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

Sunday, August 31, 2008

What I'm Reading: August 2008

This month I will write about a mystery, literary fiction, and 2 nonfiction books I read.

First, I read the second book in Ian Sansom's Bookmobile Mystery series, Mr. Dixon Disappears. As with the first book in this series, which I wrote about here, the hapless Israel Armstrong is trying to muddle through as the mobile librarian for a Northern Irish community. However, unlike the first book, as Mr. Dixon Disappears opens, Israel is finally doing well. He is installing a display of the complete history of the community's best known department store and the family that has always owned it. But, this happiness only lasts minutes, as Israel is quickly caught up in a robbery and kidnapping involving those he researched. Israel becomes a suspect, is suspended from his job, and has a mountain of woman troubles, but as usual, his new found friends come through to help him in the end.

This series is an example of the cozy at its best with snappy dialog, eccentric characters, and no violence. The addition of the librarian/book factor adds interest for many library users also. Click here for other readalikes to this series. To my past list I would also add the Jasper Fforde Nursery Rhyme Mystery series which begins with The Big Over Easy.

Now onto another international setting, this time, India in Manil Suri's The Death of Vishnu. This international best-seller was Suri's first novel and the first in a projected trilogy. This novel deals with the experiences of modern day Indians in the middle and lower classes. However, Suri also adds a contemplation on Hinduism and Islam in India. The story revolves around, literally, the death of Vishnu, a servant in an apartment building. The reader sees into Vishnu's thoughts as he looks back on his life, while following the goings on of the apartment dwellers.

I know this sounds pretty serious, and it is at times, but there is also a great deal of humor and comical situations built into this narrative. It reminded me very much of The Inhertiance of Loss by Kiran Desai. To the readalikes listed in my books discussion report for Desai's work, I would also add anything by Jhumpa Lahiri and for a similar tone but a different country try The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao which I wrote about here.

I also read two interesting nonfiction works this month. First, I listened to Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul by Karen Abbott. Mentioned as a readalike to Erik Larson's Devil in the White City on many lists, I pulled this title off of my "to-read" back list. This is the story of the most famous brothel in America (circa the turn of the 20th century), the Everleigh Club in Chicago's red light Levee district. However, amidst the sensationalism of a story about an upscale brothel and its two business savvy sister owners is another story about the evolution of Chicago as a major American city. It is the story of the sin and vice and those who made its their life's work to put an end to legal prostitution. Abbott does a great job of making all of her historical characters come alive a century later.

This novel will appeal to anyone who liked Devil in the White City, books about the underworld, and of course, Chicago history fans. There is also Murder City: The Bloody History of Chicago in the Twenties by Michael Lesy. A similar, nonfiction read with a different setting would be Satan's Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York's Trial of the Century by Mike Dash. Finally, two fiction suggestions for readers who enjoyed this book would be Dreiser's Sister Carrie for a look at the time period and place and Memoirs of a Geisha for different look at upscale prostitution.

Finally, as a huge football fan (Go Giants!!), I was eagerly anticipating Stefan Fatsis' new book, A Few Second of Panic: A 5-Foot-8, 170 Pound, 43-Year-Old Sportswriter Plays in the NFL. I loved Fatsis' book about the professional Scrabble world and listen to him every week on All Things Considered; now you add football to the mix, and I am sold before opening the cover. Fatsis is a nontraditional sportswriter, which helped ease him into the Denver Broncos training camp in the summer of 2006. As a fairly serious and competitive amateur soccer player, Fatsis is athletic enough to hold his own as a kicker, but not even close to battling Jason Elam for his job. Fatsis uses his insider status to talk to players and explain what it is really like to be an NFL player. He brought his notebook and recorder everywhere and even includes the notes players took for him, while he was kicking in front of the entire team. This is a great book for anyone who likes the read the stories behind the people we see on the field.

For those interested in how the modern NFL came to be they way Fatsis describes it, check out another talented nonfiction writer, Mark Bowden's (Black Hawk Down) book, The Best Game Ever: Giants Vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL. Of course, many will want to also read Paper Lion: Confessions of a Last-String Quarterback by George Plimpton. As Fatsis points out, Plimpton was the first sportswriter to join an NFL team for training camp, but, as Fatsis also explains, it was a completely different league then. Fatsis also includes a decent bibliography at the end of the book. For those interested in other sports books, you can see this post that I put up during the Olympics or checkout this Booklist Online spotlight on new sports books for 2008.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Niffenegger Graphic Novel Online

One of Chicago's most interesting writers is Audrey Niffenegger, who had a national bestseller with The Time Traveler's Wife. However, while that was a straight text novel, Niffenegger is more often combining text and pictures in interesting ways.

Her newest venture is a graphic novel about a night bookmobile in Chicago. Like all of her works, this story is original and compelling. It was published this summer, 1 page at a time, in The Guardian. Click here to read it, but please note, the posts are in reverse chronological order, so go to the last one first. Enjoy.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Public Libraries and the Economy-Part 2

On July 28th I wrote here about how public library traffic picks up during an economic downturn. Well, a few days ago The Chicago Tribune posted this article entitled, "New Fans Check out Libraries," which gives some hard facts about the increase in public library usage here in Chicagoland.

A point to note that differ from my last post on this subject is the argument that the public library is not only a free source of entertainment but a close one, meaning less gas (if any) is used. This point is further underscored at my local library where we received many requests for more bicycle racks this summer.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Olympic Books

Sad the Olympics end tomorrow? Love the competition and the heartwarming back stories of the athletes? Click over here to a compilation of booklists about sports. This should keep you going for a few more weeks.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

NPR: Three Books

National Public Radio has been running a series on All Things Considered this summer called "Three Books," where they have invited writers to suggest three "great reads on a single theme." Here is the link to all of the lists.

What I love about these lists is the range of books offered. It is just like I tell my students, when suggesting books to someone, give them three choices. You may be working with a single theme here, but that theme could be explored in literary fiction, mystery, thriller, romance, etc... You won't really know what your reader is in the mood for until you offer him or her a variety of choices.

These lists are a perfect example of what RAs should be doing for their readers; we offer three titles and give the patron 3-5 sentences on each, more if they seem interested. Whether it is done casually at the desk or in written annotation form, these lists are an example of readers' advisory done right.

Check out these lists and for that matter, the entire NPR books site which compiles all of their book coverage in one place. Or, try to make a few "Three Books" lists of your own.

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.

BPL Displays: August 2008

At BPL we ended summer reading at the beginning of August and put up two new summer related displays. From the looks of the shelves this Monday morning, the lists are quite popular.

The short display is entitled, "Lazy Books for Lazy Days." Here the books are good stories that clock in at about 200 pages. The books cover a wide range of genres and have all been well reviewed.

The tall display features, "Fast Reads for Slow Days." Here there is no page limit, but the stories are all "page-turners."

Enjoy the end of summer with one of these great books.

Friday, August 15, 2008

"Cozy" Reads

As I prepare for the new semester, I am updating the resource sheets I give my students for each genre. One of the genres that is most popular with readers, but has the least number of resources are a group of books we RAs refer to a "gentle reads." Now mind you, readers do not refer to them this way. Generally, however, these books are the ones our patrons are expecting when they come in and ask for "a good read."

What these readers are looking for is a good story with meat to it, but no on stage sex, no cursing, and no dark issues. One of the biggest mistakes librarians make when working with these readers is by assuming these readers are looking for unsophisticated books. This is not the case at all. These are nostalgic stories, with complex characters, interesting plots, and plenty of conflict (just not the bloody kind).

One of the best places where the gentle genre is shown in the best light is with the cozy mystery. We are in a boom time for this popular subgenre. To cash in on its success, the term cozy, in fact, is now being embraced by non-mystery titles. A well known and respected blog, Cozy Library, chronicles this growing world of gentler reads. Click here for their definition of cozy and checkout their pages for fiction, nonfiction, mystery, and not quite cozy reading suggestions.

I am excited to finally have a thoughtful resource for my students to use in locating gentle reads for patrons.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Back from Vacation/World SF Convention

No, I did not forget I had a blog. I was on a wonderful 12 day vacation and just returned, so look for many posts in the coming days, including (but not limited to) new BPL displays, my August book club meeting, and preparation for the Fall Semester of library school students.

But just to keep you up to date, this past weekend, at the World Science Fiction Convention, the Hugo Awards were handed out. Personally, as a casual SF fan, I look forward to the Hugo and Nebula lists each year. It is a great way for me to read the best of the genre. Check them out for yourselves.

Incidentally, this is one of those years, when the same book won for best novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon, a book I had already read and loved.