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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Other Great American Novels: Franzen Readalikes

Jonathan Franzen's new novel Freedom comes out today and everyone is talking about how it is the perfect example of the Great American Novel. I will let you know what I think soon, as it is sitting in front of me as I type this.

The holds lists are long and, being a good RA librarian, I am prepared with readalikes to hold you over while you wait. Back in 2006 I made a list entitled "Great American Novels...With a Twist." Reprinted below, these are 10 great options for those of you to read while you wait. All should be available at your local library. Enjoy.


Take Ten:
 “Great American Novels”…With a Twist

The following 10 novels tackle large issues of recent American history as their stories unfold.  What makes these books different is the twist, or hook, which the author uses to provide a unique glimpse at the American Experience.  These books offer a little something for everyone and all are critically acclaimed.


Chabon, Michael.  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
It is 1939 in New York City and young Sammy Klayman convinces his immigrant cousin, Joe Kavalier, to work with him to create a new comic book hero.  Joe draws upon his experiences in Nazi Prague and together they create phenomenally successful “The Escapist.”  However, not even fame and fortune can help both men defeat their inner demons.  With a detailed back drop including the growth of the comic book industry, mid-century NYC, WWII, and the Jewish American experience, Kavalier and Clay’s story unfolds over the course of almost 30 years, illustrating many major historical events and issues, such as the creation of the suburbs, gay rights, and censorship.  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Cunningham, Michael.  The Hours
In an homage to Virginia Woolf, Cunningham tells the tale of the lives of three women at three different times in history.  These interconnected novellas are told in alternating chapters.  The reader is introduced first to Clarissa, a present day NYC publisher, dubbed “Mrs. Dalloway” by her friends.  Clarissa is planning a party for her friend, a poet who is dying of AIDS.  We then see Virginia Woolf as she is struggling to write her masterpiece, Mrs. Dalloway, and contemplating suicide.  Finally Laura, a 1949 LA housewife enters the story.  She is an overwhelmed, pregnant mother of a young child, struggling to find meaning in her life.  Cunningham’s complex style is rewarding in that it reveals the three separate stories in a way that highlights the connections between the women while commenting on the place of women in society over the course of the 20th Century.  His writing style also consciously echoes that of Woolf’s.  The Hours won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and PEN/Faulkner Award

DeLillo, Don.  Underworld
It is October 3, 1951 and at the Polo Grounds, Bobby Thomson hits “the shot heard round the world,” while half way around the world, the Soviets test their first atomic bomb.  The story then jumps to 1992 in the American desert where Nick Shay, a waste analyst who now owns that famous baseball, reunites with a former lover, Kara Sax.  DeLillo uses the two stories that of the fate of the ball, told from beginning to end and that of Shay and Sax, told from the end to the beginning, interweaving real historical characters, to create a web of interconnected experiences that recounts the shared experience of all Americans in Cold War America.

Doctrow, E.L.  Ragtime
In this classic novel of America at the turn of the 20th Century, Doctrow captures a young country coming into its own.  The story follows the events of this exciting time as the reader is introduced to three New York families as they become literally caught up in history when their lives intersect with the likes of Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, Theodore Dreiser, Sigmund Freud, and Booker T. Washington among others.  Ragtime explores the serious issues of racism, immigration, and oppression of the lower classes without being didactic; it is a popular work of highly enjoyable fiction.  Ragtime won the 1975 National Book Critics Circle Award.


Franzen, Jonathan.  The Corrections
The Corrections comments on the state of the American family at the end of the twentieth century by describing the lives of the various members of the Lambert family.  Albert, the patriarch is battling Parkinson’s disease in a Midwestern town, living in the family home and being cared for by his wife, Enid.  Gary, the oldest, is financially successful but battling depression.  Denise is a successful chef in Philadelphia who begins an ill advised affair with her boss’ wife.  And Chip, the baby, is in Eastern Europe involved in an Internet fraud.  The story follows the family as they deal with Albert’s worsening health and struggle to stay physically and emotionally linked in a fast paced and self involved world.  Franzen frequently employs the use of flashback to tell the tale of the Lambert’s in their younger years to serve as a contrast to the present day.  The Corrections won the 2001 National Book Award.

Gaiman, NeilAmerican Gods
When Shadow is released from prison, he accepts a job from an odd, omnipresent man named Wednesday who claims to be a God from the “old country” living in America.  Wednesday is trying to organize his fellow immigrant gods to battle the new gods of today (gods of the Internet, TV, Automobiles, etc…) and needs a driver/bodyguard/ assistant.  Reluctantly, Shadow accepts and is made privy to an underground world where long forgotten gods are disguised as regular people and strange things happen on a regular basis.  As Shadow travels across the country helping Wednesday, he is also on his own personal journey to figure out his place in the world as a free man.  American Gods won the 2001 Bram Stoker Award and the 2002 Nebula, Locus, and Hugo Awards

Lethem, JonathanThe Fortress of Solitude
It is the 1970s and Dylan Ebdus is the only white kid in a Brooklyn neighborhood of black and brown families.  When his hippie mother insists on sending Dylan to public school, he becomes the target of every bully.  Dylan’s unlikely friendship with his neighbor Mingus, the black son of a once famous singer who is now a cocaine addict, forms the backbone of the story.  The two boys’ paths diverge over time as Dylan grows up to be a music journalist, and Mingus ends up behind bars.  Dylan’s story allows the reader to follow the fate on one neighborhood over a thirty year period, leading to commentary on the larger issues of gentrification, the development of soul music, the beginnings of graffiti, and the crack epidemic. 

McCracken, Elizabeth.  Niagara Falls All Over Again
In this fiction memoir, Mose Sharp, recounts his life: a childhood in Des Moines, a career in vaudeville, his transition into a movie star, finally ending with his old age in Hollywood.  While this is a chronicle of one man’s life (his partnership with Rocky Carter, his family life, and his fame, with all of its ups and downs), it is also about a maturing America, coming into its own.  Niagara Falls All Over Again may have its focus in the Hollywood glare, but it is also a novel about friendship, family, and popular culture in 20th century America.

Millhauser, Stephen.  Martin Dressler:  The Tale of an American Dreamer
In this macabre tale, Millhauser follows the life of entrepreneur Martin Dressler as he rises from cigar shop clerk to hotel magnate in the waning years of the 19th Century in New York City.  Dressler’s outrageous imagination and desire to create a hotel that thinks will become “a world within the world, rivaling the world,” and ultimately replacing the real world, is doomed for failure.  The descriptions of the floors Dressler creates in his Grand Cosmo hotel are jawdropping; floors contain entire forests, amusement parks, rugged mountainsides, etc…  However, in recounting this outrageous historical story, MIllhauser is making very grounded statements about contemporary America’s over consumption, decadence, and obsession with possessing newest gadgets.  Martin Dressler won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.


Roth, Philip.  The Plot Against America
Imagine a world where American hero and known anti-Semite, Charles Lindberg, easily defeats FDR in the 1940 Presidential election with a platform of making peace with Hitler.  In this alternate history, Roth follows a Jewish family (the Roth’s of Newark, NJ) through their struggles of living in an America where Jews are forced into exile.  Throughout the novel Roth uses historical figures, at times even employing their own words, to enhance the chilly reality of his “what if” novel.  The Plot Against America is the story of the struggles of one family, the destruction of the ideals that created a free America, and a cautionary tale of what can happen if we choose not to risk the lives of our soldiers in a war to protect humanity beyond our borders.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Monday Discussion: What is the Purpose of a Book Review?

As I posted here last week, there is a "movement" led by Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult to question who and what gets reviewed in the major newspaper book section. The discussion has also been made into a comic book. It is worth your time clicking here to see it.

The argument has manifested itself in response to the crazy Franzen over-coverage, but as Jennifer Weiner clarified on her blog this weekend
This isn’t about Franzen, or FREEDOM. I haven’t read the book, so I've got nothing to say about it (yet), and as for the author, he’s managed to keep his mouth shut – so far – about whether he’s conflicted, as he was in ’01, about ending up with a vast, middlebrow and female readership, so at present, I got no quarrel with him or with his book. My quarrel is with the coverage. As I said on Twitter, if was Jonathan Safran Foer on the cover of Time, I’d have gone with #schadensafranfoer. I work with what they give me
Jennifer goes on to say the main reason she started this discussion is to discuss what reviews are available to readers in the newspaper these days:
Instead of asking which books and which authors deserve the Times' coverage, maybe we should think about what kind of book review section readers deserve.

There are critics who seem to feel that reviews are there to cover literature and literature only, no matter how few people read the books they cover. There are writers who think that because commercial books find their audience without the benefit of being reviewed, it's okay for big papers to ignore those books.

So what should a book review do? Should it be a mirror, reflecting back popular tastes? Is it a stern uncle waving a scolding finger, dragging us away from Harry Potter by the ear and insisting that we read Philip Roth instead, or a nanny telling us we have to eat our spinach before we're allowed dessert? Is it possible to be some combination?

I think book reviews are there to start a lively conversation, to get readers excited about books, to get the right book into the right reader’s hands (or to steer readers away from something they wouldn’t like).

A great book review section should have something for every reader, whether it’s the fourteen-year-old who stood in line for MOCKINGJAY, the Oprah-watching housewife who can’t wait to get her hands on FREEDOM, the guy (yes, they’re out there) who loved Jodi Picoult’s THE TENTH CIRCLE, and the guy who picked up Steig Larsson after not reading a novel since college and needs to know where to go next.

A great book review section should have something for the new mom who loves Elizabeth Berg and Susan Isaacs and Sophie Kinsella, and my mom, who reads J.M. Coetzee and Amos Oz and David Ebershoff. It should speak to my friend who loves Margot Livesy and my friend who reads Chelsea Handler.

Disdaining romance while reviewing mysteries and thrillers; speaking about quote-unquote chick lit from a position of monumental ignorance while heaping praise on men who write about relationships and romance; maintaining the sexist double standard that puts Mary Gaitskill and Caitlin Macy in the Style section and puts Charles Bock or Jonathan Safran Foer in the magazine…all of these are symptoms of a disease that’s rotting the relationship between readers and reviewers.

Better book review policies would mean more recognition and, ultimately, more readers for all kinds of writers – highbrow, commercial, young adult, thrillers, mysteries, romance.
So for discussion today, what do you use reviews for? How could they be better?

I can tell you this is a big issue for my patrons. When the Chicago Tribune switched their book section from a pull out section in the Sunday paper, to part of the arts coverage on Saturdays my patrons were upset. Then they went further and made the section smaller with full content only available online. My poor book club ladies do not have computers and are very upset that they have lost access to what used to be a respectable book review section.

With The New York Times Book Review being the only real book section left in newspapers, I think the editors should take Weiner's advice and add some more genre round-ups and just a general overall mix of titles.

Her comments got me thinking about how I use reviews. As one of the fiction buyers for the BPL, I use book reviews to not only decide if I should buy a book for our collection, but also to get an idea of which readers will like it. I frequently go back and look at reviews when helping patrons to find their next good read. I also use reviews collectively to help me identify trends in both what is being written and what is being read. Taken collectively, reviews provide me with a snap shot of what people are reading right now. If these reviews are only of literary fiction (of which I am a huge fan personally), I will not have a full picture of the fiction landscape.

As a reader, I look at reviews across all genres, but to get a broad representation, I need to use websites that specialize in a particular genre. I also am forced to sometimes resort to reader reviews from Amazon or Shelfari to find out about a book that is popular, but received no official print reviews.

I use reviews to find books by authors that are new to me, to identify a book in a genre I read less frequently that may be promising, and to find a hidden treasure. While I have to read Booklist and Library Journal for work, I usually put many a book on hold for myself because the review was so inviting.

So, let me know how you use reviews. Are they still important to you as a librarian and/or a reader? How do you feel about the level of coverage in American newspapers, both in the amount of reviews and in the range of books reviewed? Do you find yourself using reader generated reviews more than the print ones now that there are fewer print review sources? Tell me all about it.

And please feel free to follow past Monday Discussions here.

Friday, August 27, 2010

News in Fantasy and Science Fiction

As I was going through my regular daily list of the 45 or so blogs I follow via RSS feed every day, I noticed a few that deal with SF and FSY that I thought were worth passing on today.
  • Click here for the just released list of this year's nominees for the World Fantasy Awards.
  • Click here for Jeff VanderMeer's Amazon.com interview with the head editor of Publisher's Weekly's SF, FSY, and Horror reviews, Rose Fox. They talk about her blog Genreville, which I check daily. For the record, VanderMeer is also nominated for one of this year's World Fantasy Awards.
  • i09 has this great essay entitled, "Fictional Science 101: Important Scientific Ideas That Inform Science Fiction." It breaks down the scientific theories that most commonly pop up in SF novels and stories. The essay also includes further reading suggestions. I may add this essay to the list of my student's required reading for their SF class. I know for sure that I will be sharing this with my coworkers too. If you even have a passing interest in SF, read this essay.

Flashback Fridays: Change

Now that the school year is back in swing and I have a bit more free time, I am going to move the Flashback Fridays feature to once a month.

So look for a new edition of Flashback Fridays the first Friday of every month. I will include links to interesting posts of years past for that month.

You can look for an original Friday post later today. Hopefully, it will be my Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest review; if I finish it that is.

And of course, as always, you can use this link to follow all of the Flashback Fridays posts.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Weiner and Picoult stick up for Women Writers

In case you have been living under a rock and didn't know, Jonathan Franzen's new novel comes out on Tuesday.  And although I like Franzen and happen to be the first person on the list for Berwyn's copy, even I am sick of everyone gushing over him. I mean does he really deserve to be the only living novelist besides Stephen King to be on the cover of TIME?  I bet you can figure out where I stand on that question.

Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult have used this extreme Franzen love-in to question the coverage female writers get in the major media outlets. Both writers are intelligent, Princeton graduates who write novels that contemplate the issues that modern American women are facing everyday. Both sell millions of books to readers all over the world.

Today's Huffington Post features an interview with the 2 authors taking their Twitter conversation beyond the 140 character limit.  Anyone who is interested in either gender issues or simply just book reviewing in general should take the time to read this insightful and frank interview. Here is an excerpt:
Why do you feel that commercial fiction, or more specifically popular fiction written by women, tends to be critically overlooked?
Jennifer Weiner: I think it's a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it's literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it's romance, or a beach book - in short, it's something unworthy of a serious critic's attention.
Jodi Picoult: I think you only have to really look at the facts. I don't think it's overlooked in all venues. I think the New York Times reviews overall tend to overlook popular fiction, whether you're a man, woman, white, black, purple or pink. I think there are a lot of readers who would like to see reviews that belong in the range of commercial fiction rather than making the blanket assumption that all commercial fiction is unworthy. But it's not universal. The Washington Post for example, back when they had their book review section, used to do the widest reviews, because there were so many kinds of fiction reviewed, not just literary fiction. That's where my gripe comes from. When in today's market you only have a limited review space for books, I wonder what the rationale is for the New York Times to review the same book twice, sometimes in the same week. I want to make it clear that I have absolutely nothing against Jonathan Franzen. I hope I read ("Freedom") and love it. None of this was motivated as a critique against him or his work, just that he is someone the Times has chosen to review twice in seven days.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

BPL Book Discussion: Tender at the Bone

Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table (Random House Reader's Circle)Back on August 16th, less than 24 hours after I returned from a 3 weeks vacation, I led the BPL book discussion on Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Reichl.  I took wonderful notes, but have been too caught up in unpacking, negotiating a home font invaded by house painters, getting the kids off to another year of school, and working both in the library and on the new book to get this post up.  So my apologies, but here it is.

Tender at the Bone was the first of Ruth Reichl's numerous memoirs and it chronicles her earliest experiences with food. If you don't know who Ruth Reichl is, click here for access to her official site. She does a much better job explaining herself than I would do.

This memoir begins with Reichl as a child in the 1950s and goes into great detail on her relationship with her mentally unstable mother finishing just as she is getting into her first food writing job. One of the ladies summed up the book perfectly by saying that this book is the story of how Reichl "got to be who she is." This memoir is a true slice of life story, and it is only the beginning of the story.

Our discussion mostly revolved around the group sharing their personal food experiences. In fact, whether or not the participants enjoyed the book greatly depended upon their own personal relationship with food. For those who food is only sustenance, the book lacked depth. These readers wanted more details about Reichl and her family and friends. These readers were screaming for more details.  On the other hand, participants who find pleasure in food, enjoy experiencing new food, and see food as more of a social experience, loved the book. We classified the 2 camps as those who eat to live vs. those who live to eat.

Here are some of our more interesting discussion points:
  • We discussed cooking as an art. This led to a discussion of Reichl's earliest food experiences, from attempting to save her mother's dinner guests from food poisoning to her visits to the French family in Montreal for exquisite meals. Reichl was an artist in many senses. It made complete sense to us that her formal education was in art, that she married and artist, and that she became a writer. She both appreciated the art of food, and was quite an artistic genius in the kitchen herself.
  • I asked, "What makes a good cook?" and "What makes a bad cook?" Responses- Good family cooks work together and share what they know. Many bad cooks are lacking in food imagination, but still others are bad only because of their limited knowledge and/or resources.
  • Can you be a terrible cook with a refine palate? Reichl is both a wonderful cook and has an amazingly sensitive and refine palate. We all decided the answer to this question is yes, in our experiences, but we were not convinced that Reichl would agree with us.
  • We talked about some of Reichl's influences as both characters in the story and by how they influenced her. People who came up in detail were her mother (of course), Mrs. Peavy, college friends, workers at the Swallow, Nick from the commune, and Doug (her first husband).
  • How Reichl chose to share the recipes were discussed. As a literary device they worked extremely well. Recipes were always in the middle of a chapter, placed after the central characters or issues were introduced and just before that recipe made a starring role in her life story. It was literally mouthwatering, one participant said, to see how the recipe played out in her story.
  • The act of reading this book makes you remember special recipes of your life. The group shared some of these. This line of discussion then moved into talking about how recipes reflect the social times in which they are made.
  • We were on quite a roll talking about food and memorable recipes and meals we have all had when it dawned on me that I needed to ask the group why people like to talk about food so much. The answer was given succinctly by one member, "Food is Love!"  Food bonds family and friends. It is a universal glue holding the human experience together. Look at the popularity of food tv, food books, and food movies, not to even mention the extreme popularity of culinary mysteries. Food is an experience that moves beyond family and unites us all as humans. It is a common language that brings so much pleasure.
  • We talked about Reichl's luck at being on the cusp of so many food movements: organic food, ethnic food, locavorism, gourmet restaurants for the middle class.  These are all issues and situations with which the vast majority of Americans are familiar. Reichl was able to experience them early on.
  • We discussed this book's humor. It really is an amusing book. Although there are some larger, more serious issues in the book (Civil Rights Movement, mental illness, finding yourself), the overall mood is light, fun, and humorous.
  • We discussed the book's very open ending where Reichl is driving over the Bay Bridge and trying not to let her phobia of bridges consume her. She is working through her anxiety about bridges, literally, and metaphorically. She was beginning a new stage in her life as a food writer and she was moving forward toward both the known and the unknown. People who wanted more liked knowing Reichl had written more memoirs.
  • The title "Tender at the Bone," was also discussed. Literally is a a cooking term, but another participant mentioned that children need tenderness. Reichl was forced to find the tenderness she needed from people and places other than her parents. She got her tenderness and her solidity (her "Bone") from food and those who taught her about food. Food brought structure into her life, even during  the most chaotic times.
  • A member ending the discussion by saying, "how do you show someone you love them? By making them their favorite food."
Readalikes: There are so many food related books, and not just narratives. Many people love to read cookbooks for fun, even those who do not like too cook. In fact, we discussed this, and the ladies for whom this is the case shared their feelings.

So where to begin.  Well, start with your library's cook book section, her is a link to ours.  Thankfully, the Library of Congress has just switched the official subject heading for cookbooks from "cookery" to "cooking," making it much easier to find cook books in the catalog.

You can also go to the Food Network's webpage or this list of culinary mysteries for more ideas.

Some of my favorite nonfiction food centered books have been written by Anthony Bourdain, Mark Kurlansky, and Michale Pollan. All three authors have a completely different style and focus, but together, they provide a wide representation of what is available to readers.

Some recent and well received novels that focus on food and cooking are, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender and The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman. For more ideas, here is a list (last updated in 2006) of "Edible Fiction" posted on Fiction-L.

Since we had just recently read and discussed The Glass Castle, many people found the books very similar. We are also going to read another possible readalike, My Life in France by Julia Child, this December.

Happy reading, eating, and cooking. Next month we are reading something completely different.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

What I'm Reading: Fly Away Home

Fly Away Home: A Novel
While on vacation I read Jennifer Weiner's latest Fly Away Home. Those of you who follow my reports/reviews on what I have read know that I do not read a lot of Women's Fiction but I do enjoy Weiner's novels (and that is not just because she is married to my friend).

After finishing Fly Away Home, in my opinion, it is Weiner's best novel. It is her most mature both in subject matter and writing style, and is an excellent entry what I sometimes find, in less capable hands, an overly sappy  genre.

The plot is fairly straightforward; the interest in the story lies in its characters and how Weiner chooses to unravel the story through their eyes.

We have 3 narrators here. They are the three women of one family. There is the approximately 60 year old mother, Sylvie, who has been long married to the senior Senator from New York. She has willingly and happily given up her career as a lawyer to manage her husband's affairs. They are in love and mutually respect one and other; however, it their pursuit of his goal to be President of the United States, they may not have made the best parenting choices.

The book opens with Sylvie learning via CNN  that her husband has cheated on her with a staffer. This information throws Sylvie's life into chaos and the rest of the book is her attempt to get her life in some semblance of order.

The chapters alternate between Sylvie's point of view and her 2 daughters. Diana is the older daughter, the over achiever daughter. She is currently the mother of a young son, unhappily married, an emergency room doctor, and having a passionate affair with another doctor. Lizzie is the younger daughter, a recovering drug addict, a burgeoning photographer, and just simply looking for her place in the world.


The novel follows these 3 women as they come to terms with their personal demons and come together as a family. Whether or not you will like this book depends on how you feel about the characters and their decisions.

Let me explain. This book is heat-breakingly honest and offers no easy answers. Our three main characters are all greatly flawed. I really do not agree with the decisions any of them make, but as the book ends, they have made their proverbial beds and are attempting to lie in them, live with their mistakes and begin their lives anew. Also, the way the book concludes, there is hope, but no guarantees for these characters as they have made some tough decisions, appear to be on he road to happiness, but could still easily fall flat on their faces again.

I liked this departure for Weiner, whose heroines in the past tended to be a bit too perfect. She is trusting her readers will trust he in her ability to make us care about these flawed women whether or not we agree with them. Her writing and honesty pull it all together for me. However, on the flip side, I have looked at customer comments and many regular Weiner readers are disappointed for exactly the reasons I liked the book.

Three Words That Describe This Book: Multi-generational, family crisis, flawed characters

Readalikes: Weiner makes reference to the real life wives of politicans who were forced to deal with an infidelity scandal in a public forum.  Readers who want to read more on this should try the memoirs of Elizabeth Edwards or Jenny Sanford.

Weiner also thanks Curtis Sittenfeld in this novel and her American Wife would also be a great readalike option here.

I read A Year By the Sea by Joan Anderson about 9 years ago for the BPL Book Discussion group, and I could not stop thinking about it while reading Fly Away Home. I would also suggest Dream When You Are Feeling Blue  by Elizabeth Berg (which I read here).

Books by Anne Tyler, Ayelet Waldman, and Jonathan Topper are also all great readalikes for Weiner.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Monday Discussion: Re-Reading

One thing I have learned in the 10 years I have been working with readers and training librarians is that there are a lot of people out there who like to re-read their favorite books. Some, I have found, re-read a favorite book once a year.

I myself am not a big re-reader, but there are a few books I have purposely gone back and read again. The only book I have ever read more than 3 times (I am probably up to 6) is Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I also happen to have another strange rule with this book: I refuse to own a copy.

Let me explain how my crazy brain works. Bradbury wrote this classic book in the LA Public Library, using their pay-by-the-hour typewriters. Most copies of the book include an introduction explaining how important the public library is as a defense to those who want to squash our 1st Amendment rights. I feel one of my duties as a champion for public libraries is to check this book out of the library only. Owning it, to my quirky brain, is an affront to Bradbury's message.

Obviously the message of this book (the right to read anything you want) strikes a cord with me. But each time I re-read it, I get something new out of the novel.

Thinking back, I have also re-read Little Women and To Kill a Mockingbird in order to experience them during different stages of my life.  I have found new inspiration and interpretations each time I have read these novels, but again, they were purposely read when I was in a new stage in my personal life. I would estimate I have read each 3 times. But until my kids are ready to read these books, I don't see myself reading them again.

One of the assignments my students can choose to do for their research papers is to look into a book that has had made an impact on society. We often suggest to students who are interested in this assignment that they look to classic books they enjoyed as children/young adults and re-read them. We ask them to add their changing impressions about the book and its appeal to them personally to their research paper on the book's larger impact on society. Some of the most popular books researched over the past 6 years are Catcher in the Rye, Little Women, Dracula, To Kill and Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, and 1984.

So for today's Monday Discussion: What books do you re-read and why? If you a huge fan of re-reading, please share why you love it. On the flip side, if you do not like to re-read let us know why.

You can follow past Monday Discussions with comments by using this link.

Friday, August 20, 2010

True Life Horror Story at the Offices of Horror Publishers

I normally have nothing but good things to say about Dorchester Publishing's horror arm, Leisure Books. For the last few years, Leisure has racked up the best consistent stable of horror authors, churning out good to excellent mass market horror titles at a furious pace. Authors like Brian Keene, Nate Kenyon, John Everson, Robert Dunbar, and Tom Piccirilli (just to name a few of my favs) published the bulk of their papberback novels through Leisure.

But then this week, Dorchester made this announcement:

Dorchester Transitions to E-book and Trade

Given the many changes in the publishing industry over the last several years, Dorchester has made the decision to more tightly focus its distribution models so that we may fully capitalize on the most profitable emerging technologies.
Starting with September titles, we will be moving from mass-market to trade paperback format. This will delay new releases roughly 6-8 months, but it will also open many new and more efficient sales channels.
And we’re pleased to say all titles will be available in ebook format as originally scheduled. The substantial growth we’ve seen in the digital market in such a short period—combined with the decline of the mass-market business—convinced us that we needed to fully focus our resources in this segment sooner rather than later.
Dorchester has always been known as a company ahead of the curve and willing to take risks. As bookstores are allocating the bulk of their capital to the digital business, it only makes sense that we do the same. Everyone keeps hearing that the industry has to change if it’s going to survive. We’re excited to be at the forefront of that change and will continue to keep you posted on further developments.
And to help answer some of the questions you might have: 
For readers:
How will I be able to get the new books?
From September through April, new titles will be available only in ebook.  You can find them in all major ebook outlets: Amazon, B&N, Books on Board, Sony, Overdrive affiliates, etc.  And we will have links for purchase at various vendors from our site as well.

In plainer English this means that the horror titles that were due out in the next 6-8 months will only be available in ebooks. How does this help my horror readers at the BPL? We stock quite a few of these Leisure titles and have decent circulation numbers to show for it. What are these readers going to do? The BPL's patrons are working to middle class, with a large new immigrant population. Many do not have home computers let alone ebook readers.

Also, from a purely selfish level what am I going to do? I almost always have at least one horror mass market pb in my purse and 7 times out of 10 it is a Leisure title. I can't whip out the Kindle I don't own yet and read the newest Nate Kenyon title on it at school pick up. It's bad enough that all of the moms think I am ignoring them on purpose when I am absorbed in a book, how arrogant does it look to do it on an iPad? How cumbersome too? Oh, and the fact that anything electronic is infinitely more interesting to my kids and I have to fend them off from trying to push its buttons. What's wrong with my paperback? (Click here for more of my ebook thoughts)

I am concerned that just as horror is breaking back into the mainstream that the most solid, well written, and well edited pulp titles are going to disappear. As my baby sister used to say, "This is not good like I thought."

If this was all not unsettling enough, Brian Keene released a statement hinting that the proposed switch to trade paperbacks will not be happening either. Editors at Leisure are being fired and authors aren't getting paid. He is blunt and pulls no punches in sharing his opinion:
What’s my advice to my fellow Leisure authors? Run. Get the fuck out and don’t look back. It is my opinion that we are screwed. At this point, you’re an absolute fool if you sign with them for anything else.
Click here for his full statement.

All I can add is, I am worried. I will be following this story and pass on any news.

Flashback Fridays: BPL Book Discussion- Thunderstruck

My book group met this week to discuss Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl, but due to the fact that I am still getting reorganized after vacation, I don't have the report up yet.  Instead, here is my report from 2 years ago this week, when our group discussed Thunderstruck by Erik Larson:

Monday, August 18, 2008

Book Discussion: Thunderstruck

Today at the Berwyn Public Library, we discussed Eric Larson's Thunderstruck. In this follow-up to the hugely popular Devil in the White City, Larson again employs his alternating stories style to follow a historical event and a gruesome murder, except this time it is on the other side of the ocean. Larson chooses to recount what he describes as England's second most famous murderer, who it turns out, was only captured because of a new invention, Marconi's transatlantic wireless. In alternating chapters we get the story of Dr. Crippen, a failed American doctor turned potions hawker who brutally murdered his wife in their London home, and the social inept inventor Marconi.

It had been said, before Larson's book, that the international manhunt and ultimate maritime capture of Dr. Crippen and his girlfriend did more to convince people of the usefulness of Marconi's invention than any marketing or demonstrations undertaken by the inventor himself. Larson plays off of this bit of history by building the story of these 2 men, side by side on the page (even if the historical time lines are not exclusively concurrent), and ends with, what everyone at our discussion agreed, was an exciting and worthwhile conclusion.

That is not to say everyone in the discussion loved the book. Many mentioned that they liked Devil in the White City better. Some cited the fact that the setting for Devil was more interesting since we all live near Chicago, but others were turned off by the strong history of science aspect. Interestingly, many also liked this part. There is a lot of explanations into how Marconi used trial and error to invent the wireless and it can get to be a bit much for readers who do not care about electricity and radio transmissions. Finally, the group was also mixed between those who enjoy and do not enjoy mysteries, and since this book had the true crime element, this was crucial to how appealing each reader found the work as a whole.

However, Larson did break up the science by switching to Crippen's more narrative story after each chapter on Marconi. And, everyone, no matter how much they enjoyed the book overall, agreed that once the murder part of the story started to heat up, they were swept up in the story and couldn't stop turning the pages. One participant went so far as to note the page at which she finally starting enjoying the book. (It was when the soon to be dead wife starting suspecting something was going on between her husband and his typist).

Overall, the group agreed that the first 1/2 of the book, at least the parts about Marconi, could have been shortened by 1/2 and they still would have understood the importance of his invention and the sensation it turned the Crippen crime and capture into. It is importance to note that our group had read Larson before, so we had faith he would eventually merge the alternating stories together into a compelling conclusion; but a group without this knowledge, might not have been willing to "stick it out."

Thunderstruck also led us to talk about how the truth is stranger, and messier, than fiction. It was mentioned many times that Crippen and Marconi were both such oddballs that if we did not know they were real people, we would not have believed them as characters. The crime itself also turned out to be quite grisly and the state of the located remains and how the crime was probably perpetrated were both graphically described. This turned off even some of the mystery readers, but we then discussed how in the true crime genre in general, readers are willing to accept more gore than they would normally enjoy in a mystery novel, since the writer can argue that s/he is simply reporting the facts.

Finally, we addressed the topic of instant communication and real time reporting, two very common occurrences today, which only began after Crippen's arrest. First, a participant mentioned how much Inspector Dew's chase of Crippen on a faster boat across the ocean, and its descriptions in newspapers around the world (in just about real time) reminded her of the coverage and chase of OJ Simpson. In fact, she noted how she caught herself wondering how CNN would have covered the Crippen case. I am sure Marconi would have been brought in as an "expert" on Larry King.

Marconi's invention, we decided, ended a time of innocence. We could no longer stay in isolation to the outside world. In cases like natural disasters, we thought this was great. Aid can get to people who need it faster and we can also use the immense amount of information to know if that aid and the response is being carried out correctly. But, in cases like celebrity reporting, we also decided, there is too much information and we just don't care.

There are a few ways one could explore nonfiction readalikes for Thunderstruck. The first is to find a book that looks at an intellectual pursuit and a murderer. In this case there is Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman which follows the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary and one of its biggest contributors, Dr. W.C. Minor, a certified lunatic and convicted murderer.

In finding other readalikes, one needs to look at whether or not the reader in question liked the history of science aspect. For those readers, Dava Sobel's Longitude which follows the race to create a clock that can keep accurate time on the seas, and thus, accurately chart a ship's longitude is an excellent (and short) suggestion. Then there are those fans of true-crime. Here there are literally thousands of suggestions, but Anne Rule, the queen of true crime, is a great author to begin with. Also, I highly recommend Larson's first book, Isaac's Storm which chronicles the birth of the National Weather Service and the devastating Galveston hurricane in 1900. Although it was written before Katrina, this book is an even more compelling read in light of recent events.

For fiction readers who enjoyed Thunderstruck I would like to suggest, The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld. Although this mystery novel takes place in America, it is during the same time period and has real life characters (Drs. Freud and Jung). Many participants also noted how very British Thunderstruck was. When pressed to explain further, they said in many places it had the feel of a traditional British mystery. After hearing that, and given that Larson quotes, P.D. James, the Queen of the British mystery, in his opening reader's note, I would also suggest readers try one of her many novels.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Newer Horror Titles Worth a Look

I have been keeping track of a few new paperback horror titles that are getting a lot of positive buzz.

Feed (Newsflesh, Book 1)The first, one I am currently reading and loving.  Feed by Mira Grant was getting starred reviews in the library press this spring, so I ordered it sight unseen. I am reading it now and will have a full review in a few weeks, but here is the basic plot. A virus was accidentally unleashed on the world in 2014. It is now 20 years later and while America society is still functioning, it is quite different. One of the key changes after the virus is that the people stopped trusting the official news sources, and bloggers became more important and universally accepted as news and entertainment outlets. Our story is narrated by a young woman, who with her team get picked to cover a candidate for President. They uncover a secret conspiracy behind the virus and fight to unleash the truth upon the world.

There is a great mix of chills and social commentary here. But again, in my review I am going to ponder and dissect whether or not is true horror. I know a lot of horror readers who would not enjoy this title as horror simply because the zombies and the fear they induce has a scientific explanation.  But more on that later. If you want a smart, fun, exciting, and chills inducing read, try Feed.

The BridgeThe Bridge by John Skipp and Craig Spector is also garnering positive attention. Originally published in 1991, it was reissued this spring and is worth a second look.  From the Dark Scribe review:
This novel is a must-read. Powerful and well-written with unforgettable characters and a terrifying premise that will haunt your dreams, The Bridge is an uncompromising nightmare ride to destruction.
Surprisingly, only the BPL picked up this $7.99 paperback reissue in our system and no one still has the original release either. I would highly suggest other libraries grab a copy before Halloween.

The Reapers Are the Angels: A NovelIn the USA Today I read this gripping review of The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell:
It's zombies meets the Southern Gothic tradition in Alden Bell's dark yet luminous novel The Reapers Are the Angels
Temple, the 15-year-old at the center of this ominous tale, was born into a world where "meatskins," the walking dead, are more prolific than the living.
Except for photos she sees in old magazines, she is a survivor who can't imagine what life must have been like 25 years ago before the zombies (Bell also refers to them as "slugs") roamed America.
Bell doesn't tell us how things came to be or whether the zombie plague has spread across the world. It doesn't matter. It's Temple's life and her immediate surroundings that fascinate us.
A loner by nature, Temple carries the weight of intolerable grief for acts she has been forced to commit so she can survive. In an attempt at atonement and redemption, she decides to help Maury, a mentally challenged man, travel across the South to Texas, where he has family who can care for him.
Along the way they are pursued by a man set on killing Temple to avenge his brother's death, a slew of zombies and a family of startlingly repulsive mutants. (Readers will be completely unnerved by their lifestyle.)
Most fascinating, Bell's zombies provoke compassion and are portrayed with a certain dignity. After all, who would choose to be zombified?
If you loved Justin Cronin's The Passage, this summer's vampire hit, you'll get a charge out of The Reapers Are the Angels. It's a literary/horror mashup that is unsettlingly good.
Well, enough said for me. I put the title on hold while on vacation and it is in my possession to begin after I finish devouring Feed.

A Gathering of CrowsSirenOn top of these buzzed about books. There are also new paperback offerings from perennial favorites John Everson and and Brian Keene.

So here is just a taste of what is out there right now in horror. I will have my full year in horror wrap up posted by mid-September to help everyone get ready for the Halloween rush, but I thought I would help you all get a head start now.