diana and Eva, from the information gathering family clan the Argents, are sent to Earth to adjust to gravity when a servant is murdered. Diana, having played many mystery computer games, is the candidate selected by her family to solve the mystery. This novella has the most references to the crime fiction genre including many Golden Age writers and their techniques.
The last novella finds the merry band of survivors from the first two novellas fleeing across the galaxy and away from the pursuit of Bar-Le-Duc, the famous police detective. Another locked room murder occurs and the novels are resolved based on the consequences of actions in all three parts.
I found the basic idea intriguing and enjoyed the storytelling quite a bit. The characters are unique and fun to read about. The cross-genre blending only adds spice to an already complicated dish. And, of course, the theme of the book has both something to do with and nothing to do with the crimes thus showing its literary muscle. I think a book discussion group with adventurous readers will find plenty to discuss here and have a sense of wonder while they do.
Friday, September 20, 2013 5:07 am
The Novel is alive and well, thank you very much: How to Read a Novelist
Posted by: Misha Stone
John Freeman is a passionate reader. John Freeman is also a champion of authors, books and reading. He has been a book critic for years, was president of the National Book Critics Circle and editor in chief at Granta. He has interviewed countless authors and he shares his insights and conversations with many of the authors he has interviewed in How to Read a Novelist.
All book groups are looking for the next great book to tackle or author to discover. Every week I get questions in my library about helping book groups assemble a list of possibilities. John Freeman’s How to Read a Novelist (released 10/8) will serve as a great resource for book groups and garden variety voracious readers alike.
John Freeman covers more than 50 authors in the book. There are authors most book groups are familiar with, like: Louise Erdrich, Dave Eggers, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood and Philip Roth. But there are also authors that many groups may not have heard of, like: Hisham Matar, Aleksandar Hemon, Ayu Utami and Geoff Dyer.
This is a fun book to peruse. And John Freeman’s motto, that the novel us doing just fine, thank you, had me hook, line and sinker.
Thursday, September 19, 2013 12:10 am
Destiny of the Republic
Posted by: Neil Hollands
When a writer can bring historical characters to life, give the reader a sense of what issues and emotions motivated their choices, it’s something truly special, a chance for readers to experience another time and place. Candice Millard does just that with Destiny of the Republic: a Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President.
The year is 1880, and the central character is James Garfield, one of the most able men ever elected to the Presidency of the United States. Millard brings the Republican convention to life, showing us an election very different from those we know. Garfield gives a nomination speech for fellow Ohioan John Sherman so effective that when finishes, the crowd chants his name instead of Sherman’s. As ballot after ballot is deadlocked between Sherman and Ulysses Grant, Garfield’s name is slipped–against his objections–into the nominations as a compromise. The popularity of the choice snowballs, and a few ballots later, Garfield is the Republican nominee, earning him the enmity of a powerful man, Roscoe Conkling, who backed Grant and ran the New York political machine. In an era when it was considered mildly distasteful to stump for oneself, Garfield stayed home in Ohio, gave a few speeches, and soon found himself a reluctant 20th President.
Garfield’s foil is the delusional Charles Guiteau, a former resident of the utopian Oneida Community. A failed journalist, lawyer, author, and traveling evangelist, Guiteau never stopped believing he was destined for great things, even though he spent most of his life skipping out on the rent at one boarding house after another. When he survived a horrible crash of two paddle-wheel steamers in the Long Island Sound, he was more convinced than ever that God had a great plan for him. Unfortunately for Garfield, his interest fell next to politics. After campaigning for Garfield in ways that nobody noticed but himself, Guiteau was convinced that Garfield owed him an important position in his administration. He became a regular at the new White House, campaigning for appointment as an ambassadorship in Europe. When he was finally kicked out, he came to the deranged conclusion that God wanted him to assassinate the President. His delusion would end the Garfield Presidency after only six months in 1881.
These are just the initial events in a fascinating tale that most Americans don’t know. The story expands to include the inventions of Alexander Graham Bell, the failure of American medicine to understand the important advancements in hygiene pioneered by Charles Lister, the political wrangling between Conkling, Garfield, and the unlikely Vice President Chester Arthur, and Garfield’s intimates, especially wife Lucretia and his young secretary Joseph Stanley-Brown. There’s so much to captivate the reader in this fast-moving story. You’ll be boggled as the crazy Guiteau gets easy access to Garfield in an era when the President could walk down the street without harassment. You’ll grimace as a team of clueless doctors seem to do everything possible to introduce further infection into the slowly dying President. You’ll wonder at what we lost in Garfield, a great man who makes most contemporary Presidents look like much lesser creatures.
If you enjoy the historical writing of people like Erik Larson, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose, Nathaniel Philbrick, Barbara Tuchman, or Sarah Vowell, you need to add Millard to your list of must-read authors.
Wednesday, September 18, 2013 7:00 am
National Reading Group Month
Posted by: Admin
In case you are not already aware, October is National Reading Group Month. This program of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) was launched in 2007 “to promote reading groups and to celebrate the joy of shared reading.”
Once again, Book Group Buzz is delighted to be chosen by WNBA as a National Reading Group Month partner and its official blog. You can find information about events, resources, and the 21 selected “Great Group Reads” titles at www.nationalreadinggroupmonth.org . Booklist Online will keep the 21 titles on its “Great Reads” page during October for easy reference.
“Great Group Reads” are useful all year round for selecting books for reading groups. According to Selection Coordinator Rosalind Reiner, titles are chosen because they are “lively, thought-provoking, and diverse, strong narratives peopled by fully realized characters, that will help passionate readers find those great gems of mid-list fiction and nonfiction that may be overlooked in the clamor over the bestsellers.”
Here are the selected 2013 titles with links to their Booklist reviews:
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
Big Brother by Lionel Shriver
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
The House Girl by Tara Conklin
How It All Began by Penelope Lively
Is This Tomorrow by Caroline Leavitt
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Margot by Jillian Cantor
Mary Coin by Marisa Silver
The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg
Nowhere Is a Place by Bernice L. McFadden
The One-Way Bridge by Cathie Pelletier
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Schroder by Amity Gaige
Sparta by Roxana Robinson
Wash by Margaret Wrinkle
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
And one other selection with a link to further information:
David by Ray Robertson
Monday, September 9, 2013 5:35 am
An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination
Posted by: MaryKate Perry
For a long time now, I have been afraid to write about this book. This short memoir is Elizabeth McCracken’s account of the crushing, world-altering loss of her firstborn. To comment on that pain, and the bravery it takes to recount it, seems almost presumptuous. Thankfully, I don’t write critiques, I write recommendations, though this remarkable book deserves the finest review.
I am including this book in my short and spiritual series (see Marriage and Other Acts of Charity and Help Thanks Wow), an inclusion that might surprise the author. She and her husband, the writer Edward Corey, are resolutely of no religious observance; she notes that their only discussion of religion during her pregnancy was an agreement to neither circumcise nor christen. But it completes my trio because I believe this book asks one of the hardest and most necessary tasks of us: to look directly at the pain of another person and bear witness to it. This is the task that enlarges our hearts and strengthens our spirits. It may not be why we are all here but it is one of the things worth sticking around for, to see and be truly seen by others.
This memoir is some of the best writing about grief that I have encountered. It is impossible to make meaning out of the inexplicable loss of a newborn baby, the pain seems so raw that it’s surprising any writer would take it on. But McCracken knew she was ”…not ready for[her] first child to fade into history.” She lets us know on the first page that since the stillbirth of her child, she has given birth to another. Knowing that, as she wrote this memoir, she held the sibling of her dead child in her arms was what got me through the book. Because though the writing was lovely and even, at times, humorous, I would not have been able to read it if I hadn’t been sure that she had been able to have another child. I just wanted to feel like I didn’t have to worry about her floating around unmoored by loss. I needed to picture her tethered to the comforting, needy presence of a nursing child.
But as she explains, for her family, there will always be someone missing, a silent relative. The healing can only ever be incomplete. And we crave closure; we want to know that we can bounce back, completely, and that others can too. But grief, like happiness, forms us, and denying that pain separates us from each other. McCracken asks us to face the anguish in ourselves and others. I was reminded again that we can only offer to each other our imperfect selves. Our condolences will always feel woefully inadequate, but our whole hearts willing to hear stories of calamity will be enough.
Wednesday, September 4, 2013 11:00 pm
Devastating Youth: “Save Yourself” by Kelly Braffet
Posted by: Misha Stone
It’s hard to grow up in a small town. It can be even harder if your father is the leader of the community Worship Group or if your father killed a young child while driving drunk.
Kelly Braffet’s Save Yourself goes to the heart of small town life and how challenging it is to live in the shadows of other people’s assumptions, expectations and manipulations. The novel focuses on two sets of siblings: Mike and Patrick Cusimano and Layla and Verna Elshere.
Patrick Cusimano works the night shift at the Zoney’s, a quick mart, where he lives a half-life trying to dodge the blame for his father’s transgressions. He lives with his brother, Mike, and his girlfriend, Caro, on whom he has a crush. Then Layla Elshere takes an interest in him, the boy whose father ran down a kid from her father’s church. Layla has gone Goth to leave her Christian soldier self behind and she binds herself to Patrick and a group of misfits whose penchant for darkness envelops her.
Layla’s sister Verna is a freshman in high school. Verna becomes the target of the popular kids for her older sister’s strange ways and for how her father’s righteous streak resulted in major changes at the school. Verna’s daily ordeals at school are wrenchingly real.
Like so many good novels, Save Yourself has the perfect title. There are so many different ways that a book group could interpret how the book explores these two simple words. It is a powerful novel about youth, small town America, high school and family and the confining limits that they each present for anyone trying to find and hopefully save themselves.
Tuesday, September 3, 2013 12:32 pm
Posted by: Gary Niebuhr
Stand up and be manipulated.
In William Landay’s book Defending Jacob, there is a competition to see who is manipulated more: the characters in the book or the reader who is viewing them. If it is a race, the two participants tie at the finish line because this book has a dramatic punch on the last page that drives home the theme of the book with great clarity. My belief is that fan of novels about the law, lawyers or the courtroom will love this book.
The basic plot of the book revolves around the decision made by Andy Barber, as Assistant District Attorney, to take the murder case of Ben Rifkin despite the fact that Andy’s son Jacob attends the same school as the victim. This poor decision spirals out of control when an initial look at a pedophile swings in the directions of Jacob despite the best efforts of Andy to divert attention from his son.
Thematically the book covers such issues as the existence of a murder gene, the sins of the father being passed to the son, the role of parents in the development of their children and guilt, guilt, guilt.
Readers may recognize the author as the talent behind the John Creasy award winning Mission Flats and The Strangler. I cannot believe that everyone who has read this book is not waiting for another effort from this master manipulator.
Friday, August 23, 2013 10:23 am
Newspapers: Decline and Fall
Posted by: Neil Hollands
Tom Rachman’s novel in stories, The Imperfectionists, is sure to start a conversation on a subject that is important to readers: the decline and fall of the newspaper. It’s set at an English-language newspaper in Rome over 50 years, and follows the paper from its eccentric beginnings (readers discover why its wealthy publisher suddenly became a newspaper man near the book’s end) until its demise. Rachman never names the paper in his stories, but he worked for the International Herald Tribune in Paris and lives in Rome himself now.
Unless you’ve been in hiding, you’re aware that the newspaper is an endangered species. To extend that metaphor, I would say that some newspapers will survive, but in a kind of captivity, under artificial conditions that are not the best for journalism. Too many stories are taken from the same few wire services and there isn’t enough money to pay real journalists. The cost to readers are already apparent as we’ve lost much of the great cultural coverage, much of the original hard news reporting that we used to get from major papers. I suspect there will be some very good nonfiction to come about the cost of this journalistic decline for readers, but Rachman has already written a novel that’s about as good as we can expect about the cost of the journalist’s lifestyle and the decline of the profession for those who work in it.
Each story in the book centers on a different character, but they interact over the course of different stories. We start with Lloyd Burko, an aging veteran journalist whose personal decline serves as a kind of metaphor for the decline of his livelihood. Conversely, another story follows Winston Cheung, a naive young man in competition–barely–for a position as a stringer in Cairo. It’s a comic story that painfully depicts the decline in journalistic standards. Several of the stories. such as that of the obituary writer Arthur Gopal, show the cost of the journalist’s lifestyle on personal relationships. A story from the point of view of the paper’s business manager, called “Accounts Payable” derisively by her co-workers, captures a pathetic encounter. She is seated next to a recently fired copy editor on an international flight and alternates between despising him to lessen her guilt about firing him and craving his romantic attention because she is so lonely.
Rachman’s little character portraits add up until we have a kind of cubist portrait of the newspaper. The result is more than a little heart-rending. but there are laughs along the way to balance all the poignant moments. It’s a moving book, and one that is sure to stimulate a lively meeting.
Friday, August 16, 2013 9:55 am
Comfort Food for Book Groups, Pt. 2
Posted by: Neil Hollands
In this post I’ll continue to highlight the food-related books and culinary treats that came to the meeting of the Williamsburg Regional Library staff group. Pt. 1 of this post came out earlier this week.
Barbara from our Outreach Division read Jacques Pepin’s memoir The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen. Pepin’s path to fame was truly unusual, after a long apprenticeship in traditional French kitchens prior to WWII, he served as personal chef to Charles DeGaulle, then spent time in America, where he turned down the job of chef in the Kennedy White House in favor of less glamorous work for Howard Johnson’s. Most of us know him from his next job, working with Julia Child as a pioneer of culinary television. It’s a fascinating life full of resonant cultural connections.
Ann-Marie chose Andrea Penrose’s Lady Arianna series which has a bit of everything: a regency era setting, romance between the Earl of Saybrook and Lady Arianna, puzzling mysteries, and a historical recipe in every chapter. The first book is Sweet Revenge, but as a chocolate fanatic, Ann-Marie jumped in at book two, The Cocoa Conspiracy. She found the mystery average, but recipes for treats like Whiskey Cake or Olive Oil Brownies all cooked up deliciously. We sampled the Chocolate Spice Cookies, with zesty doses of the savory spices that were typically added to chocolate in its early use and a sea salt top that really made the taste pop.
My pick for the meeting was Gabrielle Hamilton’s earthy memoir Blood, Bones, and Butter: the Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef. For a full write-up, see my earlier post here.
Susan from Youth Services finished the meeting with Comfort Food by The Friday Night Knitting Club author Kate Jacobs, who emphasizes family, friends, and the activities that bring them together. As Augusta “Gus” Simpson heads into her 50th birthday, she’s tired of being the one who plans parties for everyone else. She’s the host of a cooking show in ratings decline. Her network decides to fight the slump with an unusual on-air cooking class. Aided by a handsome sous chef but surrounded by her difficult family and friends as well as a rival who wants to steal her job, Gus discovers that the solution for bad ratings might also solve her personal problems. The story is a bit formulaic, but readers know that going in and get the easy-reading, heartwarming book promised by the title.
When all was said and done, this theme and format were a delight that allowed a big range of books and readers to share a table and a lively discussion. We talked with our mouths full, and we liked it.
Wednesday, August 14, 2013 7:53 am
The Girl with the Recessive Gene on Chromosome 16
Posted by: MaryKate Perry
“You’d find it easier to be bad than good if you had red hair,” said Anne reproachfully. “People who haven’t red hair don’t know what trouble is. Mrs. Thomas told me that God made my hair red on purpose, and I’ve never cared about Him since.”
When it comes to books, I don’t casually date. Where reading is concerned I have an inexhaustible sense of romance. When I take up a book, what I ask is simply this: to fall heedlessly in love. When my daughter and I started Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1908 novel, Anne of Green Gables, I felt those familiar butterflies. Now I am all moony-eyed and have stopped calling my friends. Some of us are born to be always in love.
For years I carted around a small packet of literary shame because, though I watched the outstanding 1985 CBC production of the story, I had never actually read the book. I missed my chance when I was a young girl, but after my daughter read Much Ado About Anne from Heather Vogel Frederick’s Mother Daughter Book Club series, I decided we should read Montgomery’s book. (Frederick’s Dear Pen Pal is the book that got us to read Jean Webster’s Daddy Long-Legs, another novel from the early 1900′s with a strong, imaginative female protagonist.) Now all I can think about is Anne: endearingly verbose, wildly hopeful, volatile, warm-hearted….who can resist a red-haired orphan? No one, I should hope. And certainly not Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, the spinster and bachelor farmer who take her in, despite having asked for a boy (and in spite of a neighbor’s warning that sometimes orphans put strychnine in the well).
The story takes place on stunningly gorgeous Prince Edward Island where Anne finds herself, after 11 years of loveless, friendless existence. The Cuthberts are a brother and sister living out their orderly, solemn days on Green Gables Farm. As you might guess, their hearts are cracked open by the presence of this scrawny, temperamental, but utterly earnest waif. Perhaps the plot is somewhat predictable, but you will find ample compensation in the humor – Anne’s stream-of-whimsical-consciousness speeches are hilarious. Prepare to be utterly charmed by the characters and the beauty of Montgomery’s language. And given that there is a whole series, serial monogamy awaits you.
On August 17th, carrot-tops from hither and yon, including me, will descend on Portland, Oregon to attempt the world record for most redheads gathered in one place. If you are not one of the fortunate, freckled, freakish few (1-2% of the world’s population), slap on some number 85 sunscreen anyway (don’t forget the tops of your ears!) and spend August 17th in a hammock, enjoying the exploits of one of literature’s splendidly plucky heroines.
Montgomery went on to write scads of Anne books: Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, Anne of Windy Poplars, Anne’s House of Dreams and Anne of Ingleside. These cover Anne’s life from age 11 to 40. She also wrote a series about Anne’s children, in which Anne is a lesser character (hard to imagine!): Rainbow Valley, Rilla of Ingleside and The Blythes are Quoted.
I currently have the pleasure of assisting in the establishment of a Little Free Library in Olympia; Anne of Green Gables is the first book I will be placing in it on dedication day.
Monday, August 12, 2013 6:18 pm
Comfort Food for Book Groups, Pt. 1
Posted by: Neil Hollands
The staff book group at Williamsburg Regional Library decided to try out a theme we had seen mentioned elsewhere, a meeting with books related to food turned into a potluck by bringing some of the dishes mentioned in the books. I’m not sure what was more pleasurable, the food or the variety of the discussion. With this kind of meeting, you really can’t go too wrong.
Morag and Laurie from our Youth Services Division sometimes read adult books, and sometimes bring great kids’ books. At this meeting, Morag introduced us to the beautiful pop-up books of Robert Sabuda, in this case his Cookie Count: a Tasty Pop-up. Then she read us most of Greg Pizzoli’s storybook The Watermelon Seed. Laurie followed suit with Ryan SanAngelo’s Spaghetti Eddie (complete with slurping sounds). Adults like to be read stories too, and you could probably make a whole meeting out of this activity, but for us, it is a lovely bit of variety to break up the pattern of the hour.
Connie’s books included Mrs. Rowe’s Little Book of Southern Pies, a cookbook from a bakery and restaurant only a few hours drive from us in Staunton, Virginia. She had made their Key Lime Pie with Gingebread Graham Cracker Crust to try. She also shared Margaret Powell’s newly re-issued Below Stairs: the Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir that Inspired “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey”. Powell entered service as a 14-year-old in the 1920s and stayed long enough to see the big changes that occurred in the British class system. Her memories of when “spring cleaning” meant six weeks of 15 hour days spent scrubbing away the mess caused by burning coal, remind modern readers that everything wasn’t simpler in the old days.
Cheryl’s first choice, Fannie’s Last Supper: Re-creating One Amazing Meal from Fannie Farmer’s 1896 Cookbook, worked a similar theme. Christopher Kimball of Cook’s Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen became fascinated with the effort required to cook the elaborate meals described in this book, and decided to see if he could copy one of them, a twelve-course affair with twenty different recipes, even going so far as to bring an enormous (and dreadfully hot) wood-burning stove into his kitchen. He had to re-learn mostly forgotten techniques like how to boil a calf’s head for mock turtle soup. A fair amount of social history on the Boston of the times is also included.
Another of Cheryl’s selections was Jan Whitaker’s Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn: a Social History of the Tea Room Craze in America. The spread of the automobile and the rising freedoms of women led to the spread of these roadside eateries, which reached their peak popularity in the 1920s. Whitaker traces the history of several of these places around the country and recounts some of the historical changes that they helped engender. Cheryl also contributed some simple and delicious avocado and cream cheese sandwiches mentioned in the book.
I’ll share some of the other books and dishes that came to this happy meeting later this week.
Tuesday, August 6, 2013 4:17 pm
A New York State of Crime: Lush Life
Posted by: Neil Hollands
Richard Price’s novel Lush Life has what it takes to please both crime fiction fans and those who like contemporary literary novels.
The set-up is simple: three guys leave a Lower East Side bar. A few seconds later, one is dead. The second is in a drunken stupor. The third man, Eric Cash, reports that two hold-up men approached them and that his companion, Ike Marcus, was shot after acting aggressively toward them. But as Detective Matty Clark begins to investigate with his partner Yolanda, discrepancies in even this simple story begin to appear.
There is an element of the whodunnit in Price’s story, but more exactly this is a novel of social realism. The reader knows the killer early in the game, and the book is more about how the different parties–Eric Cash, the other suspects, the detectives, Cash and Marcus’s co-workers, the press, the victim’s family, the people of the projects–react to the murder. This is very much a story of New York City, or at least a large city where the young white hipsters of gentrified neighborhoods begin to flood the same streets where project kids try to survive.
There’s much to think about here. The police, particularly an ironically named group called the “Quality of Life” squad lie with impunity to every crime suspect, essentially shaking down every black youth that they come across in an attempt to reveal bigger criminals. The victims of crimes are in many ways the least likable characters in the novel. The criminals are equally misguided, but one can sympathize with some of the reasons that lead them to their behaviors. The cops face more obstruction from the bureaucracies of their own department and city than they do from the perpetrators, and many of the novel’s best moments come from the dark comedy that ensues as they try to follow police procedure. In the end, you’ll be left shaking your head at the amount of destruction that leads up to and cascades down from one random and stupid act of violence.
Fans of the book should seek out other Richard Price titles. Clockers, Samaritan, and Freedomland are equally exceptional reading. If you like audiobooks, by all means seek out actor Bobby Canavale’s reading of Lush Life. He’s a Tony nominee on the stage and has had memorable appearances on shows like Boardwalk Empire and Nurse Jackie. In reading this work, he’s pitch perfect on every character.
Friday, July 26, 2013 10:05 am
Posted by: Neil Hollands
I just finished a fat, fine anthology of poetry called The 20th Century in Poetry, edited by Michael Hulse and Simon Rae. It took me almost six months to nibble my way through the 800 pages of poems contained therein. The poems are organized chronologically, but not necessarily by the year in which they were written. Instead, the editors selected poems that reflected the events and moods of the 20th century, beginning with Thomas Hardy’s “Darkling Thrush” in 1900 and finishing with a poem by Jeffrey Harrison, “Pale Blue City,” that somewhat presages the events of 9/11. For me, this was a marvelous anthology up until the mid 1960s, but after that, the authors fell down somewhat, with poems that often are neither particularly striking nor discernibly connected to the century in any significant way. Still, I come away from the book with a list of poets whose work I will seek out. I re-read some wonderful old friends by poets like Housman, Yeats, Auden, Eliot, Owen, Stevens, Lowell, and Bishop and found some new lines that will stay in my memory. The anthology was hard work, but worth the result.
Book groups can certainly read anthologies, but rather than scramble for multiple copies of books that often aren’t easy to obtain, why not make your own anthology? You’ll get the same great result: new authors and works to explore, encounters with old favorites, and a delightful afternoon or evening of discussion. Just pick your topic and send your readers on the hunt in search of poems, stories, essays and other short works that explore the subject. I’ve always been pleased when my book groups have made this kind of exploration. The theme is evoked expertly with a big variety of sources and the selections that my fellow readers have made have often surprised me. The expected and the unexpected commingle and the light and the heavy, the serious and the humorous all make appearances. Perhaps best of all, the resulting choices often uncover new corners of the personalities of my reading friends. So pick out a good topic and set a meeting for your crew of “editors” to build a great anthology. Good results are just waiting to happen.
Sunday, July 21, 2013 9:24 pm
A Memoir of Grief and Growing Up Soon to Grace the Big Screen: “The Rules of Inheritance” by Claire Bidwell Smith
Posted by: Misha Stone
It was recently announced that Claire Bidwell Smith’s memoir, The Rules of Inheritance, will be made into a movie starring Academy-award-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence.
Smith lost both of her parents before her 30s and while she is now a therapist specializing in grief in LA, this memoir shows just how hard it was for her to move through the stages of grief after the loss of her parents. Through poetic, emotionally raw prose, Smith shares the choices and experiences that shaped her and her painfully slow road towards healing and recovery.
The Rules of Inheritance is a poignant portrait of two loving parents who, while flawed, loved their daughter with abandon. So when Smith’s mother dies in her freshman year at Marlboro College in Vermont, her cancer advancing swiftly shortly after she visited the college campus for parent’s weekend, Claire is devastated. Thus begins a life adrift, compounding the already fraught experience of inchoate independence.
My mother is dead.
I say it several times.
My mother is dead.
My mother is dead.
The words become living things. They scuffle at the corners of the room, and I wrap my arms tight around me, trying to keep still so they will not notice me.
Smith’s memoir takes you back into the maelstrom of her experience with the flow of her words. Her writing is so fluid and strong, that you start reading and then look up hours later to find yourself halfway through. I read this on the bus, at times close to tears, for she captures her heady youth and the confusion and pain that her parents’ illness and loss wrought with such immediacy.
I must admit that I initially picked up The Rules of Inheritance because I had learned she was at Marlboro College at the same time that I was. Our paths almost certainly crossed on that campus of less than 300 students, although we did not know one another. I did recognize many of the individuals in her memoir. But I found that I would have loved Smith’s memoir regardless of a tangential personal connection. It is a powerful meditation on love, on how our parents parent us and how we begin to parent ourselves. Smith illustrates how hard it is to move through the stages of grief but just how necessary it is to do so in order to get to the other side intact.
As with any memoir of struggle, I was grateful to reach the end to learn that Claire Bidwell Smith is in a better place in life. It is all the more inspiring that she is helping others with their own grief. This makes me all the more happy on her behalf that a movie in the works. The Rules of Inheritance is sure to inspire and help so many more.
Saturday, July 20, 2013 12:06 am
Blood, Bones, and Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton
Posted by: Neil Hollands
After an idyllic early childhood, things came apart for Gabrielle Hamilton. Her parents’ marriage disintegrated, and she went from viewing her mother as a quirky icon to treating her as anathema. In the wreckage of the family, young Gabrielle was left to fend for herself. She and her brothers and sisters began to run wild, experimenting with alcohol and drugs and committing small crimes. Hamilton lied about her age to get work in a restaurant, and so began the Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, as her life is labeled in the subtitle of her memoir Blood, Bones & Butter.
Early kitchen jobs led to many years in the less glamorous part of the cooking world: chef for summer camps and catering New York parties with trendy but bad food. This part of her book, the exposé, reminds me of Anthony Bourdain’s first effort, Kitchen Confidential. Hamilton always wanted something different–to become a writer in particular–but cooking paid her bills. With some reluctance, she finally decides that yes, a career as a chef will be her lot in life, and that if she is to be a writer also, her first subject will be food and its role in peoples lives.
The opportunity to open her own restaurant came unexpectedly, at a time when Hamilton wasn’t ready, but her earthy approach to food at Prune made the small restaurant a big hit and a culinary star was born. Still, Hamilton’s approach to the life of a celebrity chef isn’t typical. She always takes the gritty, sometimes even perverse path. Most of the writing about Prune for instance, focuses on the realities of restaurant work, not a false glamor. She describes the crazy neighbors, the battles with rats, the miserable working conditions, the irresponsible colleagues, even pages about the time someone used the space just outside her office as a bathroom and she had to clean it up.
This book is a great choice for groups, not because every reader will love it, but because almost every chapter will engage the senses, prime the emotions, and provoke an opinion. Hamilton describes her unusual personal life with total candor, and she isn’t afraid to show her difficult side. Hamilton is a lesbian who left a supportive long-term partner for a man, an Italian doctor who perhaps thought that his attention could create some kind of sexual conversion. She ultimately married him, partly to help him stay in the country, partly for reasons that remain unclear. In a way his ploy worked: the couple have two children and spend their July vacations with his family in Italy, but back in the US, they mostly don’t even live together. As this memoir ends (one suspects future installments will be forthcoming), the marriage seems to be breaking down (and if it isn’t, seems likely to shatter when he reads her book.) At times, Hamilton portrays herself as grossly lacking in self-knowledge, and at other times seems to revel in her own hard-ass, inflexible behavior. It isn’t always likeable, but I think mostly readers will admire the honesty. Others may not, but they will be hard pressed to forget her book.
Thursday, July 18, 2013 9:52 am
Born to Run; a hidden tribe, superathletes and the greatest race the world has never seen
Posted by: MaryKate Perry
Live in the sunshine, swim in the sea, breathe the wild air. – Ralph Waldo Emerson*
This year, I decided to train for a half-marathon. I turned forty last month (okay, a few years ago) and that birthday feels significant, even portentous to a lot of us. I know this is true for men and I absolutely know it’s true for women. The four-decade mark seems to be the signal for many of us to commence swilling surprising amounts of red wine, or training for a marathon (sometimes both, which yields mixed results). I would run a full marathon but I am afraid of both my knees making a loud popping and crumbling sound and then I would have to toss them onto that pile of rusted equipment and broken beach umbrellas in my garage.
So now that I have joined the ranks of those not ready to face their mortality, I buy neon shoes and compare performance fabrics and snack on little compressed bars of grainy super food. It’s all good, wholesome, fun and an excuse to take long baths. But if you want to read about the runners who take it to the next level, (I don’t think they bother with baths) I recommend Born to Run by Christopher MacDougall. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so absolutely entranced by the book if I weren’t so interested in running, but I don’t think this book is just for pavement pounders. This story about a community of American ultra runners and the Tarahumara tribe of Mexico is peopled with some of the most likeable, honorable and eccentric folks you could have the pleasure to meet in print or person.
I only recently became aware of ultrunning and at first, it sounded like sheer madness to me; these people routinely lose their toenails! But then, in books, as in life, I am a lover of quirky characters. MacDougall brings together a scruffy array of athletes who run miles (like a hundred miles) through deserts, simply because they can. These people feel most alive when they are nearly dead. They run because, the author argues, that’s what humans are born to do. Make the race long enough and a human will outstrip a horse and leave a cheetah wheezing in the dust. Humans can go longer than our fellow creatures and if we can do it then why not do it? And why don’t more of us do it? Perhaps, MacDougall suggests, we have forgotten the art.
I once heard that it is the passionate pursuit of something you love that transforms you. Though the single-mindedness of the performance athlete sometimes bewilders me, the beauty of a finely-tuned body doing what it does better than most, is a gorgeous sight to behold, or to read about. McDougall writes with good-natured affection for his characters and he introduces us to a passionate – and compassionate – group of people who test the limits of their endurance and feel the powerful bonds of community. At the same time, he martials his case that most of us are running incorrectly and, if we only ran right, we would reunite with the primal runner within and become healthier, wiser and better people.
Misty May-Treanor, three-time Olympic gold medalist, said her father told her to play for everyone who can’t. I like that. I like knowing that right now, an ultra runner is out on a leisurely 30 mile jog, zipping along on tan, striving legs, watching a sunset and breathing the wild air for the rest of us.
For anyone interested in running or in the elusive and remarkable Raramuri/Tarahumara (the running people as they are often called) tribe of Mexico, this book is full of discussion possibilities. It has a ragtag band of pilgrims that you can’t help but enjoy and a compelling plot as well. Chat about it while you run! Book groups spend altogether too much time chugging vino and lolling on couches. We are getting a reputation for having slack backsides. So hit the dusty trail in your lycra with insights at the ready, and don’t make me slap that brie-loaded cracker out of your hand!
*I earned my English degree decades ago and with it, the right to quote Emerson, once I was no longer forced to actually read him. I do likewise with Melville, Thoreau and other well-meaning, but long-winded writers.
Wednesday, July 10, 2013 8:58 am
Book Group Ideas from ALA
Posted by: Neil Hollands
While I didn’t see any programs that were solely about book groups on the agenda at the recent ALA conference, there were many ideas that book groups could incorporate brought up in sessions I attended.
These ideas come from my favorite program at the conference, a session called “Leading Readers to Water… Guerrilla Marketing for RA.” The program was offered by four excellent librarians from Schaumburg Township District Library and the Glenside Public Library District, who collected examples of forward-thinking RA practices from around the country. Click the link above to see the Powerpoint presentation that accompanied the session. For those who aren’t librarians, “RA” stands for “Readers’ Advisory,” the term used by librarians to describe the efforts we make to support readers and connect them to books that fit their reading preferences. Supporting book groups is considered an important component of readers’ advisory practice in most public libraries around the country.
Some of the ideas for book groups that they highlighted included:
- More support for specialized book groups. They included examples of book groups devoted to particular genres, nonfiction subjects, food groups that read a cookbook and then prepare recipes at home or together, book into film groups that read a book then watch its adaptation, audiobook groups, and ebook groups.
- How about a short fiction group? At Seattle Public Library, David Wright gives entertaining readings of stories for a drop-in lunchtime crowd and then leads discussion.
- Can’t meet every month? How about a quarterly discussion group that focuses on some of those big books that a monthly group can’t typically finish?
- I like the idea of short-run book groups. Instead of committing to permanent status, how about forming a group to read works in a beloved subject for four to six months? If the group is flourishing at the end, maybe a permanent endeavor can begin. If it isn’t, move on to a new subject matter with a different group of readers. Kansas City Public Library, for instance, read Austen, Bronte, Eliot, and Lawrence in a short-run group called “A Taste of Victorian Literature.”
- If your area has a large ethnic population that speaks a particular language, try a foreign language group. You can mix literature, poetry, food, music, travel, and art into a cultural potpourri.
- Consider the location where you offer your group. One library working on attracting 20- and 30-somethings holds a book group in a local bar that they call the “Lit Lounge.” A book group with a military focus has held meetings among veterans at the local American Legion Hall. Yet another group combines fitness and literature with a “Walk and Talk” group where members have their discussion while strolling the trails of a local park.
- Other libraries are finding ways to support their groups by providing online resources or by asking local groups to register so they can point new members in their direction, help advertise their events, or send them support materials in a regular newsletter.
I know my library will be trying out some of these great ideas in the upcoming month. Are there other interesting practices out there that you’d like to share?
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