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Friday, February 27, 2009

BPL Book Discussion: Manhunt

This month, my book club was pushed back a week because of the President's Day holiday, but we still found time to honor the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth by reading and discussing James Swanson's Manhunt: the 12-day Chase for Lincoln's Killer.

Manhunt is the story of John Wilkes Booth's (hereafter JWB) assassination of Lincoln, his collaborators, his escape, and ultimate capture. Swanson's best-seller drew upon primary documents, including the pages from JWB's personal diary while he was on the run.

After reading 400 pages on the assassination and the manhunt, I thought I would shake things up by beginning our meeting with the question, what if JWB had missed? This led to an interesting discussion about Lincoln's death and what it meant for the country. As one participant pointed out, Reconstruction might not have gone so badly if Lincoln had stayed at the helm. However, as a few others pointed out, Lincoln's death transformed him from a controversial figure into a martyr overnight. His death sped up the healing process, as North and South united over their outrage at his assassination. It also elevated him to the status of our greatest President ever; a title many in the group thought he might not have today if he had lived to finish his second term.

We continued with this hypothetical discussion for awhile. But then moved on to talking about some of the characters. We talked about how Mary Surratt was the first woman executed in America, and although, she was definitely a key player in the conspiracy to kidnap Lincoln, it is not clear if her offenses were worthy of death. Many liked the rebel "river ghost" Thomas Jones. Although he was instrumental in allowing JWB to escape to Virginia, most of the group admired his code of honor and his commitment to his cause. Finally, Dr. Mudd. He was not the smartest man. He helped JWB, had previously conspired with him to kidnap Lincoln, went out of his way to draw attention to himself during the manhunt, and couldn't keep his lies straight. He now lives on forever in our idiomatic speech whenever we say, "my name is mud."

This discussion of those who helped JWB led us a step further to talk about whether or not JWB is a sympathetic character in this book. We agreed that we have to have some sympathy for his plight and his pain in order to be invested in the "story" as readers. But one participant thought JWB was the epitome of evil and she could not sympathize with him at all. Another person read a passage from the end of the book, an excerpt from Asia Booth's (JWB's sister) memoir. In this passage Asia links JWB and Lincoln as a necessary pair in our history. Her argument, summarized, is that in order for our country to heal and come back together after the Civil War, we needed JWB to be the assassin in order to solidify Lincoln as the hero.

However, the most important factor in our ability to find JWB as a sympathetic character is because we know the outcome. This is nonfiction remember. The entire time we are reading, following JWB's exploits and close calls, we know that he will be caught and killed. It is easier to sympathize with a killer when you know he will pay for his sins. If this were fiction, with an unknown outcome, we might have felt differently as we were reading. Speaking of fiction, one participant loved how Swanson was able to recount the Manhunt in a style that read like historical fiction. Although I knew it was true, she recounted, it was almost unbelievable.

So who is the hero of this book? Definitely, JWB is our protagonist and Lincoln is a hero, but the group thought in this book, Secretary of War, Stanton, was the "hero" of the story. Despite the immense loss he felt as a result of the death of his friend, Lincoln, Stanton set up the manhunt office, right next to Lincoln's death bed. His willingness to fill the vacuum left by Lincoln's leadership kept the country from falling into chaos. People also found Secretary Seward and his family very heroic. They were all in mortal danger from the craziest of JWB's conspirators, and they fought him off valiantly.

We also spent some time making comparisons between between Lincoln's assassination and Kennedy's. We also talked about the manhunt for JWB vs that for Osama Bin Laden. And we touched on the question of whether or not we, as a country have forgiven JWB.

I ended by bringing the discussion full circle. Since we began by asking what if JWB missed, I ended with the question, what if JWB and his conspirators had succeeded in killing Lincoln, VP Johnson and Secretary of State Seward? Would we have gone back into Civil War? There were arguments on both sides, but one participant helped us wrap up the discussion by noting that when the fighting ends with a treaty, the war does not really end the next day. She noted that the Civil War is still being fought today.

While we were having our discussion many other nonfiction titles were mentioned. Another participant read , April 1865: the Month that Saved America by Jay Winik for her other book club this month. She says the Winik title is also written in a narrative fashion and was fun to read in conjunction with Manhunt. The Doris Kearns Goodwin award-winning Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln was also mentioned during the discussion. There are many other biographies and histories about Lincoln and his times. You can use this link to begin your exploration, or turn to Swanson's excellent bibliography at the back of Manhunt

For those interested in getting more information about the Civil War, there is no better place to begin that with Shleby Foote's 3 volume history entitled Civil War: A Narrative. And don't forget the documentary series which made Ken Burns famous, The Civil War.

Still others may have been intrigued by those who helped JWB because of their love of the Confederacy. In Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, Tony Horwitz explores those who still, over 100 years after the South lost, are still intrigued by the Confederacy. His findings are surprising and highly entertaining.

For the fiction lovers there are literally hundreds of novels that touch on the subject of Lincoln and the Civil War. Two of my personal favorites are The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara's novel retelling the Battle of Gettysburg from 5 perspectives, and Mr Lincoln's Wars: a Novel in Thirteen Stories by Adam Braver which also employs various perspectives to create a fuller picture of the great President.

Finally, there is one good novel about JWB entitled, Booth: a Novel by David Robertson in which the author spends more time speculating why and how JWB did what he did than Swanson does in Manhunt.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Student Annotations on Genres of the Intellect

This week's annotations have been posted by our students at Word Press.

They studied literary fiction, mystery, science fiction, and psychological suspense this week.

Next week is mid-terms and then spring break, so no new annotations for a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Big Read: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

This year the libraries in the Western Suburbs of Chicago (including my home library) are reading Kingsolver's nonfiction work about her family's experiment of eating only local, in-season foods for 365 days.

Information about the book and a full schedule of Big Read events is available here.

I am currently listening to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and will weigh in with my opinion in a few weeks. But for the record, regardless of how anyone feels about the book itself, the idea of getting a community to read one book at the same time, to have that common experience, is worth it.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Student Annotations Get Their Own Home

The students of Dominican University's GSLIS 763 have been graciously sharing their annotations for the past few semesters on this blog.

But now, we have set up a site just for annotations over at Word Press. Here is the link, but it is also listed on the right hand side of this blog as "Becky's Student's Annotations."

Since the class meets on Wednesday nights, you can expect new annotations on Tuesdays and Wednesdays just about every week.

With the annotations on their own site, readers can now easily search by appeal terms and genre to find books they may enjoy. I will eventually upload the older annotations onto the Word Press blog too.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Upbeat Literary Fiction

Marianne Goss, a freelance writer in Chicago, has begun making a list of upbeat literary fiction. You can access her ongoing list here.

It is an interesting point, that literary fiction need not always be dark. I never subscribed to the belief that great literature needs to be depressing. This is similar to the absurd argument that you can only be a good artist if you suffer. (Although, for the record, personally, I do prefer darker books.)

Goss' list contains some wonderful award-winning novels that will leave you feeling better about the world. And we could all use a list like that.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Reader Profile and Response Example

One of my student's first assignments each semester is to write their own reader profile and then switch with another student. The students then take a classmate's redering preferences and practice being a readers' advisor. Last semester, I linked to Jennilyn and Dan's pair here.

This semester, I present Amy's profile and John's response.

Notice that Amy's profile presents an interesting problem since she lists the same author for a book she loved and one she did not enjoy. John's response handled this well. Also, John's response shows that a woman who likes Chick Lit can be helped by a trained, professional male librarian who prefers true crime.

I hope their work helps you or your patrons. Thanks for agreeing to share Amy and John.

Monday, February 16, 2009

MP3 CDs @ Your Library

In the past I have described how I check out books on CD from my local library and put them on my iPod, but this is a time consuming and, as I outline is the provided link, mishap prone process. I could subscribe to a service like Audible.com for faster service, but that costs too much money. A reliable delivery systems of MP3s directly from my public library to my iPod is also not widely available yet. And besides, those technologies have the files "expiring" at set times, whereas I like to get a lot of options uploaded on my computer so that I have a wider choice when the time comes to pick a new book to listen to.

What am I to do?

Well, this past week I discovered the next best thing to direct MP3 downloads at the Berwyn Library, MP3 CDs of books. Basically, instead of 12 or so CDs recorded traditionally, you get an entire novel on 1 CD in MP3 format. You pop the single CD into your computer, upload the book in one shot, and start listening in minutes. Of course, this is all legal copyright wise as long as you remove the files from your computer once you have finished listening.

Our collection is small right now, but I am listening to my first book in this format and am very happy. A few advantages are that the volume is standard throughout. iTunes could calibrate the entire book at one time, instead of calibrating the volume on each CD separately, which often leads to voume fluctuation. Also, the ease of upload is a huge plus. The one downside is the tracks are much longer. Whereas traditional books on CD are tracked at about 2-5 minutes, this MP3 on CD format is broken up by chapters, varying from 6-almost 20 minutes.

Check your library to see if they offer this new format. And if not, direct them to this posting for further information.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

BPL Displays: February 2009

We have two great displays this month at the Berwyn Public Library.

First since we are here in the Land of Lincoln, Kathy put together this display of books set in Illinois. If you live nearby, stop by and look at her wonderful display including a picture of Lincoln reading to his young son and Lincoln's own quotes about reading.

We are also celebrating African American History Month with this list of recent African American titles.

Monday, February 9, 2009

New Online Book Section

Tina Brown's online magazine "The Daily Beast" has added a very good book section called "The Book Beast." In a time of daily news stories about declining book coverage, it is nice to see someone as important as Brown adding intelligent book content to her popular site.

The Book Beast uses its medium to the fullest extent by combining traditional text reviews with video and great graphics. It appears easy to navigate also. This will probably become one of my go-to resources along with Early Word and the RA Online Blog.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Locus SF and Fantasy Recommended Reads

Every February, Locus Magazine, the top magazine for Science Fiction and Fantasy, comes out with their Recommended Reading List for the genres. Here is the 2008 list.

This is one of my biggest collection development tools for SF and Fantasy. I use this list to help me identify books I should be reading, authors I need to know about, and titles I should be adding to our fairly popular, but modestly sized, SF and Fantasy collection.

The Locus Recommended Reading List is so useful because it includes titles and stories appropriate for both the hardcore SF and Fantasy fan and the newcomer.

Locus Magazine also has a great awards database on their website here.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Genre Fiction Awards from ALA

The Reference and Users Services Association division of the American Library Association announced their "Reading List" at ALA Midwinter in Denver last week.

From the press release: "The Reading List annually recognizes the best books in eight genres: adrenaline (which includes suspense, thriller and adventure), fantasy, historical fiction, horror, mystery, romance, science fiction and women’s fiction. This year’s list includes novels that will please die-hard fans as well as introduce new readers to the pleasures of genre fiction."

Here is this year's list complete with readalikes for the winners and honor books in each category.

As a reader and as one who helps readers, this is one of my favorite "awards." It is not often that genre fiction is recognized on such a large scale. Generally, genre awards are given out by the writer's association for that genre. Kudos to Neal Wyatt, who as President of RUSA, has led the charge to recognize these wonderful titles.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Under the Radar: Legal Thrillers

Over at Readers' Advisory Online's Blog (which I have a permanent link to on the right hand side), Cindy Orr is always posting "Under the Radar" lists. This week the list is Legal Thrillers, a genre that is always popular, especially when John Grisham has a new one out.

Check out the list for well reviewed, backlist, legal thrillers.

Also, Berwyn patrons, remember, you now have full access to the RA Online database from home or in the library. So have your library card with you as you peruse the list and click through for more detail on each title.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

50 True Crime Detective Blogs and Crime Fiction Resources

Over at the e-justice blog, Alisa Miller has posted an annotated list of her top 50 true crime blogs.

If you like crime fiction as well as true crime, I also have this list of resources from the Berwyn Public Library website.

Mystery and crime titles, both fiction and nonfiction, are extremely popular. There really is a title for just about every reader.