ARRT GENRE STUDY WEBSITE

CLICK HERE for quick access to the materials for the 2016-17 Speculative Fiction Genre Study.
The website now features UNRESTRICTED access, including notes from our meetings; however, in order to attend the meetings in person, you must be a member of ARRT. Click here for information about how you can join.

RA FOR ALL...THE ROAD SHOW!

I can come to your library, book club meeting, or conference to talk about how to help your readers find their next good read. Click here for more information.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What I'm Reading: The Best Books I Read in 2009

Time for my annual post of the best books I read this year (from January to December 2009). I have listed the genre for each and the month in which I read it.  Also the links go to my original post on each title, and all posts include multiple readalikes options for each title.

I did not rank these in order, but I will say that the first three I listed were my favorites, for such different reasons (click through on each title for details)

Here we go...my list of the 10 best books I read in 2009:

Click here for the posts on every book I have read.

Happy New Year and thanks for reading my blog!

Black Quill Award Nominees


It is almost time for one of my favorite awards of the year...the 3rd Annual Black Quill Awards given by the registered readers and editors of Dark Scribe Magazine for the best in horror, suspense, and thriller books.  As they say at Dark Scribe, it is the best of the books that keep you up at night.

I love these awards because they hit at the appeal of the books; they are not just singled out by their genre. These awards reward writers who invoke fear in their readers, however they do it.  Not all of these books are "horror," in the traditional sense, but they all create a chilling atmosphere and set a dark mood. They are all most compelling for the atmosphere their authors create.


There are eight categories of nominees here.  They are open for voting in December and January with the winners announced on January 31st.

Books that I wrote about on this blog that are nominated in the "Dark Genre Novel of the Year" category are Castaways, The Unseen, and Drood. Use the links to read my opinion on these books.

Also, Robert Dunbar, a great writer and acquaintance of mine, is nominated in the"Best Dark Genre Fiction Collection" category (hint, hint).

Anyone who is a registered reader can vote. I will be. It is free to register, and as a bonus, the online magazine is a pretty good read too.  So click on over and register today.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What I'm Reading: Her Fearful Symmetry


Recently I devoured Audrey Niffenegger's new novel, Her Fearful Symmetry. I was nervous before I began because I really enjoyed The Time Traveler's Wife and the new book was getting mixed reviews. Well, I am happy to report that I actually enjoyed Her Fearful Symmetry (herein, HFS) even more than The Time Traveler’s Wife (herein, TTW).

The reason I enjoyed the newer novel more and others disagree has to do with the difference in the appeal of each novel. The overall tones of these novels are on opposite ends of the spectrum. TTW is a love story with a science fiction element and a heart-warming ending. (click here to read my full report on TTW).

On the other hand, HFS is a dark ghost story about deep family secrets with seriously twisted characters and an unsettling ending.  I loved it! But this huge shift in tone, mood, and storyline focus can easily explain why fans of the more heartwarming TTW were disappointed.  Whereas Claire and Henry in TTW are good, well meaning, loving people, the main characters in HFS are manipulative, selfish, and mean.

Without giving anything away, here is the basic plot. Edie and Elspeth were identical twins growing up in London, Edie married and moved to the Chicago Suburbs and had twins of her own, Julia and Valentina.  When Elspeth dies in London, she leaves her flat, overlooking Highgate Cemetery to the twins with the condition that their parents don't come over the ocean with the girls.  However, Elspeth finds herself a ghost, stuck in the flat and eventually figures out how to communicate with the girls. Elspeth's lover, Robert, and the upstairs neighbor, Martin (who has a serious case of OCD), are also key to the story.

But there are many twists and turns through this story and at the end, there is one HUGE plot twist that makes the book even darker and more sinister.  Again, I liked that, but it is not for everyone.

Appeal: This is a complex, character-centered, gothic tale told in a modern setting. With its focus on death, family betrayal, mental illness, and cemeteries, the novel is shrouded in a darkness of tone and mood that rarely lifts. But HFS is also filed with lyrical language, beautiful scenes, and amazing passages that beg to be read a second, or a third time. TTW, the sequel, this is not.

3 Word That Describe This Book: dark, twins, character-centered

Readalikes: HFS is very similar to a few other books I have read and loved.  The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfeld, The Good Thief  by Hanah Tinti and A Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier.

Also, use this link for my report on my book discussion on The Stolen Child for a longer list of books that are similar to HFS.

Books about Highgate Cemetery, London travel guide (the twins use them when they first move to London), books about twins (especially those trying to have separate lives), and books about ghosts could all be of interest to readers after finishing HFS.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

What I'm Reading: Asterios Polyp

I was able to get my hands one of the year's best reviewed books, Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli.  If you want a grown-up fiction graphic novel, this one is for you.  One of the problems with the current offerings in "grown-up" graphic novels is that many of the nongenre options are all nonfiction.  Those of us who enjoy literary fiction graphic novels have fewer choices.  Thankfully, Asterios Polyp  is a good option.

The plot is pretty simple, Asterios Polyp is 50 years old when his New York City apartment is destroyed in a fire.  He then takes off on a bus as far as his money can take him to start over in a generic Midwest town.

Asterios' life story is told in flaskbacks as narrated by his twin, who died in utero.  He is a famous "paper architect," meaning he is well renowned for his drawings but none were never built. He was a self righteous, blowhard professor in Ithaca, married to a caring, sensitive sculptor named Hana.  But as we see, he ruined his own life by basically being a jerk.

Asterios' time in the Midwest working as a car mechanic is the first time he truly comes to know himself, and as the book ends, he is trying to make amends for his past mistakes. It is when his life completely falls apart, that he sets off to finally build one. The irony is, he has never built anything before.  I liked that tie in; he is famous for never building anything, but at some point he finally has to step up and do it.

In terms of the drawing style I liked that Mazzucchelli used a free style, utilizing the entire page to tell the story, but still made it easy to follow. How? He changed the font size and style for each character.  Each character talks in dialogue bubbles, and has their own unique font which also gives you clues into their personality.  The narrator uses much larger font, outside of any dialogue bubbles.

The drawing style is fairly traditional; nothing crazy.  I liked how when Asterios is being pompous, Mazzucchelli breaks down Asterios figure into more basic shapes. Mazzucchelli uses tricks like this to enhance the story throughout the graphic novel.

In terms of the colors, it is  mostly Grey,White and Primary colors (blue, red yellow), with each section using one color pallet. As the chapters shift, so does the dominant color. That was also effective in separating out the different sections of this fairly complex story.

3 Words hat Describe This Book: character-driven, modern, redemptive

General Comments: I am not sure how I feel about the entire dead twin narration mostly because I don't think it pans out. I get how once Asterios finds himself again that the twin disappears, but I felt like he should show up at the end since he was there at the beginning; you know, for closure.  There is a one-page epilogue but it is from the perspective of the family in the Midwest who Asterios stayed with.

I did love the complex characters and their interactions. I also liked the "arts" setting. However, I am not sure how I feel about the ending. It feels like a cop-out for such a complex story.  I don't want to give it away since it kind of comes out of nowhere. Read it for yourself and let me know what you think.

Readalikes: David Mazzucchelli has contributed to many graphic novels in the past, so here is a link to his other work.  Specifically, I would suggest starting with City of Glass, the graphic novel version of Paul Auster's wonderful novel.

This graphic novel is also similar to a book of modern art, both because of Hana's sculptures and the overall look of the book itself.  Here are a few examples.

David Mazzucchelli's drawings (and the content to a lesser extent) reminded me of the work of Daniel Clowes.  Both men use a similar style and write interesting, complex, character-driven, fictional stories.

Fans of Chris Ware will also like Asterios Polyp.

Also, a few other graphic novels have received high accolades this year, and they may be of interest to you.  If so, check out Stitches: a Memoir by David Small, AD: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld,  and The Book of Genesis by R. Crumb.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Last Minute Shopping Ideas

So its 59 minutes until Christmas Eve and some of you out there may still need a gift or two.  Books are always a good idea. As I have said many times on this blog, there is a book for everyone.

Book stores are open tomorrow, so you still have time and besides the wonderful resources available here on RA for All, here are a few holiday gift guides to help you out:

January Magazines's Holiday Gift Guide

The New York Times Books Section Holiday Gift Guide 
Amazon's Gift Guide 
NPR Gift Books

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 21, 2009

More Bests Lists: Again With Genre Fiction Options

RA Online posts their best historical fiction for 2009 and their best biographies and memoirs.

The Rap Sheet has links here to the best crime novels of 2009.

Financial Times' best books of 2009.

The finalists and winners of The Audies for best audiobooks of 2009 are also posted. There are lists for just about every genre here; use the links in the right gutter of the page.  Even if you don't listen to audio books, this a great list of some of the best books, period, in each genre.  With so few genre fiction best lists, the Audie genre lists are a great option for all readers.

More Interviews with RA Librarians

About 10 days ago I posted this link to RAO's interview with Readers' Advisor Jane Jorgenson.  It proved so popular, Sarah Statz Cords posted another interview, this time with Jody Wurl, the Teen and Web Services Librarian at the Hennepin (MN) County Library System.  Part One is here. Part Two, here.

 Both of these interviews are great resources for anyone working in RA or those just interested in what we do to help you find your next good read.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

More Best Lists-- Featuring the Best of the Best

The Book Beast has compiled a list of all of the magazine and newspaper best books of the year lists and has created this aggreagted list of the best of the best.  Page two has the honorable mention list.

Thanks to the folks at Graphic Novel Reporter I have GN best lists to share here and  here.

NPR posted this list of the best book club books of 2009.  Their large collection of "best" books is getting huge! Pick and category, any category and click on over to find a book.

And my favorite list of the year, every year, Stephen King's favorite books he read in 2009 from his column in Entertainment Weekly.

Friday, December 18, 2009

What I'm Reading: Firmin

After hearing from multiple sources about Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage, I added it to my "to-read list;" however, I was not impressed, and I though I would be.  Look at this review from Booklist:
In Savage's darkly comic debut, the titular metropolitan lowlife is a rat, albeit one with lofty literary ambitions. The runt of 13 siblings spawned in the basement of a shambolic Boston bookshop, Firmin survives his lean first weeks by munching on the edges of books. He quickly develops a predilection for actually reading them, too. Soon he's perusing everything from Joyce to compendiums of dirty jokes and even developing a secret fondness for the bookshop's owner, Norman. Tutored by a sign-language book, Firmin tries to communicate with Norman and his human brethren with predictably disastrous results until an obscure science fiction author, who writes about rats and lives above the bookshop, takes him in as a pet. There Firmin enjoys a brief respite of security, writing odes in his head and dreaming of glory, until the wrecking ball threatens the decaying neighborhood. Blending philosophy and abundant literary references with originality, Savage crafts a small comic gem about the costs and rewards of literary illusions.
So, I should have loved this book.  It is darkly comic, it has the speculative element of an anthropomorphic animal, and it is all about books and reading; all things I love.  So if the appeals all fit my tastes why didn't this book work for me?

This is a good opportunity to talk about using only appeal to match a book with a reader.  Even though I preach about the superiority of matching the right book to the right reader when you focus on appeal, there are no guarantees.  This is why I always tell patrons that while I think the book I am giving them is a good suggestion for them based on their likes, they still may not enjoy it.  What I say excatly is, "If you find you aren't enjoying the book, close it up and bring it back. We can find you something else; just look at all the books we have waiting for you." I also remind them that we don't ever check to see if they have finished a book, so feel free to not finish it.

So why didn't I like this book.  Well, although it had the good appeal matches for me that I mentioned above, I was turned off by all of the digressions the narrator makes.  Firmin, the rat is narrating the book, but he is too scattered for me.  It took more than half of the book for him to find focus.  Also, the book was too snarky; it was as if the author was trying to hard to be dark and unfocused so as to be cool.  It felt forced to me.

Also, I did not care about Firmin or the humans be befriended. Without caring about them or their plight, I could not get into the book.  This is a character driven book, but I did not enjoy the charcaters.  I usually don't need to sympathize with the main character in order to like a book.  That was not the problem.  I just did not care to be bothered.  The characters did not grad my attention and demand to be followed through the story.

I think I can put Firmin in the same category as Captain Freedom, which I also did not enjoy (click here and scroll down to see what I had to say).  Both have too many references and are too obviously ironic for me. However, since ever reader reads a different version of the same book, I know there are many other readers for whom this book struck the perfect chord,  Click here and here to see what some of these Firmin-lovers have to say.

Readalikes:  On the other hand, there are books similar to Firmin which I did enjoy. If you want to read a book about people/animal interactions, from the animal's perspective, in an urban environment, with a darkly comic tone, I think The Roaches Have No King by Daniel Evan Weiss is an oldie but goody.  I loved this book.  It is very similar to Firmin in theory, but in practice, I enjoyed it much more. I still give this "dustie" out to readers.

Christopher Moore is a great example of an author who successfully crafts darkly comic, urban stories with speculative elements.  Try A Dirty Job.

And don't forget the king of all anthropomorphic novels, Watership Down.  If you have never read it, put down Firmin and pick it up instead.  Contrary to popular belief, Watership Down is not a kid's book; it is a very adult cautionary tale.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Student Reading Maps

Tonight marked the end of another semester of GSLIS 763 at Dominican University.  Four students did a reading map for their finals.  Use the links below to access each map, but remember they are all archived on the class blog right here.

Monday, December 14, 2009

BPL Book Discussion: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil


Today our book group gathered for our annual holiday party. We met from 12-4 and had a potluck lunch.  The library provided the sandwiches and everyone else brought a side or dessert. We always pick a book for which there is a movie.

As you can probably tell, the discussion takes second fiddle to the party, but that is the point. We are all so busy this time of year, but we still want to get together. By picking a book with a movie, there is no pressure to read the book. In fact, I tell them as much the month before. No one should feel burdened reading the December book.  We are meeting to celebrate and have fun.

So we read and watched Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (herein MitGoGaE) by John Berendt. First the book.  MitGoGaE is hard to describe.  It is considered a modern true crime classic. It has won awards as gay literature, it has been cited as the beginning of the current narrative nonfiction craze, and it has been credited as reviving the tourist industry in Savannah, GA.

John Berendt, a writer for New York Magazine, goes to Savannah, GA to write about the town and stumbles into a friendship with a con-man/jazz club owner, a drag queen, and a gay antiques dealer, Jim Williams, who, while Berendt is living in town, kills a volatile young man, Danny Hansford, who was his employee and sometimes lover.

Through four trials, over 8 years, Berendt follows Williams' story, but also introduces the reader to the colorful characters of 1980s Savannah.  We read about the squares, the beautiful mansions, the social strata, and the town politics; we see the town's underbelly, go into its cemetaries at midnight, and come to love, trust, and then lose trust in, many of its residents.  Savannah and its citizens are as important to the book as the trials.

The movie came out in 1997.  It was directed by Clint Eastwood and stars John Cusak and Kevin Spacey. It also features a very young Jude Law in the Danny Hansford part. Click here for some trivia about the movie too.

In terms of our discussion, it was brief, which again is the point at these less formal December meetings.  We began by talking about how Berendt chose to write MitGoGaE.  He made himself a character and rearranged the timeline in the name of narrative. We all agreed that the world Berendt is recreating for us was crazy. Many mentioned how if this was a fiction book, they would think it was too unbelievable.  This kept us turning the pages to see what would happen next, though.

We also talked at length about individual characters, the race issues, and the "good ole boy" American South. As Chicagoans, those of us who had not travelled extensively in the South were shocked by some of the revelations about the segregation and prejudices that were still in control of 1980s Savannah.


The discussion was short, but the movie was great, the patry a sucess, and another scessful year of book discussions at the BPL was completed.

Readalikes: As I mentioned above, MitGoGaE is considered a true crime modern classic.  It is most similar to In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.  Both are narrative nonfiction, true crime masterpieces; however, the criminals in Capote's book are less sympathetic.

Writers like Erik Larson, John Krakauer, and Mike Dash owe quite a bit to Berendt.  All three's best selling style can be traced back to MitGoGaE's success back in the early 1990s.

Also, don't forget books about Savannah, Georgia.

In terms of fiction, one participant mentioned John Grisham as a great readalike. She cited his use of the south and its traditions, racial issues, and colorful characters, as well as a focus on trials; I would agree. She thought that Grisham's newest, Ford County works especially well as a readalike.  With its connected stories, all taking place in one county, it reminded her of MitGoGaE.

Also, I would suggest any mystery with eccentric characters for fans of MitGoGaE.  I would even argue that it need not be in the south, although that wouldn't hurt.  You can use the wonderful resource, Stop You're Killing Me and their genre index for humorous mysteries or their location index for southern mysteries to find readlaikes that would fit your tastes.

Specifically, here I would suggest Cathy Pickens' Southern Fried Mysteries or The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall, which I read here.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

What It Means to Be a "Readers' Advisor"

One of the most common questions I get is, "What exactly does it mean to be a Readers' Advisor?"

People want to know what I do and what I teach my students. Obviously this blog is one way I explain the nuances of RA work in American public libraries. I try to share my experience both as a practicing librarian and as a teacher of future librarians.

However, there are thousands of more RAs out there trying to spread the RA gospel like me. Over at the Readers' Advisor Online Blog, Sarah Statz Cords has a 2 part interview with Jane Jorgenson, a RA at the Madison (WI) Public Library System. Click here for part 1, and here for part 2.

The interview looks at the past, present, and future of RA service. Anyone who enjoys this blog will also like this interview.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

More Best Lists 2009: Genre Fiction

Amazon has a page of all of their Editors' Picks broken up by genre. Click here and then use the left side bar to find a list for many genres. For example, here is the list for SF and Fantasy.

I am still waiting for a Horror best list from Amazon, but I am not going to hold my breath. Good thing I made my own list. Also, here is the list of the books that won the Stoker Award in 2009 (but it was for books published in 2008). My list is for 2009 books.

If nonfiction is more your (our your patrons') cup of tea, the Economist also published their annual list of the best business related books. In a year where banks closures and the economy were a daily topic of everyone's conversation, this list has more appeal now than ever before.

Besides pointing out more best lists, the point of this post is to remind you that the "best" books are not only the most "literary."

There is a book for every reader, and it is our job as RAs to match each reader with the book that is "best" for him or her. So look beyond the literary best lists for suggestions for you and your patrons. And remember the "best" tag is only 1 person's opinion. When we read for pleasure, our own opinion of the book is the only opinion that truly matters.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Wrap-Up Class

Tonight I had my "wrap-up class." This is the last lecture of the semester in which I try to summarize everything we have learned in the past few months and tie up any loose ends.

We have a few exercises, but we also discuss the entire semester's worth of discussions happening on the listserv for Readers' Advisors, Fiction-L.

New for this semester, I have created a handout of the the 10 things you cannot leave leave this class without knowing. It is modified from a new 60-75 minute talk I have been giving at libraries focusing on how all staff can provide basic RA service, or as I like to call it RA for All. Catchy, no?

Anyway, here are Becky's Ten Rules of Basic RA Service:

1.) Betty Rosenberg: “Never apologize for your reading tastes.”
2.) Suggest don’t Recommend.
3.) Everyone reads a different version of the same book.
4.) Write down adjectives about what you read; plot you can find.
5.) Read widely (at least speed read widely).
6.) Read about books (RSS feeds).
7.) Share what you read- with staff and patrons.
8.) Never let a patron leave unsatisfied.
9.) Get out from behind the desk.
10.)Get involved in creating displays.
I also provided a list of the 5 RA resources you cannot live without. Here is the text from the handout:


Plot summaries, possible read alikes, but most importantly, customer comments! 5 star and 1 star reviews are the most helpful.
NoveList: EBSCO Database
Most helpful quickly-- Left Hand Menu: Recommended Reads; Right Hand Menu: Genre Outlines. Enter author or title and look for “Author Read Alike” or “Feature Articles” tabs.
Kent District Public Library’s What’s Next Database: http://ww2.kdl.org/libcat/WhatsNextNEW.asp
Easy to retrieve and print lists of books in series order. Makes patrons happy. Brings them back!
When you are desperate…distract them.
My blog which talks about all things Readers’ Advisory.

So this is the super quick version of what we have spent all semester talking about. I also go out to libraries and teach this extremely basic "RA for All" class, so contact me if you are interested in having me come to you.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

More Best Lists

Here is an article from the Chicago Tribune's books blog entitled, "Best of 2009: a User Guide." What I like about this list is that it combines traditional and non traditional best lists.

Remember, to check out the big list over at Early Word (right hand gutter) if you are trying to keep up with all of the best lists.

Also, look for my favorite books I read in 2009 at the end of this month and the BPL's best of 2009 display in January. Unlike many of the lists you will find, we will be acknowledging genre fiction too.

Best Death Scenes In Literature

Lit Lists, which I have mentioned a few times before, compiles literature related lists from all over the Web and posts one just about every day. Sometimes they are the obvious best lists that everyone else is posting, but other times they are really original.

Case in point, this post about the best death scenes in literature.

This is a great resource for finding a different list; one that will jump start your (or your patrons') reading when you feel like you are in a slump.

Just type a subject into the search box and see if they have a list. I would bet they do.

Monday, December 7, 2009

BPL Displays: December 2009

I woke up this morning to a fresh coating of the season's first measurable snow. It was a quite festive drive to work this morning; I literally have to go over the river and through the woods. Just enough snow to add atmosphere to the drive, but not enough to cause any hazardous driving conditions. How do people pass the winter in warm places without this beauty?

Digression? No? Segue into our 2 new displays here at the Berwyn Library? Yes!

For December we have our annual holiday display of Christmas book in all genres. It went up on Friday and now, on Monday morning, minutes before opening, I see it is bad need of restocking. The annotated list has a nice mix of new and old titles too. Even if you live nowhere near Berwyn, IL. you can still access the list and go to your local library to get one of the books.

I also did a display and annotated list entitled "Cozy Up With a Cozy." Our new RA staffer (but not new to the BPL) John, did a great job making the display look as cozy as the books on the shelf. The list has 5 general fiction and 5 mysteries filled with kind-hearted characters and happy endings, sure to warm your heart.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Can You Judge a Book By Its Cover?

I know we all are familiar with the idiom "you can't judge a book by its cover," but to take it literally anymore may be a mistake.

Publishers are getting much better at trying to sell the appeal of a book with its cover. You can tell the genre and tone/mood of most fiction just by looking at the book's cover. Also, publishers include appeal info on the flaps and in the blurbs on the back covers. With so little time to sell a book to a patron, using the cover to help us divine clues about what is between those covers, is a helpful RA tool in and of itself.

I now spend time each semester talking to my students about how to use the cover to help you and your patrons. But I am not the only one doing this. At PLA this March, Michael Gannon will be presenting "Readers' Advisory for Dummies: Yes, You CAN Judge a Book By Its Cover." If you will be there, I would highly suggest going to this program.

We already know how good covers help books. Amazon has annual poll of the best book covers. But, tomorrow, the NY Times Book Review is going to have this article about how bad covers can hurt a great book.

So, go ahead, start judging books by their covers. I do. But understand that you can't tell how good or bad the book is by its cover. It is more a guide for the genre and tone/mood. But those two appeals will help you to better help your readers.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What I'm Reading: The Housekeeper and the Professor

On Kathy's recommendation, I just read The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa. This slim (under 200 pages), moving novel can be read in just a sitting or two, but the story will stay with you for days after that.

The story is deceptively simple with a compelling twist. First of all I should state that no one has a name in this book, which leads to so many questions without even mentioning the plot. So our three main characters are "the housekeeper" (who is also the narrator and from whose point of view we get the entire story), "the professor," and the housekeeper's 10 year-old son, who the professor nicknames "Root."

The housekeeper is assigned by the agency she works for to take care of the a former mathematics professor's home and make his meals. She is the 9th housekeeper assigned to the professor. This is because the professor has a brain injury. He can remember everything that happened before his accident (1970s), but since, his memory is on a 80 minute loop. That's right, his memory only lasts 80 minutes. Intriguing, huh?

The ensuing story is about her time working for the Professor and the bond they form. It is about her son's relationship with her and the Professor. It is about the loss of a genius; we still see sparks of the old Professor as he works on complicated math problems. And finally, it is a story about living, no matter the obstacles; about living a life with meaning even if you cannot remember what happened 81 minutes ago.

Appeal: There is math in this book, but it is just enough to catch our interest. If you think the book looks like a good match for your tastes but you do not like math, don't be scared off. The math is presented in an accessible and interesting way. Trust me, I don't like math myself and I enjoyed this book.

This novel obviously has a speculative element that is key to the story. You need to buy the whole memory lasting 80 minutes thing to like the book. This adds a touch of fantasy to what is otherwise a very "real" story. The memory issue is well explained early on though, and it is consistently applied throughout.

When you are reading it, The Housekeeper and the Professor seems leisurely paced, but it is so engrossing and original (and short) that I literally gulped it down.

At its heart, Ogawa's novel is a domestic story about every day things. It is also about the universal topics of friendship, love, and admiration.

But most of all, you have to like characters over plot to enjoy The Housekeeper and the Professor. It is the interaction between the three main characters and how they handle the Professor's illness that makes the book. Ultimately it is both heart-wrenching and touching, both surprising and reassuring.

Thinking about how your life changes when your memory (or the memory of one in your midst) only lasts 80 minutes is a huge appeal here. You will not stop thinking about what it would feel like to live that way.

Readalikes: One reviewer said that this novel with its larger message and nameless characters felt a lot like Aesop's Fables.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is similar to the works of other Japanese writers. If you liked this novel, try Haruki Murakami or Kobo Abe.

I also found this novel to be very similar to Japanese American author Julie Otsuka's When the Emperor Was Divine about the Japanese-American internment camps. Both are short, but leave you thinking. Both are very domestically focused but look at a much larger and thought provoking picture.

Richard Powers' award winning, The Echo Maker also looks at a man unhinged by a mental defect caused by an accident. However, here we get the perspective of the person living with the brain injury.

The Housekeeper and the Professor also reminded me of the work of Jose Saramago. Try Blindness where everyone has gone blind, save for one "survivor."

For Nonfiction options, people may be interested in books about popular Japanese literature (Ogawa has won many awards in Japan), failed memory, and, of course, mathematics.

Look for more on The Housekeeper and the Professor in the next few months as my book group will be reading and discussing it soon.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

More Best Lists: NYT and Book Club Choices

Two more bests lists came out this weekend that I wanted to point out. One is a major one, the other, more niche.

As reported on many other blogs, The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2009 was posted on their website. It will be in print on December 6th.

The Book Club Cheerleader
published her year end best list too. These are paperback and hardcover releases in 2009 that she feels made for the best discussions. Here is the list.

Monday, November 30, 2009

State of Crime Fiction Part 2 and the Genre Problem

About 2 weeks ago I wrote this post on the current state of crime fiction.

Publisher's Weekly has posted this article on their website which continues the discussion from the authors' points of view.

Much of what these best-selling authors say comes up each and every day at my library. What is genre fiction and what is literary fiction? Who decides? What are the criteria? Does it matter? (See the comment by Tana French, at the end of the article, for the answer to this question)

However, the most important question from the RAs point of view, which Michael Connelly brings up in the opening sentences of this article, is are genres walls that keep readers out or are they guides to help readers find a book they may enjoy?

I grapple with this issue frequently. In fact, just today, I got fed up with figuring out if a book should be in our fantasy section or if we should catalog it with the general fiction. Exasperated I said to Kathy, "Let's just take away our sections and just file all the books together, with stickers indicating their genre."

The La Grange Public Library
did this a few years ago. I wasn't convinced of the idea at the time, but the more authors write across genres and the more supernatural elements creep into all genres of fiction, the more I love the idea.

I'll keep you posted on our on going discussion at Berwyn, but if you are interested in the issue, go to the Fiction_L archives and read a thread of this very discussion from February of 2006. Librarians weigh in passionately on the issue and many have concrete examples from their libraries.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Best Graphic Novels of the Decade and General GN Library Collection Comments

Here is another one of Paste's lists of the "Best of the Decade." This time it's the best graphic novels.

We have worked hard at Berwyn to have a graphic novel section for readers aged 16 and up. Click here to read some of my posts about our work. This does not mean our "adult" graphic novel section is in any way "R" rated, it just contains books with stories and art that is sophisticated enough to interest an older audience.

I knew our work is getting noticed when about a year ago (after, at that point 8 years of building the collection), an over 50 year-old woman asked me for help in picking out graphic novels for herself. Thus, the first of my "graphic novels for grownups" lists was born. (There have been updates, but I will save that for another post.)

Don't forget to click here and see the graphic novels my students have read over the last few semesters too. Some are from the decade's best list above.

Looking at these three lists and reading the annotations, it should become clear that graphic novels are not just comic books, and they aren't just for kids.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Holiday Book Lists

I haven't talked about some of my favorite resources for book lists in a while and I thought with Thanksgiving tomorrow, now would be a good time both to mention them and use them to find Thanksgiving books.

Library Booklists is a compilation of book lists from libraries all over the world. If you have a topic, setting, character, genre, or really just about anything you want a book list on, Library Booklists has compiled it for you.

Case in point, here is the link to holiday lists. And here is the link that gets you to Fall and Fall Holidays directly. Scroll on down for something to read this week as you give thanks.

I always have a link to this useful website in my "RA Blogs and Sites to Checkout" list in the right gutter of this blog.

Fiction-L, a listserv for RA librarians also has a great archives of lists to be found here. Use it to find something different to read, or click here for a list of suggested Thanksgiving titles.

Since the lists are generated by the discussions that are constantly occurring on the listserv, there are new offerings all of the time.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Shelf Renewal Has Moved

In this post I mentioned the new blog, Shelf Renewal, by my friends Rebecca and Karen.

Since that original post, their blog has been bought by Library Journal. Go here to follow their relocated blog. After some initial growing pains, it is all set up for your subscription.

And, of course, you'll want to read this post.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Best Lists-- Looking Back and Looking Forward

Tired of trying to catch up with the best of 2009? Why not revisit the past decade's best or get a jump on 2010 instead?

Paste Magazine has been posting many lists of the best books, music, TV and movies of the decade. Click here to see them all. My favorite two are their lists of the 20 Best Books of the Decade and their 10 Best Debut Novels of the Decade. I have read 6 of the 10 Debut novels already and highly recommend them all.

If you are more of a "don't look back" kind of person, my go to resource for all things speculative, io9, posted this list of SF novels they are excited to read in 2010.

So there are many options for all types of readers. You can also access any "best lists" I have ever posted using this link.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

BPL Book Discussion: Olive Kitteridge


This past Monday, my ladies and I met at the BPL to discuss Olive Kitterridge, the winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, by Elizabeth Strout. I read this book about 9 months ago for the first time and this is an excerpt from what I said about it then:
Olive Kitteridge is the story of the eponymous woman. She is a retired middle school teacher in a small town in coastal Maine. Olive has a husband and one distant son, she is crotchety and probably suffers from untreated depression. Sounds like fun, huh? It is though because what makes this story so engrossing, goes way beyond who Olive is. Strout's choice to reveal Olive through connected stories, all told from different points of view (including Olive's) gives the reader a unique experience. We learn about Olive, her family, and her town. We get intimate portraits of many of the inhabitants of Crosby, Maine. And although Olive is an abrasive woman, at the conclusion of the 13th story, the reader sees her finally moving toward an
understanding of herself and what her behavior means to those around her.
Click here for my full report including some readalikes (I will have a few more at the end of this post.)

On to our discussion. I began with the following quote from Strout (which I got from the NoveList book discussion guide for the book)
I don't have a stake in whether people like Olive. Some people have told me they absolutely love her, and some people have said they can't stand her but they're still very drawn to the book. ...I hope that even if they have a negative response to much of Olive's behavior, they are maybe still drawn into this humanity that is underneath all of her action(s).
I then immediately asked the group, "Did you like Olive?" The most common response was, "yes and no." Some comments were that Olive was real, she was like actual people the participants knew. Stories were shared of friends and family who are "just like Olive."

More general comments about Olive:
  • she irratated people, but they saw her humanity
  • she had falshes of true compassion and caring
  • she was opinionated and brusque, but still fragile
  • Olive was the best representation of older people that my group of (mostly) senior citizens had read
  • ...and my favorite: Olive had a shell around her; for us to get through we need the views of all the townspeople.
This last comment led us to discuss the format. Strout wrote Olive Kitteridge as 13 linked stories. For the most part it alternates back and forth between stories where Olive is the main character and those where she is more peripheral. These "periphery" stories range from Olive being a participant in the story, to barely making it into a crowd scene, to not being there at all, but mentioned by a character.

The group was mixed about the format. A few participants don't like short stories, so they were turned off from the start. But others liked how it was "a different way of writing." They enjoyed how Olive's character was developed through other people's eyes. We all were happy for the portrait it painted of the town of Crosby, Maine. Without the story format and the shifting points of view, we would have only had a story about Olive. Instead we also got a story about a town and its residents over time.

But no matter the opinion on the format, surprisingly, everyone enjoyed the experience of getting to know Olive and Crosby, Maine.

We also spent time discussing Olive relationship with Henry (her husband), Christopher (her son), and Jack, her "friend" at the end of the book.

I ended the discussion by going through the "non-Olive" stories and giving people a chance to comment on them. A few led to a couple of comments, but it was clear that, as a group, we were more drawn to the Olive stories.

We ended as someone said that this whole book is about life as an experience. We take the good and the bad and it makes a life. Well said.

Readalikes: As I mentioned above, I read this book earlier this year and if you click here, you can see some readalikes. To that list I would add Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson for those who want to read another novel in stories; any book of stories by Alice Munro, who is both one of the best short story writers today and one of Strout's favorite authors; any book by fellow Pulitzer Prize winner Oscar Hijuelos, whose novels about Cuban Americans have an episodic feel, and are about both individual people and a larger community, like Olive Kitteridge.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

National Book Award Winners

NBA's were announced tonight and Galley Cat was Live Blogging at the event.

Full and official results here.

Student Annotations: Special Reading Interests

Tonight we talked about the fact that in every community there are special interests you need to be aware of. The four most popular special reading interests in the Chicagoland area are Inspirational Literature (both religious and non-religious), African American Literature, Latino/a Literature, and Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Literature.

These are not genres, but rather specific interest areas which include books in all genres. It is also important to note that you do not have to "be" in one of these groups to read books in these special reading interest areas.

My students read some books in these 4 categories and posted about them on the Word Press blog.

Since people are less familiar with these areas I thoughts I'd also share just one web resource from each area.

Inspirational: Beliefnet
African American: African American Literature Book Club
Latino/a: The Boston Public Library's Latino Life Bookmarks
GLBTQ: I'm Here, I'm Queer. What the Hell Do I Read?

Use the resources or the student blog to find something new to read.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Forum On the State of Crime Fiction

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The Huffington Post has been trying to increase their book coverage, in order to compete with their rival, The Daily Beast.

We, leisure readers, are the beneficiaries of their on-going battle for readers. Case in point, today's post by thriller writer, and Huffington Post blogger, Jason Pinter. He gathered six well known crime fiction reviewers and asked them a series of questions about the current world of crime fiction.

This is a must read for any librarian or reader, for that matter. This idea of "crime fiction" which combines some (but not all) books in the following genres-- mystery, thriller, suspense, romantic suspense, and even psychological suspense-- is something I have been interested in for a while, both as a reader and as someone who helps leisure readers. Click here for other posts where I have mused on crime fiction. This link will lead you to a lot more resources.

Keeping Up With the Year End Best Lists

Even I have a hard time keeping up with all of the best lists that come out this time of year; so I rely on the help of other great resources. Which leads me to point out a particularly important rule of being a librarian. Librarians do not know all the answers. We know where to find them though.

Early Word, is also trying to stay on top of it for all of us. Click here for a link to their spreadsheet of all the major bests lists (it is toward the bottom of the post).

But even Early Word cannot keep up, so following their lead, I will direct you to Largehearted Boy's self proclaimed compiled list of every best book list. Use this link to get the first post, and then follow his daily update link.

And, if this is all too much for you to keep up with, those of us in the RA department at the Berwyn Public Library will be putting up a comprehensive display of all the "best" book of 2009 up for you in January-- when you finally have the time to read them.

Monday, November 16, 2009

BPL Displays: November 2009

This month we are featuring 2 displays with annotated lists at the Berwyn Library.

The small display has novels with recipes, so you can enjoy a good story and get ideas for all of your upcoming holiday feasts.

The tall display has been up for a week already and is extremely popular. It is filled with first books in some great series. If you like to read books in a series, then stop by this display to get some new ideas.

Don't forget we keep all of our past annotated lists archived here.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

What I'm Reading: The Guinea Pig Diaries


Not only does my husband subscribe to Esquire, where A J Jacobs is the Editor-at-Large, but I have read all three of his books, and one even made it to my favorite books of the year list. So of course I put my name on the hold list for his newest, The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life As an Experiment. His other two books follow his exploits through a full year: reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica one year and living his life to the standards of the Bible for another.

Guinea Pig Diaries is different in that it is a series of essays recounting shorter experiments. My favorites were when he outsourced his professional and personal life to India, the month he tried not to multitask at all, and the month he did whatever his wife told him.

Guinea Pig Diaries would be a good introduction to Jacobs' writing style which is funny, but personal. His works are about him trying something, but they are also a memoir of his life with his wife, kids, family and friends. He takes himself seriously enough that his experiments are worthwhile, and he pokes enough fun at himself to keep you smiling. He also learns something from each experiment and ends each with a coda outlining how his experiment has changed him.

However, unlike his first two books, which followed an experiment over an entire year, some of the essays in Guinea Pig Diaries, in which all experiments are only for 1 month, are not as compelling as stories in and of themselves.

Overall, Guinea Pig Diaries will appeal to readers who want an episodic book which is heartwarming, insightful, thoughtful, introspective and hilarious all at the same time.

Readlikes: Jacobs is one of the most popular authors in the genre that is becoming known as "Year in the Life." Those of you with access to NoveList, they have a great list under the record for Jacobs' Bible book to get you started (Berwyn patrons, click here). A few highlights from this list are Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper by Diablo Cody, The Year of Yes: a Memoir by Maria Dahvana Headley, and Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping by Judith Levine.

Jacobs has been described as a modern day George Plimpton. I agree. Plimpton's immersion journalism still has resonance today. I even named my fantasy football team after his classic Paper Lion: Confessions of a Last-String Quarterback.

Wall St. Journal sports reporter Stephan Fatsis is another similar author in both tone and subject. He has gone on the professional Scrabble circuit and tried out as a kicker for the Denver Broncos.

David Sedaris
and Roy Blount, Jr are also humorists who would appeal to fans of Jacobs. They all use humor as a way to talk abut serious issues. All three also use their personal lives for material.

Jacobs mentions a ton of books throughout Guinea Pig Diaries, and he lists all of them in a chapter by chapter bibliography, but of special interest may be The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman, His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph Ellis, and Marriage, and A History by Stephanie Coontz.

In terms of fiction, I would suggest anything by Christopher Moore (humor, satire, horror elements), Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon (Jewish, writer, funny), and On Beauty by Zadie Smith (humor, introspective, satire).