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Monday, March 31, 2008

What I'm Reading: March 2008

I begin this month's reading report with Elizabeth Berg's WWII set novel, Dream When You Are Feeling Blue, which also happens to be the book chosen for my area's "Big Read." This is the summary of the book as posted on The Big Read website:

The time is 1943; the place is Chicago, Illinois. Three Irish-Catholic sisters, the Heaney girls, spend part of every evening sitting at the kitchen table in their pincurls, writing to their boyfriends and to other men fighting in World War II. Observing the daily life of these girls, as well as their parents and three brothers, we get a glimpse of what life was like on the homefront; in the letters that the women receive from men, we get an idea of what it was like “over there.” This novel is an evocation of a time gone by, a purposefully nostalgic and sentimental - and fun! - look at the forties: the clothes, the music, the language, the meals, the sentiments. It is a dramatic example of how a certain period in time can shape a person. Most of all, it demonstrates how much we are willing to give in the name of love.

There is quite a lot of information about the book and the events being offered at the participating libraries to be found here. The Big Read is going on right now!

Although the events are only open to residents of the participating libraries, the organizers of this cooperative event have been doing this for a few years now and have set an excellent example of how multiple communities can pool resources and offer outstanding adult programming and Reader's Advisory. Look at their website for ideas for your own community.

The Big Read Organizers have also an extensive list of WWII era read alikes to be found with this link. However, for those who read this book and enjoyed the relationship between the sisters more than the time period, you could also try Jennifer Weiner's In Her Shoes, which has nothing to do about WWII, but everything to do about the bonds between sisters.

I also listened to the popular A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. Hosseini's follow-up to The Kite Runner tells to stories of two women, Miriam and Laila, as they live through three decades of war in Afghanistan. With his second novel, Hosseini has shown that he is an excellent storyteller who is here to stay. I especially enjoyed the detailed history lesson which this book provided. Mostly, I was riveted by the two women, their voices, and their stories.

Those who like Hosseini's setting of Afghanistan should also try the current nonfiction best seller Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson or the fiction title The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra. Those who enjoyed learning about the history of Afghanistan may also want to delve into the Iranian Revolution (a neighbor of Afghanistan). Here I suggest The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. In this accessible graphic novel, Satrapi tells her personal story of living through war and Islamic revolution in Iran. Much of her story resonates with that of Miriam and Laila's. Finally, those readers who found the women's friendship against all odds very appealing, I suggest Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. Although this novel takes place in China, the laotong relationship between the two main characters has many similarities with Hosseini's novel.

Now for something completely different. To fulfill one of my two YA reading requirements I went to my local public library to talk with the YA staff. Debbie suggested How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. I am glad I sought out assistance in choosing this title because I thoroughly enjoyed the originality of this novel and its Science Fiction twist on the traditional finding yourself theme found in most Young Adult literature.

I How I Live Now, Daisy is a disaffected, motherless, NYC tough girl who is sent to live at her Aunt's English Country Estate. The twist here is that a World War is beginning and eventually, Daisy and her cousins are left to fend for themselves without any communication with the outside world. The story that follows has some violence, but is very realistic. You will be emotionally affected by this novel. Up against terrible odds, Daisy learns what really matters in life and the reader is treated to a fairly happy ending.

How I Live Now is being marketed as a both a YA and adult read, but I will focus on adult read alikes, since that is my expertise. An obvious choice is The Road by Cormac McCarthy which is the story of a boy and his father as they travel a very dangerous, post-apocalyptic, American landscape looking for a safe place. Mark Zusak's The Book Thief is also a good suggestion here. Another popular YA/Adult cross-over novel, The Book Thief tells the story WWII era story of a young German foster child.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

What I'm Reading: Shelfari Widget

I realized that I do not always write about every book I read in a given month here on the blog, and I have a Shelfari account which I am not using to its fullest... so, I have now added my shelf of the books I have/am reading this month.

I do keep track (in a written notebook) of each and every book I read with a sentence or two comment; however, that is not always recorded here. I figured three books plus my book discussion book per month is enough to write about, and plenty to expect people to read about.

With the addition of this widget though, I am now showcasing Shelfari's growing capabilities and allowing readers of this blog to see all the books I am exploring in a given month. Ideally, some day, I will also be adding comments about all of the books to the Shelfari database, but for now, baby steps.

Take Ten: Christian Fantasy

As promised, I am posting a second Take Ten list this month. Like all book lists in this feature, these annotated lists of books are of the "take and go" variety. Librarians should be offering as many annotated lists as possible at their libraries and on their websites. Lists of books do not take up the physical space which must be devoted to displays, but they still supply your patrons with thoughtfully prepared information on where to find their next good read.

This Take Ten list was not prepared by me. Many of my students chose to create ten book annotated lists for their Midterms and this is one example. Rebekah explored the rich field of Christian Fantasy with an excellent annotated list of ten titles suitable for the entire family. Click on this link to see the list. Please feel free to use it and/or pass it on, but just credit this page as your source.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Book Discussion: Ines of My Soul

Back to the third Monday of the month and today’s book discussion was on Isabel Allende’s Ines of My Soul. This historically accurate book fictionalizes the true story of the Spanish conquerors of Chile in the 1500s. Ines Suarez narrates the book in her old age, as a memoir being told to her daughter, Isabel. Ines began her life as a seamstress in Spain, but became the first Gobernadora of Chile. Ines relates the trials and jubilation, the hard times and the wonderful moments of establishing Santiago, Chile. Most of the novel is taken up with the story of Ines and her lover, Pedro Valdivia, the war hero, and their bloody struggles with the indigenous people of Chile. This is the story of Ines’ life, a chronicle of the founding of Chile, a comment on the price of “discovering” the New World, and a tale of the power of love.

One of the most striking things about Ines of My Soul is how different it is from the rest of Allende’s work. Here there is none of the magical realism for which she has become so well known, as well as the appearance of much more gritty and violent details. Ines is not only witness to terrible acts of brutality against the indigenous people of the New World, she is a participant in many occasions. For example, Ines decapitates 7 Mapuche soldiers and flings their heads back at the indigenous fighters attacking her settlement. This is a level of violence from Allende’s protagonist that her fans will not have seen before. There were complaints that it was too raw and bloody, but I think Allende wants the reader to understand how life truly was for those who chose to conquer the New World and make their lives there.

Our discussion began on this point. One of our participants commented that she wished the daily papers today described our current war with this level of violent description; maybe people would look more closely at it. Most agreed that they didn't enjoy the violence but felt that it was necessary to give the reader a true sense of how things happened.

This led to another discussion of whether or not we need war and violent invasions to "move forward" as humans. The mixing of cultures does lead to many advancements. Another participant who recently went through some joint replacement surgery mentioned that her doctor was happy with all of the advancements in joint technology. She pointed out to her doctor that with all of these young soldiers coming home without limbs may have something to do with the rate of advancement.

As a whole the group loved how the story is told in an evenhanded way, with both sides of the story being given equal treatment. There were more mixed feelings about the memoir style of this work however. Some felt it detracted from the over all story, while others felt it personalized this "large" story of the history of Chile. Another person mentioned how it made Ines seem more real and earthy. While another participant enjoyed how Ines left no secrets behind.

Some final thoughts, people loved the character of Felipe, they felt Allende did a great job conveying both passion and violence, and all agreed that Pedro Valdivia's story is the classic tale of the corruption of power.


Readers who enjoy Ines of My Soul because of the historical setting may want to try other 16th Century set stories with independent women. Night of Sorrows by Frances Sherwood treads in familiar territory as it recounts the story of Cortes' Mexican conquest through the eyes of his Aztec Princess lover. The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan chronicles the life and times of Mehrunnisa, an ambitious and beautiful young women in 16th Century India, who eventually became one of India's legendary heroines.


Those who like the novel's treatment of the story of the important women who stand behind the "great men" of history thankfully have many choices. One example that our group read in July of 2007 is Sally Hemmings by Barbara Case-Ribould.

For nonfiction, readers should turn to the “Bibliographic Note” at the novel’s conclusion for a wide variety of reading materials used by Allende in her creation of this powerful novel. There one can find histories of the Conquistadors, the Mapuche, and the founding of the Kingdom of Chile. Two others that grabbed BPL's other book discussion leader Kathy's attention are The Conquest of Chile by H.R.S Pocock and The Mapuche Indians of Chile by Louis C. Faron.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

BPL Displays for March 2008

March is Women's History month and we celebrate St. Patrick's Day. Both make for fun displays. Right now we have this list on books featuring the Irish compiled by Betty and this list on Mothers and Daughters which was prepared by Kathy.

Both lists accompany well appointed displays. Come by the library and see them if you can, or feel free to take these lists to use when you visit your own local library.

Friday, March 7, 2008

New Blog Feature: Take Ten

The Berwyn Public Library's website is about to be updated. One of the new features I am going to add to the RA page is a category of take and go annotated lists of 10 books on a general topic. One of our former employees, Kim, came up with the catchy name, "Take Ten."

The official description of the series as it was approved for publication on the as yet to be updated web site is as follows: "Feel like you have “read everything?” Want a fresh look at some new and different books? You have come to the right place. "Take Ten" is a collection of bibliographies of ten books, linked by some common theme, idea, or feel. There are many choices for a wide range of reading tastes. New reading adventures are only a click away."

As a teaser, I can start posting the lists now. I also have many student lists of 10 books which they have prepared for in class book talks which I will include under this heading in the future. My goal is to post at least 2 a month. We'll see how that goes.

I do want to state that these are different from the BPL display lists which I periodically post since those are tied to a specific display. These lists are meant to stand on their own.

The first, which gave me the inspiration to create these lists in general, is entitled Take Ten: Great American Novels...with a Twist. The list begins with an explanation as to the parameters.

Again, I will try to post these twice a month, and they will always be tagged as "take ten." You can click on that label on the right side of the page to find all of the lists.

I would love to see anyone else's lists if they want to share.

Monday, March 3, 2008

What I'm Reading: February 2008

Another month has ended and I have three more books and some suggested readalikes to share with you.

Early in February I finally got to Away by Amy Bloom. One of last year's better reviewed novels, this title was suggested to me by many friends and colleagues. Away tells the story of Lillian and her struggles as a Jewish immigrant from Russia. Lillian left home after her parents, husband, and possibly young daughter were killed in a massacre of Jews back in her hometown. Once in New York, Lillian manages to get a good job as a seamstress for a Jewish theater and becomes the owner's and his son's mistress. Her life is going well until a relative comes to America and tells her that her young daughter is still alive and living with another family. Lillian leaves everything in New York behind and goes off on a cross country journey to Alaska in an attempt to cross to Siberia and find her daughter.

Along the way, Lillian meets many people who help her. This is the most intriguing aspect of Bloom's novel. She makes an interesting storytelling choice here. As Lillian meets and then leaves people, the reader is told of that left behind character's future. We know what happens to the secondary characters whom we have grown attached to.
I also enjoyed how Bloom chose to end the novel with aspects of wish fulfillment, while still keeping a realistic ending.

Although I enjoyed this novel as a reader, I loved it as a Readers' Advisor. This will be an easy book to suggest to a wide variety of readers. Many of my readers will love both the story and being able to know what happened to everyone, even Lillian's daughter.

Readers who are currently enjoying Geraldine Brooks' newest best seller, People of the Book, with its Jewish history undertones and the journey aspect (of a book, if not a person) should try Away. Also readers of Ann Patchett would enjoy this novel.

Good-bye Chunky Rice was the first graphic novel by Craig Thompson, the critically acclaimed author of Blankets. I enjoy going back to look at currently popular author's earlier works and while some times the trip down memory lane is not worth it (think early Sue Grafton), this was not one of those cases. Good-bye Chunky Rice tells the story of a turtle with an urge to move on and the lovesick mouse he leaves behind. When Chunky Rice boards a rickety boat, we are introduced to other lonely and struggling characters. The pictures are in black and white panels, but the message of the price of "finding yourself" is in full color. Readers who like graphic novelists Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, and David B. will also enjoy Thompson's work.

I am also thankful (for many reasons) that I chose to listen to Stephen Colbert's I am America (And So Can You). I don't know how much more I can add to the discussion of this enormous best-seller, but I will say that I loved how Colbert changed the text for the listener. He reminds us that we are listening to, not reading, his book on many occasions. My personal favorite moment in the book is early on when he relates that the book will not be available in libraries because there are "no free rides." Although I enjoy Colbert's humor, I am glad I listened to an abridged version because the book loses its freshness overtime and becomes repetitive. Fans of Colbert's TV show and this book should also seek out Our Dumb Century: The Onion Presents 100 Years of Headlines From America's Finest News Source.