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.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Flashback Fridays: Royal Wedding

I spent the morning watching the Royal Wedding on tape delay with my friend.  We ate off china and used linen napkins.  It was very refined.

In honor of the Royal Wedding, here is the post I did for the wedding season last year, as I was preparing for my baby sister's wedding:

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Wedding Season Reads

June is in full swing and for many that means it is wedding season. I kick off my busy summer of weddings with my baby sister's bridal shower today.

I thought I would share some reading lists for the wedding lovers and haters out there. Hey, I may be happily married and celebrating my last single sister's quickly approaching wedding day, but I am still the consummate readers' advisor and promise to hit all appeals here.

So for those who can't read enough novels featuring weddings, here are some ideas for you:
And now, for those of you on the other side of the fence, click on through to these lists:
These lists are proof of what I always say, there is a book out there for every reader. And your local readers' advisor can help you to uncover it.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

What I'm Reading: Unlikely Allies

Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American RevolutionMy college's alumni association runs a monthly book club.  The discussions are online and all of the books discussed are written by alumni or professors.  Although I have never participated in the discussion, I frequently add the books to my to-read list.  This is how I encountered the very interesting Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution by Joel Richard Paul.  I honestly would not have even known this book existed without my alumni association altering me to it.

The title here speaks to the plot.  This is the story of 3 key people who helped America to win the Revolution from Paris, people history has either forgotten or disparaged:  American business man and founding father, Silas Deane, French playwright Caron de Beaumarchais (who wrote Barber of Seville ), and the enigmatic Chevalier d'Eon.  Silas Deane was sent to Paris to try to secure arms for the Americans, Beaumarchais was rich and famous and believed in the Americans, and the Chevalier d'Eon began as a spy for Louis XV, but was scorned by Louis XVI.  The Chevalier d'Eon also adds interest here because his gender became the talk of the continent.  He/she moved back in forth between the two, allowing him/her to get information no one else could obtain.

The appeal here is that this is a book in which American history set right.  Paul is looking at the extremely important people that history has left behind.  They were on the winner's side but not perceived as the winners themselves, so they are finally getting the treatment they deserved.  In Deane's case specifically, his work was essential to the American cause, but his detractors fought to stop him from getting the recognition he deserved, so much so in fact, that for much of history he was referred to as  traitor.

This is a complex story, told in a colloquial fashion.  There is intrigue about spies and double dealing.  There is suspense, even though we know the outcome.  The tone plays off of this as it is equal measures serious history and fun anecdotes; such as the obsession with the Chevalier's gender (and issue which is not resolved until his/her death).

There is also a cautionary message here.  Paul shows us how badly things could have gone if not for the hard work of these three people.  For example, we learn that Deane's persistence at getting French arms across the ocean without any word from his countrymen or any hard cash led to the American rebels first major victory at Saratoga; a win which was the tipping point at which the Americans began to win the war.  Without Deane, could we have won the war?

The final sections of the book in which Paul talks about separating the people who made history, their personal motives, and their dark secrets from their great accomplishments is worth reading the entire book for.  He asks the modern reader some tough questions like: Do we think less of what these great men accomplished if we see them in their true colors?  Does it matter as long as they fought for right?

This book will keep you reading because of the spies, double dealing, and new twist it adds to our understanding of the American Revolution from our grade school days, but Paul's conclusion will send you off thinking about history, in general, in a whole new way.

I listened to the audio.  It was a nice even narration.  The male reader was unobtrusive and complimentary to the story.  I appreciated listening also as I have trouble pronouncing French words, and there are quite a few here.

Three Words That Describe This Book:  new twist to old history, compelling, intriguing.

Readalikes:  Readers who don't mind seeing our "heroes" portrayed in a more realistic light (warts and all) would also enjoy The Hemmings of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed, or the fictionalized version, Sally Hemmings by Barbara Chase-Ribould, American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies in the Founding of the Republic by Joseph Ellis, or  the even-handed biographies of American heroes by David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Ron Chernow.

There are also many novels set during the American Revolution.  Your best bet is to start with Howard Fast.  Two authors who write multiple series featuring the people behind the headlines, which also show history in a similar warts and all tone, including some set during the American Revolution, are Jeff Shaara and Bernard Cornwell.  Both are great sure bet authors for people who want historical fiction, set during times of war, with great characters and plenty of action.

People might want to read more about Louis XVI, Beaumarchais and the famous character he created, Figaro, or the European side of the American Revolution.  I have suggested one book for each of these topics, but the links will lead you to more options.

And for something completely different, what about a sexy manga series featuring the Chevalier d'Eon.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What I'm Reading: Castle Waiting Volume 2

Day two of review-a-polooza.  Today it is the graphic novel, Castle Waiting 2 by Linda Medley which I mentioned grabbing off the new shelf here.  For the record, I talked about how we organize our new shelf at the BPL in that post, but I forgot to mention that until January of this year, we did not include graphic novels on our general new shelf.  Instead, they were ghettoized to their own shelf on the graphic novels shelf.  In a few months, we will be checking to see if the circ stats went up on the new graphic novels and the general adult graphic novel collection with this change.

Now on to the review...

Just like when I read Castle Waiting Vol 1, I was engrossed in Castle Waiting 2 by Linda Medley, finishing it in one long sitting.  How much did I love the first volume two years ago?  Click here to see my review.  I also chose it to be included on the Browser's Corner, where I said this:
This graphic novel begins as a retelling of Sleeping Beautybut evolves into a modern fable about an abandoned castle and its eccentric inhabitants. Medley uses the fairy tale format to tell the story of strong, independent women who do not need to be saved, but instead save themselves with the help of wonderful friends. I was completely engrossed by this book and could not put it down for the few hours it took me to read it.
While the first volume was more fairy tale based, Vol 2 focuses more on filling in the back story of the secondary characters and beginning a look into the history of the castle itself.  We get two new characters who have historical links to the current castle residents.  Everyone is just as eccentric as ever, but they are all more comfortable with each other.  As one character begins to move into the castle keep, they all work together to make it ready.  As walls are removed, secrets and mysteries are unearthed.

Again, like the first volume, the ending is fairly open, maybe even more so than Volume 1.  I learned a lot more about these amazing characters, but I still want to know more.  And the mysteries of the keep are only just beginning to unfold.  I hope it is not another 2 years until the next volume.

Like last time, Medley also uses black and white, pen and ink drawings in a fairly standard comics style. She often does whole page frames.  Her style may be without color, but it is extremely detailed and beautiful.  She also tells the story in a lineal fashion with frequent flashbacks to fill in the blanks. The flashbacks are cool because they tend to come as stories told by a character.  It is a nice feeling to read a story and have the story tell you a story.

The tone here is optimistic but with a nod to the tragedies of the past.  All of these characters came to the castle because of something bad which had happened to them in the past.  While they are moving forward with their lives together, the problems and trials of their pasts' casts a slight pall over the story.  All are still healing, but each is at a different stage in the healing process.

This is a book for anyone who likes fantasy based in a fairy tale atmosphere with a darker, but not oppressive tone, without sex of violence.  Even if you do not normally read graphic novels, but enjoy this type of fantasy, I would try Castle Waiting.

Three Words That Describe This Book:  eccentric characters, fairy tale-esque, engrossing

Readalikes:  In my review of Volume 1 I suggested, Jane Yolen and Robin McKinley among others.  Click here for those suggestions.

Although Kate DiCamillo writes children's books, her novels share much with Castle Waiting.  There are all fairy tale-esque, with interesting and original characters, a darker, but ultimately optimistic tone, and an engrossing pace.  Try The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (which I am reading with my six-year-old son now).

Readers who enjoy Neil Gaiman or Audrey Niffenegger should also try Castle Waiting 1 and 2, for many of the same reasons you should try DiCamillo.  The Graveyard Book by Gaiman and Her Fearful Symmetry by Niffenegger are great readalike options here.  Use the links to read my reviews and see why.

Moving on to suggestions based more on the appeal of the setting (which is huge here as the keep becomes a character in the story itself)...

Another great novel that looks into the dark mysteries of castle keeps is Jennifer Egan's The Keep.  I still think about this book, years after finishing it.  Also with all the buzz on her recent Pulitzer Prize, why not try this excellent backlist psychological suspense title by her.

For an even darker story about a house with secrets try Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez's Locke and Key graphic novel series.  This is horror, not fantasy, but these graphic novel series share the appeals of great characters with troubling pasts, and a home with hidden, nefarious secrets.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

What I'm Reading: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

This week on RA for All I am going to try to catch up on the reviews of all the books I have read in the last month.  So here goes...

While I was on vacation last month, I was looking for an engrossing book.  Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson (hereafter MPLS) was on many people's list of the favorite books they read last year, including Betty at the BPL RA desk, whose opinion I hold in very high esteem.

I was a teensy bit worried that like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, it would not hold up to my high expectations.  I took it with me anyway, and I have to say, I was totally captivated by this book.

The plot is not very important here.  This is a book about the characters, specifically Major Pettigrew himself, a retired, widowed, English gentleman.  The Major completely captivated me.  I had a strange experience with this book.  I both wanted to read it quickly to find out what would happen, AND at the same time, I wanted to slow down because I didn't want my time with Major Pettigrew to end.

The set up here is the Major is at a cross roads in his life.  His brother has just died, his small southern English town is being targeted for redevelopment by an American investor, his son is considering settling down, finally, and he begins a new friendship with the local female Pakistani shop owner.  These events all converge (with many more details and complications) and the Major, who usually sits on the sidelines of life, is forced to act.

The appeal here is the characters.  Major Pettigrew is fascinating.  He wants to live by the class rules of his community, but life has intervened.  What should he do?  This is the question that drive the entire book.  But it is not just the Major and his growth which I liked.  All of the characters here are well drawn and interesting.  There are good guys, and bad guys for sure, but there are also "bad" guys who are really good and "good" guys who turn out to be bad.  The level of nuance is tremendous.  These characters feel real.

While the plot moves steadily, the "action" scenes are few and far between.  You are compelled to read to see what the Major will (or won't do) next.  Sometimes, things inch along (plotwise), while in other moments (the golf club charity ball fiasco, for example) the action is non-stop.

While many would call this a gentle read since it is devoid of technology, has no sex or violence, and is set in a modern, but nostalgic feeling, small town, that description alone would be misleading.  MPLS is about the strict class structures of English society; how the merchant classes can not mix with the higher classes.  There are distinctions everywhere, both class and race and Simpson has a lot to say on this issue.

A better genre classification for this novel is to call it a comedy of manners.  Simpson pokes fun at everyone from the landed gentry to the tree huggers.  But she is also not afraid to tackle the minority side too as she even finds fault with the Pakistani traditions.  She has indictments enough for all, and spares no one in here satire.  This is a book you will have fun reading, but it will also make you think.

This is a touching story.  I literally laughed out-loud, got angry, and even shed a few tears throughout the story.  The central conflict is resolved, but the future is left open.  Not everyone ends up "happily ever after," and in fact, there are still a few questions about some of the secondary characters; however, it is a satisfying ending.

If you want to lose yourself in a story, MPLS is the book for you.

Three Words That Describe This Book: character-centered, comedy of manners, touching

Readalikes:  MPLS reminded me of another book I recently read, The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise by Julia Stuart.  Both books are character centered, gentle but serious, and all about the characters.  Click here to read my review of Stuart's book.  If you liked one, there is a good chance you will enjoy the other.

If you are interested in the racial issues between the British and the Pakistanis in England, I would suggest White Teeth by Zadie Smith.  This is a more complex and more disturbing read, but it is also one of my all time favs.

If you like the story of finding love at any age, I would suggest The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery on the literary side, or Julie and Romeo by Jeanne Ray on the lighter and more humorous side.

Readers may also be interested in the British TV series which also pokes fun at the English class structure, Upstairs, Downstairs.

Although they are very different books, I have not been this captivated by a protagonist since I read Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Monday Discussion: Did You Like This Book?

Today I am going to tackle that most sensitive of RA transactions, when you are helping a patron to find the perfect  book to match her reading tastes and she turns to you and asks, "Have you read this book?" or "Did you like this book?"

Since you are finding said patron a book based on her specific reading whether or not you have read the book or liked it yourself does not matter.  However, we need to answer our patrons questions.  To complicate things further, more often the not, my true answer to both of these questions is, "No."  So every library worker who works with leisure readers, needs to be prepared to answer these questions positively.

Before I give you my favorite answers to these questions, let's talk about why our patrons ask them.  It is not because they care whether or not you liked the book you are suggesting they read.  Rather, they just want to know that someone, somewhere enjoyed it.  They just need a reason to take the plunge.  You happen to be the person in front of them who can push them toward the check-out desk with that book in hand,

So how do I handle these questions?  I have to say, even if I loved the book, I do not ever talk about how I feel about the book.  As I said above, that is not what they want to know.  And quite honestly, it doesn't matter how I felt; this is a book for them not me.  So, even if I hated the book, never read it, or loved it I say something along the lines of, "This author is very popular at our library," or "I have given this book to many patrons and they seem to have enjoyed it."  If I truly know nothing about the book or author, I try a different line of attack by checking reviews and reading from them.  Again, this lets the patron know that someone had something good to say about this title.

To take it a step further, I sometimes ask the patron to come let anyone at the RA desk know how they felt about the book after they read it.  This lets the patron know that we care whether or not he or she enjoyed the book.  It also reinforces that anyone at the desk, not just me, can help him or her.  Often, this offer to hear how the book was or wasn't enjoyed is enough to make the patron trust you, even if they end up hating the book you suggest.  The fact that you cared, was all that really mattered.

The point here is I am helping the patron fell good about her choice.  I am also not going down the slippery slope of sharing my personal opinion.  What if they read the book and have the exact opposite opinion to the one I gave them?  They will never trust me or, more importantly, anyone at our RA desk again if that happens.

I have one final point to make.  To any reader who seems wary about trying a book I am suggesting, I always do two things.  First, I try to offer them at least one other book, "in case you cannot get into the first one."  Second, I remind them that the book is free and do a big arm swoop showing off our large collection Vanna White style saying, "we have plenty more. Just close this book if you don't like it and come on back for another one."

So for today's Monday Discussion, how do you handle this sticky patron interaction when they ask you your opinion on a book?

Click here for the Monday Discussion Archive.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Biblical Fiction for Easter and Passover

In my house we celebrate Easter and Passover.  Actually if you want to be technical, we celebrate 2 Easters (Traditional and Orthodox) and Passover.  For the first time in many years, all three have overlapped into one giant religious melting pot.  So, in honor of the holidays, I thought I would suggest to you all some great Biblical Fiction.

I have chosen titles that are more Historical Ficiton than religious, although can be classified as "Christian Fiction."  These books would all appeal to a wide range of readers.  In fact, you do not even need to be a person of any faith to enjoy these books.  There is mostly fiction here, but some nonfiction as well.

I have also grouped these titles by their appeal, so while I have not individually annotated each title, I have chosen good sure bet options in each of the areas.

RA for All will pause to celebrate these three holidays.  So, no post tomorrow.  Back Monday with a new Monday Discussion.  Enjoy your weekend; however you are celebrating...or not.

If you want to read biographical historical fiction about a biblical person try...
If you want to read biblical fiction which gives you a good sense of the historical place and time try...
If you want to read a respectfully humorous, slightly irreverent story with a biblical frame try...
If you want to read a nonfiction book about a Bible based spiritual journey try...

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Student Annotations: Special Reading Interests

You read what I had to say about special reading interest areas, now it's time to hear from the GSLIS 763 students.

Click on over to the class blog to see what they had to say about their reading for this week.

Breaking News: Amazon is Going to Share!!!

In the most exciting ebook news yet, Amazon announced today that sometime this year, they will allow library patrons to borrow ebooks for their Kindles with their library card.  From the CNN article:
"We're excited that millions of Kindle customers will be able to borrow Kindle books from their local libraries," Jay Marine, Amazon's director for the Kindle, said in a press release.

Click here and here for more stories.

This is exciting for many reasons.  First, the Kindle is the  best selling ebook reader.  Now, these people can borrow books for their reader.  The biggest problem with Kindle is that you had to purchase every book you read, or only "buy" free ones.  I don't know about you, but as a big library user, I rarely buy books.  I would go broke if I had to pay for each one.

Second, if this plan goes through it means I will get a Kindle.  I have been waiting to buy an ereader because I really wanted a Kindle, but would not buy one until I could borrow books.  Yes, I was standing on principle even as I was secretly hoping for a Kindle.  We are getting a family iPad 2 this spring, but that will be shared by all four of us, this includes 2 elementary aged children who are already fighting over who gets to use it first and we haven't even gotten it yet.  I have open access to the Sony e Reader, the Nook, and a Kindle through work, but truth be told, a Kindle is what I really want to own for myself.

So thanks Amazon.  I have always been a big user of Amazon, but I am also a professional fan of the information about readers, reading habits, and books that I can cull from the site.  Their unwillingness to share was frustrating.  My faith in you has been restored.

Now to go off and daydream about all of the books I will load on my hypothetical Kindle using my library card, not my credit card.

Special Reading Interests Discussion

Tonight in GSLIS 763 we are tackling the last grouping of books.  It is hard to believe that there are only 2 weeks left in the Spring 2011 semester.

At the end we focus on what we have reluctantly agreed to call "Special Reading Interests."  Exactly which books fit this designation will vary depending on where you live.  Here in the Chicago area the most popular of these are Inspirational, African American, Latino/s, and GLBTQ.  Specifically at the BPL these are highly popular areas of reading interest for our patrons.

After talking in general about how to work with patrons who are seeking books by genre and special reading interest, we focus on these 4 areas, their resources, the most popular authors, and the genre trends.

Working with any special reading interest collection is always tricky.  If you pull these books out, you risk being accused of ghettoizing them; deeming them as not worthy enough to be the the general fiction.  However, when you do not pull out these books, readers complain that you aren't paying attention to their reading needs.  In other words, you cannot win.

How do you tackle this double-edged sword?  I have found success by making sure your staff is educated about reading options for your largest special reading interest groups.  Also, listen to your patrons.  What do they want?  How are they accessing the books?  We use this 2 pronged attack as we help readers at the BPL.   Let me give you concrete examples:

For Inspirational that is religious we use a sticker; however, for more general inspirational that is not religious (like Mitch Album) we do not.  Our readers who use the stickers to find reading suggestions are looking for Christian fiction.  However, we are aware of books which have an inspirational message and pull them out for displays and annotated lists throughout the year.

For African American, we do not use stickers; however, we do have a high urban fiction readership. To help both our readers and the staff, our fearless leader, Kathy, works to keep an urban fiction list both in print and on the Browsers Corner blog.  We also frequently pull out urban fiction for small mini-displays. 

For GLBTQ, we are blessed to have an active GLBTQ group in Berwyn, BUNGALO, who are also huge library supporters.  They have their monthly meetings at the library, give us a monetary donation every year, and are active volunteers in the Friends of the Library.  As a result, we have a great GLBTQ collection, but we do not pull it out.  In fact, I highly argue against anyone pulling out their GLBTQ books.  Why?  Some GLBTQ readers could be struggling with their feelings about their sexuality and would not want to have to go to a designated area where they would stand out.  Rather, I argue for actively stickering your GLBTQ titles so that readers who are still uncomfortable asking for help can find the books on their own.  This needs to be done with your fiction and nonfiction titles, by the way.

For Latino/a, we do nothing.  I am not sure why.  I think because there is confusion as to whether or not South American authors should be grouped here too.  We do have a large popular fiction collection in Spanish and have a high bilingual patron base.  But like African American, the Latino/a authors are mixed in throughout our collection and at least once a year we highlight the titles with a large display and an updated annotated list of titles of interest.  Interestingly, some of the younger Latino/a writers are moving more toward Urban Lit too.

So where should you go for resources to help your patrons with these special reading interests.  I will give you one web based suggestion for each to get you started.

Inspirational:  I like Best Inspiration because it encompasses the full range of what people find inspirational.  They have also captured the biggest trend in the area--bucket lists.

African-American: For the mainstream, I like The African American Literature Book Club.  For your Urban Lit readers try Street Fiction, a site run by a librarian to promote and educate about the genre.  He has reviews, lists, and interviews.

GLBTQ:  The gold-standard resource for GLBTQ reading interests is The LAMBDA Literary Foundation.  No more commentary needed.  This site is full of information that represents the full breadth of the reading interest and has information for authors and readers.

Latino/a:  I like Latino Stories, a resource created by a teacher, Jose B. Gonzales.  He has links to other websites, resources, awards, and best lists.

Now, I want to know what other special reading interests are popular at your library.  How do you help these readers?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

BPL Book Discussion: The Samurai's Garden

Yesterday, the ladies and I met at the BPL to discuss The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama.  It was an interesting discussion in that it was the first time all 15 of us loved the book, yet we still had plenty to discuss.  Sometimes, when everyone likes the book, it is hard to find more to say than, "I liked this," and then everyone agrees; however, with this slim, but thoughtful novel, Tsukiyama had us all trying to talk at the same time.

First, here is the plot from Reading Group Guides to get us started:
On the eve of the Second World War, a young Chinese man is sent to his family's summer home in Japan to recover from tuberculosis. He will rest, swim in the salubrious sea, and paint in the brilliant shoreside light. It will be quiet and solitary. But he meets four local residents - a lovely young Japanese girl and three older people. What then ensues is a tale that readers will find at once classical yet utterly unique. Young Stephen has his own adventure, but it is the unfolding story of Matsu, Sachi, and Kenzo that seizes your attention and will stay with you forever. Tsukiyama, with lines as clean, simple, telling, and dazzling as the best of Oriental art, has created an exquisite little masterpiece.
I also want to mention who helpful I found the book discussion guide on this title prepared by the Skokie Public Library was to me as I led this discussion.  Click here to access it.  It has questions and then notes on possible answers and further discussion points.  Thanks for sharing guys.

Now on to our discussion:

  • Everyone was excited to discuss the book so we began with some general thoughts.  People called it poignant, and thoughtful; they were struck by the inner turmoil contained in the story.  One person said she appreciated how in what has become an increasingly hectic world, this novel calmed her.
  • We began talking about the unique setting of the novel.  Stephen is a Westernly raised child in 1938 Hong Kiong, a British City.  He identifies as Chinese, but his family has a deep connection to Japan due to their family's import-export business and their summer home on the Japanese coast where the entire novel takes place.  I told the group abut Tsukiyama's own three part identity as half Chinese, half Japanese, but American raised.  We appreciated how Stephen was our eyes to the new culture.  While he had visited Tarumi before, until the year (plus) which he spends there trying to recover from TB, Stephen has never really understood the town and culture.
  • We moved onto Sachi and her story.  I don't want to give too much away because much of the joy of reading this novel is in how the details about Sachi and Matsu slowly unfold over the course of the novel.  It is with great anticipation which the reader and Stephen wait for and earn the right to sit back and hear Sachi's full, heart breaking tale in her own words.  However, we do know that she lives up the mountain from Tarumi in the town of Yamaguchi.  It is filled with lepers and Matsu, the man who tends Stephen's family home, is the man from the outside who keeps them supplied.
  • We spent some time breaking out the title.  The obvious samurai who has a garden is Matsu.  First I clarified what a samurai is in the non-war sense; it is close to being a synonym for chivalry.  It is a man of honor who serves with fidelity and thinks of himself above all others.  Matsu, with his selfless care of the lepers and his dedication to Stephen's family makes him the ultimate samurai.  Ironically, he seems to be a pacifist, or at least against the Japanese aggression against the Chinese.  The garden he tends is beautiful.  It is how he expresses himself; we even said it symbolized imagination.  It inspires Stephen to paint again.  It brings people together.  But we also talked about how Sachi could be seen as a samurai. Her garden in contrast to Matsu's has no flowers.  When she first moves to Yamaguchi, she cannot bare to see beauty as her own beauty was being ravaged by leprosy.  Yet, her rock garden is also beautiful, inspirational, and soothing.
  • This led us to Stephen.  Since the entire book is told through his diary entries (more on that below), how is he a samurai and what does the garden mean to him?  Stephen begins the story as a spoiled young man.  He is selfish and restless.  His forced isolation from his friends, family, and even from the war raging at home forces him to let go, relax, slow down, think about life, and find peace.  His inner turmoil is best reflected in how toward the beginning of the novel he cannot see the beauty in Sachi's garden, but as he grows and learns, he comes to understand how amazing it truly is.  It also takes some time for him to be able to appreciate the obvious beauty of Matsu's garden before he can capture it in a painting.
  • We talked about how the book begins with Stephen's blank pages which he filled during his time in Tarumi and ends with the blank books Matsu gives him to record the rest of his life's story.  His evolution as an artist, both painter and writer, are well documented here.
  • A quick break from the story: someone mentioned that reading about how the lepers were treated reminded her of the beginning of the AIDS crisis in 1980s America.
  • Many of the characters here underscore the overall theme of isolation and loneliness.  Isolation saved Sachi from having to kill herself, Matsu found comfort in his solitude, and while isolation and the resulting loneliness came with difficulty to Stephen, without it he would not have healed physically, and he would have not have be able to grow from a boy into a man.  He begin the novel longing to go home and ends leaving only reluctantly.  If it was not for the war, he might have stayed in Tarumi much longer.
  • We moved on to the style of the book.  There are three main issues here.  This novel has been called a "poetic narrative;" it reads closer to a poem than a novel at times.  It is also written completely as Stephen's diary entires.  And, finally, it follows with the seasons.  Specifically from Autumn 1938 back to Autumn of 1939.  Some general comments about the style: restful, contemplative, graceful, soothing, mesmerizing.  One participant said the story was written like a garden: as we moved through the seasons, the story and the characters open up, bloom, and show us their full potential.  No one was bothered by only getting Stephen's story.  We liked how he earned the pieces of Matsu and Sachi's stories.  He recounted their words and feelings to us.  We felt it was a more satisfying reading experience to go through Stephen to get their stories.  It is what kept us reading; uncovering the secrets behind these people.  Hearing it directly from Matsu and Sachi would not have been as satisfying to us.
  • The cyclical nature of the story, also made the open ending satisfying.  Even my readers who hate open endings, liked this one (ends with Stephen leaving to go back to a war torn China).  They attributed it to how the novel was like a circle.  It starts to go back around again, with a new Autumn coming.  The story of these people will continue, but their time together has ended.  All will be changed by the experience, for the better too, but the circle will keep going without them.  The comfort of the seasons changing is a nice contrast to the horrible war going on just outside of the confines of the story too.
  • I ended the conversation asking who the villain of this novel was?  We agreed that this book oddly, has no villain.  There are people we did not like (Stephen's parents, Kenzo, Keiko's dad) but no villain who propels the conflict.  So that led to a discussion of the conflict in this book.  Ideas that people offered: illness, fear, growing-up, inner turmoil, secrets, cultural differences.  Someone summed it up well: the story is propelled by Stephen's mental and physical struggles.  We were all interested to see how compelling we found this book despite its lack of a villain.
Three Words That Describe This Book:  isolation, thoughtful, character-centered

Readalikes:  There are many places you can go to find a reader a book similar to The Samurai's Garden.  First, I want to mention that one participant loved this novel so much that she has gone on what she is calling a "Tsukiyama bender," reading all of her books.  She shared that while Tsukiyama's novels range in topic, they all share a similar style and tone to The Samurai's Garden.  Her praise led another participant to add Tsukiyama to her "Holds Without Hassle" automatic holds list.

If you want to read more Japanese literature by native Japanese writers or Japanese Americas which also have a graceful, lyrical, and thoughtful style and tone I would suggest, The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (which also addresses how illness isolates people), When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka (WWII, Japanese internment in US), and Deep River by Shusaku Endo (search for spirituality and peace).

If you are interested in more books with a graceful and thoughtful style with similar themes, but not necessarily written by a Japanese author, I would suggest Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (isolation, forced to slow down, reflective, lyrical, artists) and Snow Falling on Cedars by Davis Guterson (WWII setting, Japanese internment, thought-provoking, reflective).  Both books have Japanese characters in them, but none are set in Japan or written by Japanese authors.  These titles make for an interesting comparison to Tsukiyama's novel.  For the record, Bel Canto is one of my all time favorite books.

If you want to read more about the Japanese atrocities against China during the years leading up to WWII, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami is widely considered the best fictional treatment on the subject, however, while Tsukiyama's book is sparse, Murakami's tone is complex, layered, even purposely confusing at times.  For a nonfiction treatment on the subject, I would suggest the well reviewed The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II by Iris Chang.  This book is widely available at public libraries.

For those who want to know more about leprosy, especially in the modern world, I would suggest Disease Apart: Leprosy in the Modern World by Tony Gould.  It is heart-breaking to know that the lepers in Yamaguchi are living in a time only a few short years before the discovery of the drugs that can cure them.

And finally, for those who want a book that looks into the mind of another young artist as he emerges into adulthood, there is A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, which I think is Joyce's most accessible novel.