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Monday, October 29, 2007

What I'm Reading: October 2007

This has been a varied month of reading and the first two books I will list are great readalikes for huge bestsellers.

When The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time came out, one of the reasons it was so popular had to do with the fact that its autistic narrator talked honestly and directly to the reader, relating his fears, confusions, and feelings. Although many readalike lists were made to help readers find something similar, none captured the voice of this young man as well. Until now, that is. This month I read, The Dead Father's Club by Matt Haig, and I instantly thought of Haddon's book. I am not alone, many customers on Amazon reported the same thing. Haig's novel is a retelling of Hamlet, in which a socially awkward preteen named Philip Nobel is visited by the ghost of his father. The father claims his brother (Philip's uncle) killed him in order to take over the family business and marry Philip's mom. The story unfolds much like Hamlet, and the ending is completely open (a cliff hanger really). However, the appeal of this story is Philip. He speaks directly to the reader in his true voice. I don't want to give much more away, but if you enjoyed the narrative voice in Curious Incident try Haig's novel.

Fans of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum mysteries should try The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz. This is Lutz's first novel and it is promised to be part of a series about the eccentric Spellman family and their San Fran, PI business. This first installment introduces the family, Mom and Dad (PIs and owners of the agency), older brother (big shot lawyer), Uncle Ray (alcoholic employee and house guest), Rae (little sister, school age but wants to be a PI right now), and our narrator, 27 year-old Izzy. The main plot centers around Izzy, her parade of boyfriends, and her wish to leave the family business. However, she gets caught up in an unsolved missing persons case for which the solution is highly refreshing. This book has no violence and lots of laughs, but don't take that to mean it is unsophisticated. If you like eccentric characters, investigative detail, and familial dysfunction, you will enjoy The Spellman Files.

Now for something completely different. I finally finished listening to the literary fiction darling from late 2006 Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. This was Pessl's debut and it is long (over 500 pages). Six months ago, I tried to read it but found it slow going and returned it to the library. I then reserved the audio and loaded it on my computer until I could get to it. I am glad I gave it another try; although I do have to say I am also glad I had seen the book and knew there were footnotes and some "visual aids." Our protagonist is Blue van Meer, a Freshman at Yale, who has decided to tell her life story as if she were teaching a course in Western Literature. Thus, the chapters are each named after great novels. We also know from the start that her story involves the death of a woman named Hannah. Blue's story mostly takes place over her senior year at a prestigious NC boarding school. Blue and her father have spent her entire life traveling from town to town, as her father teaches Political Science at small universities. Now, he has promised they will stay in one place until she goes to college. Blue's story is part coming of age and part murder mystery. I agree with many of the reviewers on Amazon who say that the first 300 pages move slowly, but they are worth it for the last 200, which you'll want to take in at one time. Word of warning though: this book has no concrete ending. Instead of a final chapter, Blue leaves us with a "Final Exam" that allows the reader to fill in the final blanks. Try Pessl's debut novel if you are a fan of Donna Tart's The Secret History.

On next month's "to read" shelf I have a western and some short stories (still have to hit those quotas before 2008 begins), but who knows what else I may pick up between now and then.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Student Work: Thriller Annotation

In the midst of midterms, one student, Sarah, was brave enough to let me share her annotation for Dan Brown's Deception Point on this blog.

Hopefully, in the weeks to come, I will convince more student's to share their work. Also, I would love to be able to put multiple annotations for one genre on each post. But, baby steps...

Monday, October 22, 2007

Too Many New Books!

I never thought I could have too big a pile of books to read. My list of books is always longer than I will ever get to in my life and I have long ago come to terms with this fact, but a few circumstances have led to my physical pile of books beginnning to literally loom over me.

First, 2 of my favorite authors, Tom Perrotta and Richard Russo have new books. Next, my name came up for Thousand Splendid Suns. And the biggest culprit, my local library's move into its brand new building. When the temporary library closed down for the move into the new $10 million facility, they were encouraging patrons to take out as many books as they wanted with 8 week loan periods. I took advantage and grabbed a ton of books, mostly from the new book shelf. Some will make it in my end of the month reading post. Others that I may or may not get to include William's Gibson's Spook Country and and Angelica by Arthur Phillips.

At first I was happy to have access to these newer titles for so long; however, now that I have finished a few, I am struggling with what to do with them. The library is still not open and they would prefer we wait to return them until the end of this month. And being a good Library Trustee, I am trying to follow their wishes. I feel like a kid on Halloween after pigging out on to much candy. You can have too much of a good thing.

The good news for you. In a few days I will have some interesting books to recount; books I would not have read this month if not for these unique circumstances.

But now to dive into the thickest Richard Russo book I have ever seen.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Book Discussion: Water for Elephants

It's the third Monday of the month and that means it is book discussion day at the Berwyn Public Library. Today we discussed Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Water for Elephants is the story of Jacob Jankowski, a ninety-something year old nursing home patient. The novel is his reminiscence of his life in a depression era circus, specifically his coming-of-age as a man and as a veterinarian. The story follows Jacob as he learns of the indignities of circus life and the intense desperation of the Great Depression. We follow Jacob as he falls in love with a performer, tries to save her from an abusive husband, and fights for the rights of the circus workers and animals. But it is with the introduction of Rosie, an elephant, that the story blossoms into something special.

There are many layers to Water for Elephants and my group had no problem filling the 90 minutes discussing the different issues. As the group is made up of mainly senior women, the issues of aging, the state of nursing homes, and the importance of passing on your family's stories was discussed at length. The Great Depression as a time period and subject is something that also caught the attention of my group.

But obviously we spent most of our time discussing Rosie the elephant, Marlena, August, and Jacob. I do not want to give the plot away to those of you who have not read this book, but I can safely say that in the book's prologue you know that the climax of the book will be August's murder. However who August is, who kills him, and why is what the entire book details, and is what continues to haunt the 90 year old Jacob-- our narrator.

Originally, I was nervous that this book would not have enough for us to discuss, but soon after beginning to compile discussion questions and research in preparation for today, I found I was quite mistaken. This seemingly simple historical novel about depression era circus held many complex messages about life, relationships, and loyalty-- both then and now.

There are many appeal factors to work from when locating readalikes for Water for Elephants. As I told my group, there is a reason this book is a runaway best seller. With its depression era setting, male narrator, compelling female characters, young and old protagonist, and wish fulfillment yet open to the imagination ending, there is something for just about everyone. For those readers who are drawn to the circus setting and details there are many choices. The Blue Moon Circus by Michael Raleigh takes place a few years prior to the action in Gruen's novel and follows the owner of a circus as he travels the Western US. In The Aerialist by Richard Schmitt Gary goes off the get help after a car accident, but instead joins the circus where he eventually works his way up to a wire walker. This novel includes the perspectives of various members of the circus. Don't forget the numerous nonfiction titles about circuses and circus life including (but not limited to) The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top by Janet M. Davis and Stewart O'Nan's The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy.

For those who enjoyed the way Gruen tells her story as the reminiscence of a an elderly man looking back on his life in show business, a great choice would be Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken. Here, the novel is told by a Vaudevillian actor in his old age. He looks back on his life and on the entertainment industry over much of the 20th century.

Finally, one of my patrons mentioned during the course of our discussion that Water for Elephants reminded her of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg. She said the similarities went beyond the interaction between the younger woman and the nursing home patient telling her life story. She brought up the similar use of dark humor, intense personal relationships, and the ultimate triumphs of the main characters. I must say, she has a great point.

My group also requested that I compile a list of the books we have discussed over the now almost 7 years during which we have been meeting. I will attempt to do this and can post a link to the word document for those of you who are interested in what we have been discussing. In the meantime, next month is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

My Reader Profile

Although you may think you know what you like to read, until you are forced to sit down and write why, you have no idea. Each semester, we have our students write their own reader profile. The argument I use is, how can you help others to find books they may enjoy based on a short conversation, if you do not understand why you enjoy certain books yourself?

The exercise itself is quite simple, think about the books you enjoy based on the major appeal factors and try to link them. The goals is to come up with a document that makes general statements about your general reading tastes. What it does best is force you to make the subconscious, conscious.

We also require that the students list 3 books they like and 3 books they did not enjoy. We then mix up the profiles and have them take another student's (without the name attached) and suggest books for him or her.

Here is the link to my profile. I wrote this about a year ago, although I did update my dislikes recently. Now you know what I like. Have any suggestions for me?

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Genre Distinctions

Tonight's class at Dominican will mark the beginning of our long march through the genres. We tackle 3-4 each week. In the coming weeks, I will begin posting links to the students' genre annotation assignments (after Joyce and I have graded them and corrections are made). Here is a link to the example annotation I have done for The Time Traveler's Wife. The students will be creating documents similar to this one; at least, that is the goal.

Each week I will break down the student's annotations by genre in separate posts and tag each post accordingly so as to make retrieval of the relevant annotations easier for those of you using this blog to help your readers. See, I did retain something from my cataloging class.

Before we begin the genre procession over the next 10 weeks or so, I want to start with this humorous look at genre distinctions which had been previously posted on Fiction-L.

Monday, October 1, 2007

What I'm Reading September 2007

Ok, so it's October 1, and I am a day late on recounting some of the books I read in September, but for the record, my watch claims it is September 31st.

Seriously, as I am nearing the end of the calendar year I am faced with some holes in my assigned reading list. Most RAs are expected to read at least 1 book from their libraries most popular genres each year. In our case, at the Berwyn Public Library, we have an agreed upon list which includes more than 1 book in some genres. This month I tackled my Young Adult requirement and, the one I dread the most, my Romance requirement. So here are three of the books I read this past month and at least one option for a readalike.

After much hemming and hawing, I chose to read the regency romance Fool For Love by Eloisa James. One of the reasons I chose a James' novel is the fact that her books are known for eschewing many of the traditions of the regency romance; that and the fact that she is also a Shakespearean scholar. She did not disappoint in this regard. In fact, when looking at the customer comments of Amazon, you can clearly see a divide between those who like the straying and those who are unsettled by it. To each their own; however, if you are looking for a sexy, historical romance, with sharp wit and well drawn characters, and do not mind that the situations and characters are a bit outside the normal boundaries of the genre, anything by Eloisa James is a good choice.

Specifically, Fool For Love is about Henrietta and Simon. Simon, a London dandy, and the new guardian of his two young sisters, heads off to the country to check on the rumor of his Aunt's pregnancy, which if true, and produces a male child, could spell the end to his fortune. Henrietta, is a young girl from the country with a bad hip who believes she can never marry and bear children. Simon is struck by Henrietta's sharp tongue and wit; while Henrietta is intrigued by Simon's worldliness and self confidence. Together, the two find a love and happiness neither thought would ever be theirs. True to the genre, this romance ends resolved and happy. There are also a few recurring characters from James' other Duchess Series titles. If you like the regency setting and the wit of James' books, and you do not mind the sensuality, you can also try Amanda Quick's Seduction or Julia London's Highlander Unbound.

After speaking to one of the Young Adult librarians here at Berwyn, I selected Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli as one of my two YA titles for 2007. It is extremely popular at our library, and after reading it, I see why. Stargirl is new to Mica High school (AZ); in fact, after years of homeschooling, she is new to school in general. She plays her ukulele in the lunchroom, carries around a pet rat, and cheers for the wrong team. Narrated by wallflower, Leo Borlock, Stargirl is a compelling entry into the subgenre of the nonconformist teen tale. A few other notable novels in this vein are Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen, Razzle by Ellen Wittlinger, and the classic The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier.

I also read Jasper Fforde's latest entry in the Thursday Next Series, Thursday Next: The First Among Sequels. The books in this bestselling series take place in an alternate reality Reading, England where literary crimes must be patrolled, Thursday can travel inside literature, and the Goliath Corporation rules all. This novel takes place 14 years after Something Rotten. Thursday is married to Landon, they have three children, and she is no longer working for the literary division of Special Ops, well at least not officially. Much of this novel revolves around the falling read rates in all of England. Thursday spends a great deal of time in the book world battling herself, or at least the book version of herself, and trying to stop "the end of time." Confused yet? This is a series for book lovers. If you want to give it a try I would suggest starting with The Eyre Affair to see if you like Fforde's humor and the onslaught of literary references.

Readers who love Thursday Next and are looking for something similar to tide them over until the next installment should check out Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. In this epistolary novel, a young girl named Ella, lives on the fictional island of Nollop off the coast of North Carolina. The island is named for Nevin Nollop, the author of the famous sentence “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” When the local government begins banning letters of the alphabet as they fall off of Nollop’s memorial statue, Ella begins to fight for her community’s freedom of expression. Ella does what she can, but with each falling letter it becomes more difficult for her to communicate.