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Thursday, January 31, 2008

What I'm Reading: January 2008

It has been cold and snowy here in Illinois this January. That and a vacation early in the month means I got through 6 books this month, cover to cover. I have decided to focus on the three shorter works I read. All are very different in scope, tone, and theme; however, due to their little number of pages, each could be easily consumed on one cold, winter night.

Michael Chabon has now completed his second cycle of following a large tome with a short novella. His latest novella, Gentlemen of the Road (or as he has been quoted as wanting to have titled it, Jews With Swords), is historical fiction set in 10th Century Khazaria, a mythical city of red headed Jews on the western shores of the Caspian Sea. The two main characters are both Jewish "gentlemen of the road," men who travel the Silk Road because they have nowhere else to go and no one waiting for them. One is a pale, German doctor and the other a "giant" black man. These two seemingly different men are inseparable. Their adventure involves bringing the heir to the murdered King of Khazaria back home and re-instating him onto the throne.

Although Gentlemen of the Road's plot is dependent upon the intricacies its 1oth Century setting, the novella is a true adventure novel in the style of mid-20th century pulp fiction. It was originally published in the NYT's Sunday magazine in 15 installments. Faithful to its genre, the story moves quickly and each chapter ends with a cliff hanger, and the main characters are almost too good and kind to be true. Therefore, those who enjoyed this novella tone and style may be happier trying a classic adventure tale such as those by Robert Louis Stevenson or Jules Verne rather than trying to find another historical novel set in the 10th Century. This novella has also been compare to Don Quixote, although, Cervantes is a bit harder to get through.

Award-winning British playwright Alan Bennett's new novella An Uncommon Reader is capturing American attention and is quickly becoming an underground hit (see this posting). The premise is simple enough. The Queen (post Diana's death) is chasing after her Corgis and discovers the library bookmobile part on her property. She investigates and slowly becomes obsessed with reading. We see her evolve as a reader and even move into writing. In between these plot details Bennett raises issues of class, the burden of being the Queen, and the British people's mixed feelings the Monarchy. The ending is also very satisfying.

Those who enjoyed last year's Oscar Nominated film The Queen will love this novella. For readalikes, I had trouble finding the right feel in any one book until I remembered P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves' novels . They are old but owned by just about every public library. These funny, British novels, filled with not too thinly veiled social commentary, still hold up over time.

Finally, I also read a short nonfiction work which I highly recommend to all librarians who work with leisure readers, How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by French Professor, Pierre Bayard. Here, Bayard gets at the history of non-readers throughout examples in literature and film. It was an intriguing look at how people remember what they have read, and how they discuss what they have only skimmed or heard of. Bayard does seem to have his tongue planted at least a bit in his cheek here though. I mean advocating not reading books and writing a book about it. So to honor him...I listened to it.

Anyone who likes this book should look at Alberto Manguel's excellent A History of Reading.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Reading...An Inexpensive Hobby

One thing I have learned working at a public library, I never need to buy another book again. That is not to say I will not buy a book ever again, but, I have learned that I don't need to. If you love to read, there is always a book available at the library. And, more importantly, there is someone there trained in how to help you sift through the thousands of titles to find the one you will most enjoy at that moment.

The biggest hurdle to more casual reading hobbyists is the time limit on books at the library. Many patrons find this stressful. What I always remind people of first is that the books are free. Don't sweat it. You have already paid for them with you taxes. You can always renew the book, or return it and get it again 24 hours later (if no one else is waiting). If you can't bare to part with it, the 10 cent per day fine is not steep. Also, you can always return it unfinished, grab another book (don't worry, we have plenty to go around) and come back to the unfinished one later. And here is a dirty little librarian secret, if you become a regular library user and we get to know you, we may just waive those day or two fines for you.

My point is that everyone needs something in their life that forces them to slow down and focus on themselves. I have about 4 part-time jobs, 2 small children, neither of whom are not in school full time yet, and a husband. Reading is my escape. It is a cheap hobby since I borrow books and audio books from the library. It is a fun hobby because I can read about any topic or subject in the world. And finally, it is an easy hobby to devote time to every day. I can read while I watch the kids build in the playroom. I can read in the school pick-up line. I can listen to an audio book while I do the laundry, vacuuming or dishes. And, I can read while I sit on the couch at night with my husband.

Reading works with my busy schedule because it can be snuck in throughout the day. I carry a book or my i-pod with me everywhere. If I have a free moment, I can read a page or two, but if I end up unexpectedly stuck in the car with a sleeping toddler, I can read many more.

I got the idea for this post from my husband. His favorite blog The Simple Dollar (which I highly recommend for its useful advise on many topics) had this entry on hobbies, specifically his reading hobby. Although the post does not put enough emphasis on the fact that reading can be a free hobby through exclusive use of your public library, he does mention it. Also, the article ends with some great tips on starting any hobby.

For those of you who want to get started on their reading and want a few leads, I will be posting about the books I read in January in the next few days.

Monday, January 28, 2008


So I went to see Atonement this weekend. I was skeptical since the novel by Ian McEwan is one of my all-time favorite books. I love the complexity of the story, the unreliable narrator, and the book-within a book-within a book structure. Not to mention the entire discussion it begins about the nature of fiction and the life of a writer.

Anyway, the point is, I saw it only because it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. I normally avoid all movies about beloved books. The verdict, in my opinion, it was good. The movie obviously had to pare down on some of the background details, but it also used its visual capacities to its advantage. For example, McEwan must write many pages on Robbie's retreat to Dunkirk in order for us to understand the desperation, hopelessness, and brutality of this event, not just for him, but for the entire British Army and the occupied French people. In the film, a few scenes and an amazing 4 minute continuous shot of the soldiers waiting for evacuation on the beach does it all.

For those like me who enjoyed the novel and are afraid the movie would ruin it, rest assured the ending has not been changed.

My husband, who had not read this novel, but had read other by McEwan, also enjoyed the movie, but definitely liked having me there to answer a few questions and make comparisons with between text and screen.

I am going to try to see No Country for Old Men this week, but I have not read Cormac McCarthy's novel as of yet. I am going to try to get my hands on it first though.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Book Discussion Books 2001-2007

I mentioned, quite a while ago now, that my group wanted me to reconstruct a master list of every book we have discussed since January of 2001 when our group first met. Of course the group members have changed, and unfortunately so has our server, so some of the book titles are lost to history, but attached here is the list we came up with.

This is purely an author and title list. There is no information about genre or how the discussion went. But, if your group is looking for titles, especially for ones beyond the current "hot" list of book discussion books, this list might be of help to you.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Book Discussion: The Memory Keeper's Daughter

Well, it is the third Monday of the Month again and my group at BPL met today to discuss The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards. I realize we are a little behind the curve here, but I am sure there are still a few groups out there who have not discussed this book yet. Interestingly, this is the only novel by Edwards, a well received short story writer, and it only became a runaway best seller after it was put out in paperback.

The story begins during a blizzard in Kentucky in 1964. Dr. David Henry is forced to deliver his own twins, a boy and a girl, at his office. He immediately recognizes that the girl has Down Syndrome and gives her to his nurse, Caroline to take to an institution. After getting to the institution, Caroline, a self proclaimed "spinster," decides to take the child and raise her as her own. For his part, David tells his wife that their daughter died. What follows is a novel, told in third person omniscient from many of the parties' points of view, that traces the lives of these two families over 25 years.

Our discussion began with the group's thoughts on the birth and giving away of Phoebe. People were shocked; however, this mostly older group kept mentioning that they remembered those days, and David's thoughts and actions were somewhat understandable. They gave him some leeway on his initial response, but they all agreed that when he confronted Caroline just before she disappeared with Phoebe, he should have taken Phoebe back. In other words, they were more shocked that he didn't come to his senses a few days later.

Which leads me to the discussion of if David could have ever told his family the truth. Most agreed that he would have had to have done it within the first few years. Once we see the families again around Paul and Phoebe's 5th year, David is stuck with the secret.

Surprisingly to me, the group also did not seem to hold Caroline as responsible for any wrongdoing, even though she basically kidnapped a child and helped to fake its death. Caroline got much more sympathy than Daivd. One participant mentioned that since Caroline had a birth memory of Phoebe (i.e. was present at her birth) she was as much her mother and more her memory keeper than Norah. That led to a discussion of the title. Of course David is the memory keeper referred to because of his role in the secret and his work as a photographer. However, many people felt Caroline also served as the memory keeper, especially after David's death.

Caroline drew a lot more sympathy than Norah. Again I was surprised. Norah was a victim and didn't even know it. She was in an uphill battle against an emotionally detached husband, who behavior was incomprehensible to her until after his death when she had already been divorced from him for many years. One participant could not get past Norah's affairs.

Overall, one person summed it all up by mentioning the theme of emotional isolation throughout the novel and how the author reinforces it through imagery and situations. As she said, "the truth will set you free."

Last comments: They loved the multiple points of view, agreed the ending was a bit wishy-washy, but could have been much worse, and although we had a wonderful discussion, the average rating of the book overall was about 3 out of 5. This was definitely a case of the book being great for discussion, but not as well enjoyed in isolation. This probably explains why the novel was overlooked until its publication in paperback and use in discussion groups.

There are many ways to go in order to identify readalikes for this novel. For those who liked the serious family issues dealt with by exploring multiple points of view should try My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult, which has been explored on this blog previously at this link. For the readers who want another popular book discussion title about family secrets and the scars they leave, with a more satisfying ending try Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees. Here a young, white girl escapes her abusive father and the secrets surrounding her mother's death to find refuge with a group of strong black women in 1960s Georgia.

Finally, for something a bit different, yet very similar in major appeal factors, try to the Gothic novel The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. This book has an even wider epic scope than the 25 years in The Memory Keeper's Daughter. Vida Winter is England’s most popular and most mysterious author. As she faces her own mortality, Winter is finally willing to divulge her biggest secrets and chooses Margaret Lea, a rare bookseller, to be her biographer. As Winter’s life story is slowly unraveled, Lea gets caught up in the tale of ghosts, lies, and half-truths and is forced to come to terms with some of her own family secrets. All of the secrets her also involve twins and one deals with an abandoned child. Although this is a Gothic tale, with a more menacing atmosphere than The Memory Keeper's Daughter, I really feel the overall issues and feelings explored are very similar.

For nonfiction readalikes sticking to books on Downs Syndrome, Photography, Pittsburgh and Kentucky are all avenues readers may like to explore. There are many titles on these topics, but the one I found the most interesting is Gifts: Mothers Reflect on How Children With Down Syndrome Enrich Their Lives edited by Kathryn Lynard. This book looks like it would parallel many of Caroline and her friends' experiences.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Student Annotation: Science Fiction

Here is the last of the Fall 2007 student annotations. Tomorrow begins a new batch of 17 (as of last count) students.

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Stephenson is very popular in the 18-34 demographic and is the most mainstream of the "cyberpunk" authors. This annotation does a great job of documenting the appeal of this subgenre and gives proper credit to William Gibson's Neuromancer for starting it all.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Student Annotation: Horror

Here is an annotation on a book by a horror master. If you have never read Lovecraft, not only are you missing great stories, but you also may miss many of the allusions in the horror and science fiction world to Lovecraft and his work.

Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre by H.P. Lovecraft

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Student Annotations: Current Bestsellers

Looking for some more info on two of the country's best selling books right now? Here are the annotations from last semester.

I Am American (And So Can You) by Stephen Colbert
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

New students, new annotations, and hopefully, better participation will be coming soon.

Book Discussion Group Blog

ALA's Booklist Online has just started a book discussion group blog. Although I have only spent a few minutes looking at it, this blog appears to be a good clearinghouse for the latest book discussion ideas, guides, and information.

Any book discussion participants or leaders would benefit from bookmarking this site.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Student Annotation: Fantasy

Although we are right now between semesters, I still have Fall annotations to post. I hope to get the Spring 2008 students on the sharing bandwagon a bit earlier this semester.

The Thousand Orcs by R.A. Salvatore

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

What I'm Reading: December 2007

This month I read 3 different books which all came out (at least in America) over the last half of 2007. I don't always read only "new" books, but these were books that couldn't wait.

After loading it on my computer back in July, I finally listened to Lisa See's Peony in Love. Much like her best selling Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love tells the story of the experiences of young girls in China, this time in the 17th-century. Along with the details of how women lived at this time and place, See also introduces a famous Chinese opera, its effect on young women, the study of literature, and a ghost story into her seemingly traditional historical family saga. I was pleasantly surprised and very much enjoyed the supernatural aspects.

Readers who enjoyed the use of opera in the storyline would also like Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. Those who are interested in historical women's lives should try A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini or The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. However, I would also highly recommend See's own memoir of her racially mixed family, On Gold Mountain to any reader who has enjoyed any of her novels or those by Amy Tan.

You may have noticed in my Favorite books I Read This Year post that Joe Hill's 20th Century Ghosts made the cut. I finished this collection of short stories by 2007's it boy (and Stephen King's son) and was blown away. Granted, I like my stories to be a bit off, so I was probably going to enjoy this read, but what I really appreciated was how creative the stories were. Even a reader such as myself who has been there, and done that with "horror" stories was able to be surprised. The stories range from out right horror, to genre spoofs, to suspense, all the way to even a bit sweet. This collection was originally published in England, but with the success of Heart-Shaped Box, it was finally published in the US late in 2007.

Similar authors who also write short stories and novels with the same feel and depth of imagination as Joe Hill are Stephen Millhauser and Kevin Brockmeier.

Right at the close of 2007, I also finished Tom Perrotta's The Abstinence Teacher. I have been a Perrotta fan way back to the early days of The Wishbones and although I did enjoy his newest offering, it was not my favorite. The basic plot revolves around the lives of a female Sex Ed teacher being forced to teach an abstinence curriculum and a male former drug-addict turned evangelical. The two are both missing something in their lives and are drawn to each other in their quest to fulfill themselves. The novel is told from their alternating points of view, and sometimes, we see the same scene from each character's pov.

I appreciated Perrotta's even handed look at both perspectives. He also did a great job, as usual, of not simplifying complex issues and feelings. And, the book has a realistically open ending, which I loved but may drive some readers crazy. However, with his last two books, I feel Perrotta may have lost a bit of his sense of humor. Maybe it is just part of his personal "growing-up" process. No matter, he is still the best at capturing authentic suburbia. right now.

There are many readalikes for Perrotta and this novel in particular. Richard Russo's Empire Falls works here, as do all of the books in Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe trilogy. For a female perspective on modern family and how abstinence may or may not work, try Julia Glass' Three Junes

Here's to Happy Reading in 2008.