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.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Libraries and Librarians Worth Following on Twitter

Although I am not on Twitter myself [the reasons why would take an entire post], I am all about passing on as much information as possible here on RA for All.

There have been a series of posts by Matt Anderson, editor of the online newspaper Library Science Daily, about the best tweeters in the library world.

Here is his list of the 100 libraries to follow on Twitter.

And here he compiled the 125 Librarians to follow.

These are all libraries and librarians, so the focus is not only RA specific.

However, the library marketing team at Harper was inspired by Anderson and compiled their own list of the most active librarians they follow on Twitter.  This list is the better one if you are looking for the best Librarian Tweeters from the RA perspective.

My pick, Kaite Stover, but you have to register to follow her.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

World Book Night: My Title and Where To Get Your Books

Over the weekend, I was notified that the title I was assigned to give out on World Book Night is my first choice-- City of Thieves by David Bennioff.  Back from my original review in October of 2008:
I also read another historical fiction with some adventure elements and a similar title, but with a completely different setting and tone. City of Thieves by David Benioff is a WWII drama. St. Petersberg (or Pitter as its residents refer to it) is under siege by the Nazis and Lev, the son of a poet (and victim of Stalin) is literally starving while protecting his beloved Pitter. One evening he is caught out after curfew, thrown in jail, and awaiting his punishment...death. In his cell, Lev meets an army deserter and university student named Kolya. The two are offered a reprieve by the Colonel if they can locate a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding cake in less than a week's time. The boys set out into the wild streets of Pitter, and eventually slip behind German lines. Along the way, as Lev narrates, the two form a true friendship, meet many interesting people, and come to understand the beauty and horrors of war.
You can click through to see readalikes from back then.  Also, use this link to see all of the times I have mentioned City of Thieves since 2008 (hint, its a lot).  It has become one of my favorite, sure bet, go-to titles over the years.  I have even featured it on the Browsers Corner.

Jose, who works in Circ and runs our popular Decidedly Dystopian Book Club, also got his first choice, Looking for Alaska by John Green.

That's the giver side of the World Book Night equation, but here at the BPL we have news on the distribution side of the evening.  We are an official pick-up location for givers!  So if you are a giver and live in our area, choose the Berwyn Public Library as your pick-up location.  We'd love to meet you.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

BPL Book Discussion: Bury Me Standing

Yesterday, the BPL Monday Afternoon Book Discussion Club discussed Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey by Isabel Fonseca.

To set the book up both for you readers, and as I did with the group, I have this review from Kirkus from when the book first came out:
A journalist's vivid study of Eastern Europe's Gypsies (the Roma) that explores the myths, customs, and actuality of Gypsy life while addressing the central question of Gypsy identity in the post-Holocaust 20th century. Partly because they do not have a written tradition of their own, Gypsies have not figured prominently in mainstream scholarly and journalistic writing. Here Fonseca aims to give them the attention they deserve. Bury Me Standing is actually several works in one: socio-anthropological tieldwork, journalism, oral history, and colorful narrative. Although the ordering of its parts is at times chaotic, the study's diversity is an asset; it provides captivating, intimate accounts of Gypsy customs and gender and social relations, as well as serious consideration of scholarly debates and issues concerning the ill treatment of Gypsies in European history (slavery, persecution, the Holocaust, contemporary injustices). Fonseca has a knack for linking insight to wit and observation, as in this comment on Gypsy dogs: ""All seem to be lame or one-eyed or stub-tailed, as if their main job wasn't to protect or to appear faithful but to make people feel better about their own shortcomings."" But at the core of Fonseca's investigation lies her interest in the Gypsies' ""continual self-reinvention"" and their ""search for a positive identity"" to offset the reputation that burdens them in society. Some Gypsies have returned to their supposed Hindu roots. On the other hand, they have a strange reluctance to respond to the Holocaust (500,000 dead). If suppression of past Gypsy suffering continues, contends the author, their fate in the faltering democracies of Eastern Europe may be bleak. In the post--Cold War atmosphere of renewed nationalism and economic uncertainty, scapegoating is rampant. Fonseca's book comes at a crucial moment and could open an important discussion.
Earlier today I posted the questions I created for our discussion hereClick through to see them as they guided the discussion you will seen in note form below.

Here are the notes from our discussion:
  • 6 voted that they "liked" the book, 4 disliked, and 5 so-so.  We were all over the map.
  • Much of the so-so and disliked votes had to do with the way the book was written.  Throughout the discussion comments came up about the lack of narrative flow throughout the book and Fonseca's insistence to not give us any insight into why she wrote this book.  I went through my notes and compiled them all here in one place.  But I think it is important to note that this part of the discussion was particularly organic; it came up frequently was discussed a bit and then even after we moved on it came up again.
    • Was this a dissertation? It felt like it a bit. (The answer is no)
    • I liked the travelogue organization.  I went to this area in 1992 and again in 2005. I went with the idea that "I would see what I saw." I felt like she did this too, and wrote the book this way.  But even though I went to the same places, I never saw what she did.  I got a new perspective.
    • There was a lot of repetition in the book.
    • A GoodReads reviewer said that this book is full of characters but lacks character.  I liked that description of the frustrating way it was written.
    • It was part ethnography, part history, part personal stories, part political, it was all over the map in terms of how it was written.
    • Although I appreciated how much I learned, I could never really get into reading it.  It is not a book you settle in to read by the fire.
    • I wish Fonseca had a section, even a paragraph where she told us why she wrote the book.  It would have helped unite the text and give the work a general framework.
    • As the discussion went on, one participant had an epiphany that we decided may explain why the book is written in an "all over the place" style.  She pointed us to a quote on page 79 which says that the Roma have "No priorities.  All events are equal, but serially important." Another example is given of a gypsy telling a story of a trial in the book and then describes when a chicken wandered in.  To the Roma storyteller, the two incidents are equal in importance.  This led us to think that maybe Fonseca wrote the book as a gypsy would tell the story of his people. She tried to take us Western readers out of our comfort zone and put us in the head of a Roma.  Those of us, like me, who were frustrated by the lack of narrative flow in the book, loved this idea. We decided to go with this reasoning, and all present liked the book more when viewed in this light. 
  • We all shared stories of what we knew about gypsies before reading this book. Of course, our experiences were mostly Chicago based.  Lots of participants remembered encountering gypsies and being told to stay away from them.  Many also knew of them as performers or fortune tellers.
  • I then asked people to talk about the things they learned by reading this book:
    • I didn't know there were so many different "tribes" and that they couldn't or didn't necessarily communicate with one another.
    • I never realized that they have no written language and that they are mostly illiterate. They have no history beyond 3 generations of the present.  They have no origin stories. They have no united culture beyond the group they are currently with. Some do not even know that there are others like them scattered all over the world.
    • They really are an invisible people.  They get marginalized because of the way they live.  They also seem to use this invisibility to their advantage so they do not get persecuted. They want to be invisible so they are not seen.
    • They seem to make an Art of Forgetting. This is so against our way of thinking that it was jarring.
    • I was shocked at how the gypsies live still, in free European countries, but I was equally as shocked that some of the "rich" Roma still choose to live this way.
    • I can't believe how often and how recently they are still burnt out of their homes (2005 was the most recent one mentioned in the updated Afterward).
    • It seems the Roma live in the moment.  As a result, they can adapt better to change, but on the other hand, they can't move past living in the moment.  For example, the intellectual Roma are at a huge conference, but the three most important members are missing from a key panel because they are outside admiring cool cars.  They shoot themselves in the foot a lot.
    • But, someone said, they have had to live in the moment for thousands of years to avoid extinction.  How can you change your culture so completely after that long?
  • We all agreed that while Fonseca is definitely sympathetic to the Roma, she presents them fairly objectively. She admits where they have failed themselves.  One line toward the end I pointed out was when Fonseca says that the Roma need to understand that they have a right to have their children educated, but they also need to understand the necessity of it as well. This is a fairly critical statement.  But, Fonseca says things like this so dispassionately.  One person stated that she wanted Fonseca to step away from the objectivity for a moment and convince her (the reader) to be more empathetic.  She never did that. As a group we agreed with that point.  This book made us feel bad for the gypsies but did not necessarily make us want to drop everything to help them either.  That might not be quite right.  We want to help them, but we still don't know how.
  • We talked for a bit about the early 1990s in Eastern Europe.  This book couldn't have been written without the fall of the Iron Curtain. We talked about the people living through the transition to democracy and how the gypsies made good scapegoats when things were going badly.
    • One participant also brought up that the human rights issues surrounding the Roma are a huge issue right now because these countries all want to get into the EU and they have to clean up their human rights issues to get in.
    • This book is possible because of the borders being more open to Fonseca, democracy making information more available, and people feeling more willing to share their feelings.
  • After reading this book, I asked the group to talk about what the future holds for the Roma. Here are the responses:
    • More of the same
    • Still scapegoats
    • They are the largest minority in Europe; there has to be some power there.
    • Why hasn't anyone taken up where Fonseca has left off and written part 2 of this story.
      • In America, black and gays only made strides with mainstream support.  We don't see that here. Can the Roma move forward without it? No one else has.  Need another book by a non-Gypsy like this one to help.
      • But on the other hand, they don't want mainstream, Western people's help because then they would have to play by mainstream rules. Such a catch-22.
    • Without increased literacy, I do not see improvement
    • Like the American Indians they have been dumped in uninhabitable places. How can they move forward when starting off so badly?
  • I asked what people thought the overall tone of this book was.  Here are the answers:
    • sobering
    • frustrating
    • tragic
    • sadness
    • uplifting to know it was written and people read it
    • inspiring
    • futile
    • educational
  • Before we closed, I gave people time to share favorite "characters" and memorable events.  I had trouble keeping everyone from talking at once here.  I will not recount what was said because it would spoil some of the better parts of the book, but I will say that this was a great line of questioning.
  • We ended with a discussion of the title.  Actually, I had to stop people from talking about it at the beginning.  I usually don't make people wait for specific questions; I tend to let the discussion dictate its own low, but in this case, I wanted to wait until we had talked about the book more.
    • The question I wrote is: "The title of the novel comes from the penultimate page of the book: "Bury me standing, I've been on my knees all my life." (p.304). This was said as a farewell statement to Fonseca by a Roma man.  She presents this statement and leaves it to "stand" on the page without much comment, yet she thought it important enough to title the book. Why? What does this title mean to you in relation to the entire text?"
    • Here are their responses:
      • They have been begging their whole lives and hope to be given the dignity to stand up in death.
      • I saw it as the futility of this story; the futility of their plight as a people
      • I think it is interesting that this statement is one of the most emotional in the book.  This book is filled with emotional stories but lacks emotion.  I thought this quote sums that up so it is good to sum up the book as a title.
      • The quote sets the tone of the book and it serves as a bookend (pun intended) to the story of the persecuted gypsy folk singer that opens the book. So it makes a good title for that reason.
      • It came from a gypsy and not Fonseca.  She let them title their story.
Readalikes: There are many places you could go with readalikes here.  I will begin with suggestions for learning more about the Roma:
  • The Gypsies by Jan Yoors is an older title and only focuses on one group of travelling gypsies
  • We Are The Romani People by Ian Hancock is a newer title.  Hancock is mentioned in Fonseca's book.  He is a gypsy, so this gives a different perspective.
  • American Gypsy by Oksana Marafioti is a recent memoir, but again, it is the view point of one person and as we learned in Fonseca's book, Roma can be very different from one and other.
  • The links to the above titles on Amazon also offer more suggestions.
Another readalike suggestion are is to look  for books on the region (Eastern Europe), especially those that deal with the 1990s. Many of these books include a discussion of the Roma.  One of the most critically acclaimed is Robert Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History.

On the fiction side, one participant mentioned that gypsies played a pivotal role in Book 5 in the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear-- An Incomplete Revenge. She thought that Winspear's treatment of the Roma people made a nice companion to Fonseca's book.  I did run a search on NoveList for more adult fiction about gypsies, but I am unhappy to report that they don't look like viable readalike options here.  They all seem to play off the gypsy stereotypes instead of presenting an objective view.

Back in 2008, our book club read The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East by Sandy Tolan.  These books share a lot in common.  Both are about complicated struggles of oppressed people.  Also both books take a fair look at all sides of the issue.

A participant mentioned the current reality TV show on National Geographic Channel, American Gypsies that follows a New York Gypsy family.  Click here for the show's website.

Finally, over on GoodReads, I saw that readers of Bury Me Standing had placed it on a list entitled, Essential Non-Fiction Reading Re: Human Rights.  The top book on that list was Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich, a book we read (pre-blog) in book club.  I can see the shared appeal.  In fact, I mentioned this readalike option to the group and they agreed, noting that both books teach you about something that is hiding right under the surface, for which we shamefully knew very little about.

Next month the group is tackling its first Graphic Novel.  I can't wait to see how it goes.

Bury Me Standing Book Discussion Questions by Becky

Yesterday, I hosted the monthly BPL Monday Afternoon Book Club where we had a lively discussion of Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey by Isabel Fonseca.  There are no publisher suggested questions for this book, so I created my own.

You can feel free to use these questions for your book club.  Just use this permalink to RA for All: http://raforall.blogspot.com/2013/02/bury-me-standing-book-discussion.html

I myself used the Lit Lovers guide to general questions for nonfiction and those for fiction (even though this was a nonfiction book) to help me create my specific questions.

Discussion Questions for Bury Me Standing by Isabel Fonseca
  1. This book is all about the Gypsy or Roma people.  What did you know about the Roma before you read this book.  How did Fonseca describe their lives? Did you feel she was objective in presenting the gypsies?  How surprised were you by their culture? How different is it from yours?
  2. Fonseca did her research and travel among the Roma in the 4 years just after the fall of Communism.  How tied to its specific time and place is Fonseca's book?
  3. What are the major themes of the book-- human rights, oppressed peoples, cultural unity, something else?
  4. How did you feel abut the way Fonseca organized the book.  Did it have a narrative flow? Why or why not?
  5. What were the memorable people, places, or moments for you from this book? What images, events, and people were the most troubling.
  6. Fonseca forged new ground in this book by attempting to trace the origin story of the Roma people.  How solid is her research? There has been some controversy surrounding Fonseca and this book.  Why do you think that is? 
  7. This book first came out in 1995 and is still the only comprehensive treatise solely about the Roma by an outsider.  Why has no one else from outside the culture continued to probe this issue more?
  8. What is the overall tone of this work? Hopeful or hopeless? Uplifting or depressing? Inspiring or futile?
  9. What is Fonseca saying about assimilation in her book? Does she think it is possible for the Roma?
  10. What do you think the future holds for the Roma people now that democracy has come to Eastern Europe and a global dialogue about their plight has begun?
  11. The title of the novel comes from the penultimate page of the book: "Bury me standing, I've been on my knees all my life." (p.304). This was said as a farewell statement to Fonseca by a Roma man.  She presents this statement and leaves it to "stand" on the page without much comment, yet she thought it important enough to title the book. Why? What does this title mean to you in relation to the entire text?
I would highly suggest this book for a great backlist discussion group option.  In the next post I will have details about our specific discussion for you to see how it went.  Also, when we finish this 6 months cycle of book discussion titles here at the BPL, we will be adding this to our circulating "Book Club Collection."

Monday, February 25, 2013

Monday Discussion: Movies That Are Better Than the Book

After a week's hiatus for the President's Day holiday, the Monday Discussion is back with a post Oscar Edition.

Each year in preparation for the Oscars, my husband and I go out and see each movie nominated in the Best Picture category.  We enjoy that we can feel indignant outrage when a bad movie wins, and celebrate when the Academy gets it right.  This year, we both loved Life of Pi and felt like it was by far the best directed film.  We were happy to see Ang Lee win last night.

We had also both read the novel in the past and did not like it.  We only saw the movie because it was nominated for Best Picture, but I glad it was.  Everything we did not like about the book (it was too preachy, too pedantic, it told you how to think too much, it lacked subtly) was gone in the movie.  What you got was a gorgeous, subtle, and spiritual tale that enchanted you while you watched it and made you think about its themes and "point" long after.

This got me thinking about movie adaptations of books in general.  More often than not you hear that the book is always better than the movie; however with Life of Pi, I 100% disagree. 

A quick search by Intern Elizabeth also found this article in the Huffington Post listing 11 movies that are better than the book (Life of Pi inspired their post too).  There was some choices on this list that I agree with too, but others I felt they got wrong.

But what about you?  For today's post Oscar, Monday Discussion, let me know if there is a movie you think is better than the book.

For past Monday Discussions click here.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Audie Nominees Annouced and a Reminder on the Importance of Awards Lists

The Audies nominations lists came out.  With 28 categories and 5 nominees in each category, that's a lot of audio books to recommend.  Click here for all the official info from The Audiobooker.

This is another one of those treasure trove award lists. Even if you know very little about audio books, just a quick skim through the 140 nominees gives you a great overall picture of the format and the most well regarded narrators.

In fact, I was going to write an entire post here today about the importance of award lists in our work with leisure readers, but then I remembered that I have already done this.  So here is a bonus Flashback Friday from October 7, 2011.

Using Award Lists As An RA Tool  [Please use the link to the original post for all links referred to below.]
As the book award season heats up with the Nobel Prize in Literature being announced yesterday (disappointing from an RA perspective again) and the National Book Award coming early next month, the National Book Foundation got in the spirit by releasing their "5 under 35" list of authors to keep an eye on.

From the RA standpoint, this list of young authors can serve you in multiple spheres of your work:
1.  Collection Development: these are authors you need to be purchasing for your collections. Go check your catalogs, and order copies where necessary. Also, keep an eye out for their new titles in the future.

2.  Readalikes: these authors make a great readalike suggestion for your readers who are interested in the newest literary fiction. So while the waiting list for The Night Circus, The Art of Fielding, and State of Wonder may be long right now, these 5 authors under 35 are a great while you wait readalike suggestion.

3.  Displays: going back and checking past 5 under 35 designees (scroll a bit; all of the lists are in the right gutter) and the also popular New Yorker 20 Under 40 annual list, makes for a unique and fun display idea. These lists contain a nice mix of authors who made it big and those who never quite broke through, but all are quality options which your library probably already owns. Highlight that backlist by drawing a connection to the release of this new list.

4Resources: just being aware of designations such as this one provides you with a new resource for helping readers. Don't forget about any and all award lists as a potential tool to help you as you match readers with their next good read. If an author your reader likes has been singled out for an award in the past, there is a good chance he or she might enjoy the work of another author who also received this recognition. I speak from personal experience here as I have noticed my own personal predilection for Booker nominees. 
I hope this gets you to look at all award announcements in a different light. Yes, it is good to know who the current award winners are, but do not forget to use this information as another tool in your work as the matchmaker creating connections between your readers and the stacks of books at your library.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

World Book Night is Just Around the Corner

Click here for details!
I can't believe it, but the second annual US participation in World Book Night is just around the corner.  How do I know?  Yesterday I got my official notice that I was accepted as a giver again this year.

So were a few other people at the library (employees and patrons). Like last year we tried to all request different books and then agreed to pool our resources, mix up giveaway boxes of a few different tiles, and then spread out across Berwyn to hand out books.

We will not know the title we have each been given for a few more days, but it really doesn't matter.  Last year we had 3 different titles and people were so happy to be offered a free book.

World Book Night is great PR for reading, for book publishing, and for the library.  But you know me, I'm all about the library, so that's where I will focus right now.

Although at the BPL we do a great job bringing the library to the people with things like Book Lover's Club, Trivia Night, school visits, and appearances at all major city festivals, there is no better way to promote the library, its services, and its awesome staff (I will not apologize for saying so myself) then by going to people where they already are going about their lives (the grocery store, the train station, the YMCA, etc...) and simply handing them a book...for free...no strings attached!

Like you saw in yesterday's post, while people expect more than just books from the library, 80% still feel that books are VERY IMPORTANT.  Books are our brand.  It is what people first think of when they hear the word library.  To be able to leave the building and get out into the community to spread this core message at no extra cost to us is an invaluable opportunity to promote ourselves along with reading.

Here's a quote from World Book Night's own page entitled, Why is World Book Night Important?:

Why does World Book Night exist? Reading for pleasure improves literacy, actively engaging emerging readers in their desire to read. Reading changes lives, improves employability, social interaction, enfranchisement, and can have a positive effect on mental health and happiness. Book readers are more likely to participate in positive activities such as volunteering, attending cultural events, and even physical exercise. 
Or more simply put, books are fun—and they can be life-changing.
Ahh, music to my ears.  This statement is my life's work. Even I have days when I question the "importance" of my professional life devoted to leisure reading.  I am equally as trained to be a hard core reference librarian. [I was a law librarian for three years before finishing my Masters degree.] Some may say this is a "higher" job.  But I say NO.  Statements like the one above (which is footnoted to a study here) remind me that what I do-- what all of you do-- is vital to American society.  I help to create happier, healthier, and more involved citizens.  And I get to do it with books!  It's a dream come true.

So thank you World Book Night from me, from my patrons, and from those unsuspecting people who I will be encountering on the evening of April 23, 2013. I am honored and excited to be part of such a wonderful celebration of the life-changing nature of books.

You can click here for all of the World Book Night details.  And I will have updates on the titles we will be giving out and the locations where we will be soon here on RA for All.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

What People Want From Their Libraries

[ed note: I have been sitting on this for a while because I didn't have time to really look through it, but a few things in my professional life have made me focus on it, and I thought I would share my thoughts.]

To start the year, the PEW Internet and American Life Project published a comprehensive report entitled "Library Services in the Digital Age."

You can click here for the summary of findings.  That page also has a clickable table of contents in the right gutter to all 5 Parts of the report.  While I find the entire report useful, I want to specifically highlight Part 4: What People Want From Their Libraries.

This is the main issue I struggle with every single day.  What do people know they want from us versus what they would like but don't even know they could get. And how do I decide what services and programs are most important to devote time and money to based on what people want and need?

Thankfully, this is where PEW began Part 4.  They asked people how much they knew about what their library already offers, and then they moved into questioning what people think is most important for the library to offer.

More simply stated: Do you know what we already have? And, what should we have?

These are difficult issues for the average public service librarian to get a big picture handle on.  It is hard for library workers to think like a patron.  We are at the library every day.  We know each and every service the library offers.  We know who to ask or where to find the answer. We are too close to the situation and know too much.

However, the average people coming into the library, in the very best case, knows which area of the library to begin their visit with based on their current needs, but in reality, most have no idea where to go, or what they need. All they know is that the library should be able to help.

Studies like this remind us of what people think about us.  Looking at ourselves from outside our insular world can only help us to better tailor our services to our patrons. Too many of my colleagues just keep plugging along, thinking that since their circulation statistics keep going up that they are doing a great job and don't need to improve.  One of my goals with this blog and my consulting is to help stop this mentality.

There is always room for change and improvement.  There are always people in our communities who we are not reaching.  And, there are always better ways (more efficient, more interesting, more dynamic) we can be serving our patrons.

Take a look at what the study says and compare it to your services. I hope it inspires you.  It should not overwhelm you.

On a final note, I was happy to see here that no matter what you hear in the media, the Library is still about books because 80% of Americans think that it is VERY IMPORTANT for libraries to provide books for people to borrow.

No matter how much things change, people still want a good book.  Thankfully, those of us who help them to find their next good read, aren't going anywhere.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

RA Round-Up: Post President's Day Catch-Up

It is amazing how regenerative a single day off can be.  Unlike years past, I took President's Day off entirely. The library was closed and I did no consulting work or blogging from home. Today, I got to the BPL bright and early, ready to work.

I have been busy getting out the newest edition of the Friends of the Berwyn Library Newsletter all day today, but now I am winding the day down by catching up on a few days backlog of RSS feeds.  So that means the post today is a round-up of interesting links:

Friday, February 15, 2013

Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction Longlist

Last year was the inaugural year of the Carnegie Medal.  Here are the details:
The Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction were established in 2012 to recognize the best fiction and nonfiction books for adult readers published in the U.S. the previous year. A shortlist of finalists is announced each May from 50 titles drawn from the previous year’s Booklist Editors’ Choice and RUSA Notable Books lists.
The awards are made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York on the occasion of the foundation’s centennial and in recognition of Andrew Carnegie, one of the greatest benefactors of libraries both in the United States and around the globe, who recognized libraries as indispensable to the progress of society.
Cosponsors of the award are American Library Association’s Booklist and the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA).
This year's long lists for fiction and nonfiction (with 50 titles in all) came out yesterday.  The short list will be announced this spring.  The Carnegie Medal is trying to become the Newbery for adult books; a librarians' best book pick to hold the same weight as the Newbery or Caldecott do for childrens' books.

When I looked at the fiction list, I was happy to see that I had read (and enjoyed) 6 of the long list books.  Click here for the full long list, but below I have pulled out the titles that I read with links to my reviews.

The Carnegie Medal will be handed out at a dinner on June 30, 2013 at ALA Annual in Chicago. The two winning authors will also be speaking at the banquet. I will be there. Will You?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

What I'm Reading: This is How You Lose Her and A Visit From the Goon Squad

In January, I finished two books which are very different in subject, but very similar in appeal, so I decided to review them together. Both books are also composed of connected short stories and each is by a Pulitzer Prize winning author. So let's begin.

I started 2013 by listening to one of the unanimous best books of 2012, the connected short stories in This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz.

Diaz's stories once again bring back the narrator from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the irascible but brilliant Junior.

While Junior was there to tell us Oscar's life story in The Brief Wondrous..., here in a collection of connected stories, Junior is set free to tell us the story of his own life.  We see his own story of coming from the Dominican Republic to Patterson, New Jersey.  He tells us about the complicated relationship with his older brother, who we know from Oscar Wao will die of cancer, and his mother.  And of course, it all centers around a Dominican man's greatest joy, his love of women.

The stories recount Junior's failed relationships, his love of women, and his desire to do good by them, except for the fact that he is always cheating. As a result the overall tone is moving and bittersweet. We see stories of love and loss, and although the structure of the book is nontraditional, the story still moves in a way that is easy to follow.

I should note that the stories do not go in chronological order per se, but their connection is strong enough that the entire book flows as one unit.  We get glimpses into Junior's life at various times.  Your enjoyment of this book will be dictated by whether or not Diaz sucks you in to loving Junior.

As much as I enjoyed how the stories united to tell Junior's story, I am also enjoying the connection Diaz is creating across all his works by using his alter-ego, Junior, across his oeuvre.  As a reader, I greatly enjoy this.  Also, Junior is my kind of character-- deeply flawed, but complex.  He makes bad choices, but he is not an evil person.  I also love how he talks directly to the reader; this draws me in every time. I have been captivated by Junior and can understand why women fall for him.

Another huge appeal here is the lyrical language.  Diaz works hard to create stories in which the language flows without making you feel stupid.  This is a gift that I treasure each time I read one of his books.

Also, without giving anything away, the last story had great closure.  Quite often, a book of short stories leaves you hanging, but although the book is episodic and we only get peeks into Junior's life at a few points, Diaz is able to wrap it all up perfectly at the end.  We see the point of the entire book in the final pages of the last story. That was extremely satisfying.

Finally, a note on the audio.  Diaz narrates this book.  Sometimes author narration don't work, but here I loved it, except for the one story in the book that has a female narrator [otherwise they are all Junior].  It was jarring to hear Diaz start the story only to realize a few minutes in that his "Junior" voice was a woman.  In fact, with Brief Wondrous... I both read and listened to it.  Now having 2 Diaz listening experiences I think that I prefer his work in audio.  When he is reading them, his amazing, lyrical construction flows more naturally.  My gringo pronunciation is better than average but does not have the "DR" swagger the text needs. I also enjoy how Junior mixes slang and fancy vocabulary, English and Spanish.  This is realistic.  Junior, a product of the Patterson projects who has grown to be a university professor, would talk this way.  It is little details like this which make Diaz's work so enjoyable, and in audio this brilliance shines even more brightly.

Three Words That Describe This Book: Character Driven, Lyrical, Connected Stories

Readalikes: In the past I have posted here about readalikes for Diaz. But in considering a new suggestion for this post, I had one name that kept popping in my head-- Philip Roth.

Okay, now you think I am crazy, but hear me out here.  Both authors write intricate stories set in urban Northern New Jersey (Roth's Newark to Diaz' Patterson).  While they are separated by over a generation, both men contemplate their place as ethnic minorities in their work using the first person narration of an alter ego, often one who is also a writer.  Finally, both authors have frank discussions of sexuality and sexual situations in their work. See, not as different as you first thought.

You can also see the end of this post for more read alike options.

But first, another critically acclaimed episodic novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

In this case, I would call this novel more of a novel in stories than a book of connected stories.  Let me explain.  Egan's novel spans from the 1970s until about 2020 and is centered around two characters, Bernie, a record executive, and his long time assistant, Sasha. The novel as a whole tells each of their life stories, but the narrators constantly change; in fact Bernie and Sasha only get 1 chapter each.

The stories move in a conscious way, although I have to admit it took me a few stories to get in the groove.  I thought it was all haphazard at first, but it is not.  Each chapter flows into the next as one character who either appeared in the previous story or was somehow featured, takes over the next one.  The connection get stronger as the book moves on.  It was awesome and fulfilling as a reader.  I felt the crescendo building even though the stories jumped around in space and time.  The result is a novel that is consciously constructed, but not difficult to follow.  It was intricate without being obtuse.

And, in case you didn't get it, the last story takes the guy who appears in the first story (narrated by Sasha) and lets him have his turn years later, only he interacting with Bernie this time. The circle closes, and despite the complex style of the work, you feel like it all resolved. Maybe a circle is the wrong shape, since the story flows, but in a twisted way.  Maybe it is more of a double helix.

Since each story has a different narrator, each also has a different style.  In fact, this is one of the best things about the novel.  Each chapter draws us into the narrator's world view by relating the action of the chapter in their own style.  The words flow differently, the people are described differently, the dialogue changes all depending on who is narrating.  In the biggest stylistic shift, Sasha's daughter tells us her story in power point form. An author less devoted to creating this novel-in-stories would not have the attention to detail here that Egan does.  It really enhanced the experience of reading the work as a whole, as well as increasing my enjoyment of each individual piece.

It should also be noted that there is a psychological darkness in Egan's work that is different from the moving, bittersweet darkness in Diaz. In This Is How You Lose Her, Junior is a good guy who makes bad choices, but in A Visit From the Goon Squad, there is more than just bad choices going on.  There are seriously messed up people sprinkled throughout, including our "protagonists."  But amidst the melancholy, despair, and lying, there are moments of tenderness, joy, and hilarity.  This is an entrancing and compelling novel that looks deep into human nature and comes back with a troublingly, but realistic, verdict.

Three Words That Describe This Book: Novel in Stories, Character Driven, Psychological

Readalikes:  In my updated Haruki Murakami readalike for NoveList published in late 2012, I said this:
For readers looking for a female author who writes like Murakami, try Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Jennifer Egan. Like Murakami, Egan writes character-centered,  complexly layered narratives that shift points of view.  She crafts tales of alienation and lost love that carry a haunting and thoughtful tone.  Murakami fans should try A Visit from the Goon Squad, in which music plays a central role.  In a story that spans from the 1970s until 2020, Egan recounts the lives of a punk rocker turned music executive and his secretary, using interconnected stories that shift points of view and are written in different styles.  One chapter is even in the form of a Power Point presentation.  Readers of Murakami will appreciate the novel’s experimental nature, while being drawn to the larger metaphysical questions it raises.
When I was reading this novel, I was reminded of The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. Although this is a more traditional novel, there are multiple points of view that jump around frequently, creating that episodic feel.  And it is a character driven, psychological story. Click here for more from me on The Art of Fielding.

It also reminded me of Building Stories...a lot!  And that was my favorite book I read in 2012!

Readalikes For Both Books:  Although I have pointed out the differences in these two novels created out of smaller stories, these books do both appeal to fans of literary, character driven fiction that is original, and interesting without being too long. In fact, I have heard readers of both of these books tell me that they don't normally like short stories, but these books they liked.

Personally, I always enjoy books of short stories, especially by authors I admire, so this made me think about why these two novels elicit this response from people who don't consider themselves short fiction fans.

Here's what I came up with.

These episodically told yet still intricate stories are very satisfying to literary fiction readers who love the detailed character development and layered stories of larger novels, but don't want to immerse themselves into a huge tome at the moment. The readalike options are also on the darker side of mood, just like the This is How You Lose Her and A Visit From the Goon Squad. One final note, while not all of the books below are all explicitly novels in story, these are collections (and authors) that I feel will appeal to fans of books I am reviewing here.

The following list of suggestions are linked by these appeal factors:

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Streamlining My Book Discussion Resources (Post updated 9/9/15)

Today I have been working from home on a webinar I will be doing for a library system this spring on leading book discussion groups.

One of the things I am doing for this presentation is to streamline my go-to book discussion resources.  In general I have been trying to streamline all my first line resources for each general RA area of inquiry. Time is short, and quite honestly, the number of quality of resources for each topic or genre is limited. Seriously, there are days I feel like the ratio of useful information to junk out on the web is 1 to 1 billion.

What is my definition of streamlined?  I am going to go with 5.  5 resources to answer most questions.  Of course sometimes there are unique patrons with obscure questions that will require more, but I think 5 is a solid representation.

So, here is my streamlined list of go-to free book discussion resources with a few comments on each:

  • Lit Lovers is my first stop these days for book discussion ideas and information.  They have everything from reviews, to lists of popular book club picks, to articles on running your book club.  You can also find publisher questions and interviews with authors as well as lists of questions when you don't have questions [so vital].  There are also social networking options for people who want to connect over books online.  I really have made this resource my first stop for all book discussion planning.
  • Booklist Reader puts all of it's book group posts under one tag which you can access here.  What I like about this content is that it covers all library related book discussion information for all age levels. There is also a lot of sharing by book discussion leaders as to things that worked and didn't work for their groups.
  • Reading Group Choices is the site I often lose in the shuffle of having too much information.  In fact, this site is why I am streamlining my resources.  I always forget about it, and when I finally do remember it is either too late or I spend too much time getting mad at myself for forgetting about it. They have been around since 1994.  They first started in print.  There is a lot of information here, including a monthly email newsletter that is worth the space it takes up in your inbox.  The backlist is its biggest gem though.  Oh, just go and poke around; you won't be sorry.
  • BookMovement is a resource that is geared toward book club members.  They encourage you to join and share your group's experiences with them.  With the information from about 32,000 groups, they are able to crowdsource information for lists like a national bestseller list for book discussion groups. That list is what I most use this resource for. FYI, they make it seem like you have to sign up for a free account to access the content. If that happens, simply check your url and make sure it is only "http://www.bookmovement.com/" with nothing after the / and you should be fine.
If there is interest in this streamlining, I can do it for other areas/genres.  Just let me know.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Short Nonfiction Help

I have a shortened day of work today so I can rest up for 5.5 hours of Wagner this afternoon/evening (click here for details).

This night has been on my calendar for almost a year, but the idea of sitting still for that long (with two 3o minute breaks) is what I am dreading.  The opera itself will be stunning, beautiful, and, as I have been assured by the press releases of the Lyric Opera, not at all anti-Semitic as it was when first performed.

But why do you care.  Ahh, well this thought of this long evening of got me thinking about shorter pieces.  You know, the whole reverse psychology thing.

Last February I had this post where I wrote about how many people, including myself, love long form journalism, but how hard it is to do readers' advisory work for these readers due to the dearth of resources. So, each time I find a new resource for these queries, I try to pass it on.

Thanks to RA Online, I was pointed in the direction of this article listing 102 Spectacular Nonfiction Stories from 2012.  Each entry has access to the full article, plus information about the author of the piece and links to other stories by that person.  All of this is compiled on the Byliner website by this guy.

Click here for Byliner's full "About" page, but let me say that it is an impressive resource to both access and identify long-form journalism.  While a full subscription requires payment, there is quite a lot you can find for free.  And, honestly, your library is probably already getting a subscription to most of the periodicals in which these stories are appearing.  All we RAs need is a good real time index with commentary, which Byliner can be.

I hope my need to think "short" today helps you to help a reader.  Now I am off to catch a quick nap.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Monday Discussion: Valentine's Week Two-fer

As promised, today I am going to ask for people's favorite love stories.  The love story is a classic standard of the human storytelling tradition.  I know many of you out there want to share your most memorable tales of love.

But, I also know that there are plenty of people out there who are not feeling the love this week, people who are just hoping to get past the mushiness of Valentine's Day in one piece.

Me, I am somewhere in the middle of it all.  As a happily married woman, who regularly goes out with her husband and enjoys his company, I can see the comfort in a nice love story. But on the other hand, since I am happy in my love relationship, reading about others finding happiness is not an escape for me.  However, love gone terribly wrong, that is something I find quite intriguing.

Also, since the year that just finished saw the triumph of the toxic relationship with the supremacy of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, I would be remiss to not also ask about love gone wrong.

So let's get this Monday Discussion started...

First, the good.

In terms of modern love stories, even though I am not a romance fan, I have to admit that Nora Roberts knows what she is doing.  She writes compelling stories with an interesting frame (to hook even the non-romance fan) and then completes it with a satisfying, while not overly stereotypical,  happy ending.

But my favorite recent love story by far is The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.  Click here for more from me on it.  Ironically, while it is a moving testament to the power of true love against many obstacles, it does have a touch of the macabre.

In terms of love gone horribly wrong, I like some classics here.  Macbeth tells the tale of a marriage spiraling out of control due to a lust for power, while The Iliad is a story about a war sparked by the love of Helen of Troy (that didn't go too well for just about everyone involved). Interestingly, I also love the aforementioned Niffenegger's story of love gone terribly wrong, Her Fearful Symmetry, and boy does it have one doozy of an evil twist ending.

But my all time favorite creepy love story is the poem, Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe (click here for poem and analysis).  I had to memorize the poem in 10th grade and can still do most of it by memory. That plus my term paper that year on The Turn of the Screw might explain what happened to me.

What about you? Feel free to give a nod to a story in either or both categories.

There will be no Monday Discussion next week due to the President's Day holiday.  But you can follow past Monday discussions here.

Friday, February 8, 2013

YA Friday: Stacked

A month ago, I had this post where I said I would try to have a regular YA post since RA now includes the Teen department. So, while I am not going to promise a post every Friday, I will promise to gather interesting YA information and links as I am working to learn more about my new job responsibilities, and I will try to only post them on Fridays.

Yes, I am ghettoizing the YA talk to Fridays, but since this area is not my main focus, and I am usually working on ordering books every Friday at the BPL, it is a good fit for the blog.

Please note though, I am not a YA expert; I will be learning and you will be along for the ride.  Everything YA related will be tagged with the YA label.  You can use that label link in the right gutter to pull up all YA related posts at any time.  Up to today, I only had 22 posts with the YA label since the blog began over 5 years ago, but it is a growth area here on RA for All.

So let's go....


Today I want to talk about one of the blogs I began following to bring myself up to speed on YA books and issues....Stacked.  From their mission:
STACKED, on the surface, is interested in reviewing books for readers while simultaneously enticing non-readers to think about reading in fun and interesting ways. As librarians, we are aware that literacy comes in many formats, so we strive to include not just physical book reviews, but also reviews of audio books, digital books, videos, music, zines, graphic novels, and other materials easily found in the stacks.

There are a lot of YA fans out there with blogs, but I am most drawn to the ones which are run by librarians and/or book sellers who also have a passion for the YA titles. One of the two librarians who run Stacked, Kelly, is particularly passionate about YA lit and is recognized as an expert on the topic. In fact, one of the most useful resources on the blog is this document which she posted that categorizes good YA reads by topic.  I will use this for collection development, displays, and to help teen patrons.

I have also found the mix of posts to be useful, interesting, and entertaining. The posts are a mix of essays, reviews, links, and even analysis like this detailed post (with charts) that takes the recent YALSA award winners and compares those lists with other end of the year best lists. Impressive, right? But also useful.

So if you are looking for a YA resource created by our peers with information and discussions you can use with your teen readers, check out Stacked

Thursday, February 7, 2013

What I'm Reading: The Poisoner's Handbook

I greatly enjoy reading history of science, so when my student Nicole presented her reading map on Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Brink of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York last semester, I was intrigued and put a hold on the CD.  I am glad I did.

The story Blum tells is anchored by the career's of Charles Norris, New York City's first officially trained medical examiner and Alexander Gettler, the city's first toxicologist.  To show their importance to their field's Blum breaks the book up into sections, each centered on a specific poison.  She then picks a case or two and throughout the section explains how the poison works, where it came from, and how these two visionaries were able to not only solve the cases, but completely change the way science was used to solve crimes. This structure results in a clever combination of history of science and true crime that in and of itself is enough reason to read the book.

Other appeals include the strong NYC, Jazz Age setting especially the details of the politics and the people (from the rich and famous to the regular ones).  Following the ups and downs of prohibition and its effect on the number of deaths in NYC was enlightening too.

Also, along the way we meet many interesting characters, some victims of poisoning and other the perpetrators, but each is written in a way that captured my interest. Blum was able to use her research to craft a cadre of eccentric, intriguing, and shocking secondary characters.

The pacing is compelling.  Since Blum breaks up the story into smaller sections she never has to let the scientific details bog down the narrative.  The episodic nature keeps it all rolling along. A poison is thoroughly investigated, and just as I began to get bored with a topic, the sections ends, a new one begins, and I was quickly learning about a new poison.  We keep reading because everything old is new again-- new poison, new chemistry to learn, new bad guys, but same old heroes Norris and Gettler.

My only complaint about this book is that Norris and Gettler are portrayed only in a positive light.  They seemed a little too good to be true.  Who knows, maybe they were, but I doubt it.

So if you are a fan of well researched and compelling history of science OR true crime, but especially if you like both, Blum's book is worth a read.

A note on the narration.  It was solid but unmemorable.  It kept me interested but I am not sure it is a book that is improved by listening to it.  However, it's episodic nature made the book a good choice for listening.  It was easy to fall into, listen while I did other things (worked out, folded laundry, drove), and then pick it back up again later. Since the main focus was on two men and only one poison at a time, it was easy to follow the narrative and the science.

Three Words That Describe This Book:  history of science, true crime, clever

Readalikes:  The first character I thought of when reading this book was my favorite budding chemist with an interest in poison's Flavia de Luce.  Then I thought of Sam Kean and Mary Roach.  But so did Nicole when she made her reading map.  In fact, Nicole has dozens of readalikes, so click on over to her reading map and check them out. She did a great job providing a wide range of reading suggestions.

Finally, I will add one readalike to the pot here.  A few years ago I read The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale.  In that review I said: "What makes this true crime story different from many others is that the author takes an interesting angle." Although the angles are different, the same could be said for The Poisoner's Handbook

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Women in Horror Month: Guest Post By Rachel Hoover

[ed note: I know I am guest post heavy this week, but I will have a review coming tomorrow.]

Today, I am having having the blogs work in tandem to promote Women in Horror Month.

From their mission:
Every February, Women in Horror Recognition Month (WiHM) assists underrepresented female genre artists in gaining opportunities, exposure, and education through altruistic events, printed material, articles, interviews, and online support. WiHM seeks to expose and break down social constructs and miscommunication between female professionals while simultaneously educating the public about discrimination and how they can assist the female gender in reaching equality.
One of the official participants is my fellow ARRT member and Chicagoland librarian Rachel Hoover.  I asked her to let my readers know about the celebration, her blog, and the weekly project she is undertaking to celebrate the month.

Thanks to Rachel and all the great women who work in horror.


Women in Horror Comics
by Rachel Hoover

In my blog, Librarian of the Dead, I write about the sorts of things you’d expect from such a title. Many of my posts are about the horror genre whether it’s books, comics, movies or games because I’m such a big fan of horror. But I also talk about gravestone art and cemeteries, and include any items or topics that I stumble upon as long as they’re dark, spine-chilling or have something interesting to say about our relationship with fear or death. 

I am an actual librarian in a public library, I’ve been one for about five years, but I’ve worked in libraries for something like thirteen years now. The name of the blog popped into my head one day this past Fall and made me laugh because it was strange and sort of true. Then it made me stop and seriously think about the fun I could have writing under a theme so near and dear to me, and I have ever since.

Recently I had been thinking about comics quite a bit as well as an event a friend of mine started a few years ago called Women in Horror Month, which happens every February. The goal of the event is to bring more exposure and support to women working in the horror genre. I realized that I couldn’t think of very many women who worked on horror comics. Since I’m a researcher by nature, I took to Google. After I had unearthed several names I decided to do an official project for Women in Horror Month on Women in Horror Comics.

Each Monday in February I’m featuring a female horror comic writer and/or artist on my blog, introducing the work they’ve done in the genre and then including an interview from each of them about how they got started, who or what influences them, what they’re reading and what advice they have for other aspiring comic creators. I’m really excited about the series, and I want to earn as many new fans for these women as I can, because they deserve it. The work they do is engaging, innovative, visually captivating, and all for the love of the genre and the medium. 

My first feature is on writer, letterer and editor Rachel Deering who created her own epic werewolf comic called ANATHEMA. Each following post will go up on Mondays at Librarian of the Dead, and I hope you’ll tune in to find out more!

If you don’t want to miss them you can subscribe to my blog, follow me on Twitter @rachelsstorm or keep an eye on all of the Women in Horror Month events through their website: www.womeninhorrormonth.com, Twitter @WiHmonth or Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/WomenInHorrorMonth.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Monday Discussion: Favorite Literary Couples

Can you believe it is almost Valentine's Day?  Well here on the Monday Discussion, we are going to get sappy for the next 2 weeks.  We will begin this week with favorite literary couples. Next week I will feature your favorite love stories, so keep those to yourself right now.

I'll go first.  As readers know, I am not a big Romance (the genre) fan, but that does not mean I don't like to see happy couples in my books every now and then.

I was looking back over the last 12 months of  my reading, and I have identified a few couples I grew to adore in some of my favorite books.  You can use the title links to see my reviews for the books.
These recent literary couples have remained with me long after finishing the novels in which they appeared.

What about you? Share recent or classic couples in literature with me in honor of the build up to Heart Day!

For past Monday Discussions click here.

Friday, February 1, 2013

BPL Book Discussion: The Tiger's Wife

No, I am not a week behind on this report, the BPL Monday Book Discussion was pushed back a week due to the library having no heat on our regularly scheduled day. 

We began the year with The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht.  From  the publisher:
"Weaving a brilliant latticework of family legend, loss, and love, Tea Obreht, the youngest of The New Yorker’s twenty best American fiction writers under forty, has spun a timeless novel that will establish her as one of the most vibrant, original authors of her generation.
In a Balkan country mending from years of conflict, Natalia, a young doctor, arrives on a mission of mercy at an orphanage by the sea. By the time she and her lifelong friend Zóra begin to inoculate the children there, she feels age-old superstitions and secrets gathering everywhere around her. Secrets her outwardly cheerful hosts have chosen not to tell her. Secrets involving the strange family digging for something in the surrounding vineyards. Secrets hidden in the landscape itself.
But Natalia is also confronting a private, hurtful mystery of her own: the inexplicable circumstances surrounding her beloved grandfather’s recent death. After telling her grandmother that he was on his way to meet Natalia, he instead set off for a ramshackle settlement none of their family had ever heard of and died there alone. A famed physician, her grandfather must have known that he was too ill to travel. Why he left home becomes a riddle Natalia is compelled to unravel.
Grief struck and searching for clues to her grandfather’s final state of mind, she turns to the stories he told her when she was a child. On their weekly trips to the zoo he would read to her from a worn copy of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which he carried with him everywhere; later, he told her stories of his own encounters over many years with “the deathless man,” a vagabond who claimed to be immortal and appeared never to age.
But the most extraordinary story of all is the one her grandfather never told her, the one Natalia must discover for herself. One winter during the Second World War, his childhood village was snowbound, cut off even from the encroaching German invaders but haunted by another, fierce presence: a tiger who comes ever closer under cover of darkness. “These stories,” Natalia comes to understand, “run like secret rivers through all the other stories” of her grandfather’s life. And it is ultimately within these rich, luminous narratives that she will find the answer she is looking for."
As you can see from the publisher's summary, this is a complex book, but it was also a beautiful story. And, as you will see from our discussion below, many people did not love the book, but all appreciated its beauty and were thankful that we had the chance to discuss it.

On a personal note, I was captivated by this novel.  It is a story of Natalia's coming of age, but it is also a story full of stories. While it bounces back and forth rather fluidly, making it hard to follow the plot at times, I did not care.  I followed Obreht where she wanted to take me, and I am happy I got to go along for such a wonderful ride.

On to the discussion:
  • We began with 3 votes for like, 4 for dislike, and 7 for so-so.  So, while the vast majority had problems with the book, 10 out of 14 saw more to like than dislike.  However, it is important to note that of the 4 who disliked it a few felt very strongly in that camp.
  • Opening comments that got the discussion started:
    • I liked the descriptions in the book, not only were they detailed, but there were things I never imagined.
    • I loved the relationship between Natalia and her grandfather.  It was special, moving, and interesting to follow.
    • I was struggling at the beginning, and then next thing I knew, I was hooked.
    • It was not a book you could read in short spurts; you really have to sit down and read it in chunks.
    • The non-linear story line threw me but once I got into it, I enjoyed the story.  Others could not get past the nonlinear story line.
    • I liked all the side stories and long back stories of the characters.  But on the other hand someone said while these were their favorite part of the novel, when the story went back to its present, she was confused as to where she was in Natalia's story and wanted to go back to the back story of the peripheral character she was just getting engrossed in.
    • This is a culture I am not familiar with.  That was jarring at first, but I liked learning more.
    • I did not like the completely open ending. One person even said she didn't even understand that it was over; she needed more explanation.
    • I loved the descriptions of all of the characters.  And then someone chimed in-- no, there was too much description.
    • I felt like I was in school reading this book.  I couldn't understand it.  There are plenty of better books I could have read.  Someone countered that maybe it was hard to understand and confusing because Obreht's life was confusing. We talked about how she spent the first dozen years of her life leaving her home in Belgrade and travelling to many countries before settling in the US.  At 25 she is trying to work through where she came from so she can begin her adult life.
  • As you can see we had a lot more opening comments than usual.  This was great.  People had things they had to get out about their feelings for the book.  They could not wait to say them.  For a few comments I had to say, let's hold that for later. So no matter how they felt about the book, they were all eager to join the fray.
  • We talked about the setting.  Although it is clear that the novel is set in the former Yugoslavia both before and after the Bosnian war, everything is kept rather vague.  In fact, other wars in the past are discussed and alluded to especially when we are in the grandfather's stories of his life.  A few people were annoyed that they could not get a clear picture of the place and the wars.  It is made clear that Natalia's family has ties to multiple sides of the Bosnian war and, at the same time, no ties really at all.  But one participant chimed in that she liked how it was kept vague because it doesn't matter who is on what side to the people living through it.
  • The power of stories is a huge theme throughout the book.  We spent a lot of time talking about it.  It was neat because it is a topic we would leave and then find ourselves returning to.  I have compiled all of the comments relating to this theme here:
    • The power of stories is very strong.  Natalia realizes this with the sick diggers she encounters.  At first she is angry that they are eschewing her help as a doctor to cure their ill family because they believe the only way to get better is to find and exhume the body of a dead relative.  As the book nears its conclusion, Natalia has realized that the power of their story is important and she honors it by volunteering to do the final right in their folklore, but she asks if she respects their heritage, they should respect her medicine and all come to the clinic the next day.
    • We saw this as Natalia's epiphany for the entire narrative.  We have a book filled with all of these stories, interspersed throughout Natalia's story of the book's present.  While it was jarring to read at times, we saw these stories that she kept recalling as her process of coming to terms with the power of stories in all of our lives.
    • A few of us mentioned that some of the problems we had with the novel might be rooted in the East vs West differences in storytelling.  The area in which the book is set very much straddles the East-West divide, and as a result, so too does her storytelling technique.
    • We talked about the balance between family stories and the truth.  In an interview, the author said that stories are how we deal with reality in Balkan culture, and that we fully expect that our stories will eventually become myth.  Many people in the room wanted the stories contained within the novel to be "true," and were upset that they were too exaggerated to be so.  I did have to gently remind them that we cannot expect truth since the entire book was a work of fiction.  This got some chuckles, but it is a testament to Obreht's writing that the world she created was so real that many participants got upset with the exaggerations.
    • One participant who does a lot of genealogy said that when you hear a family story you should assume that 90% is not true.
    • The grandfather's stories of his life in a small village as a child and the winter of the tiger's wife make up a huge part of the story, but it is also said that the villagers continued to tell those stories for generations.  It was their mythology.
  • Ah, the title: The Tiger's Wife.  The title refers to the story Natalia's grandfather told her about his childhood and a particularly terrible winter when a tiger escaped from the zoo and lived in the woods above his isolated village.  This story is the backbone of this novel.  In the beginning when we first encounter the story it is through Natalia's retelling of the first time her grandfather told her the story.  They were on one of their frequent trips to the zoo to see the tiger and Natalia thought the story was going to be a fairytale featuring her. The story itself is completely unveiled throughout the course of the novel in snippets that also include tangential forays into the back stories of the lives of the secondary characters in a story-- you can now see where some people's complaints about confusion come into play. So it is more than just the grandfather's tale of his childhood.  Natalia is coming to terms with his death during the novel, and her recounting of the tale to us, is part of her healing process.
  • But we also talked about the title as more than just a reference to this story. One person said she felt as if the entire novel was told from more of an animal perspective than human.  Another asked who the Tiger and/or the Tiger's wife were in the novel.  We talked about the grandfather as the loner Tiger, which is why he connects the most with the Tiger in the story. The deaf mute girl is called the Tiger's wife, but Natalia does make that mention of thinking it could also be her.  One participant said it could still be her; or more specifically, the author herself (whom Natalia seems to be similar to in some ways).  The deaf mute girl was an outsider living away from her homeland; the author too is an outsider, living away from her homeland.  And like the deaf mute girl, someone noted, all that moving around as a child probably made the author feel like a deaf mute-- unable to fully communicate.  There is no way she got command of all the languages for all of the countries she lived in during the 5 year period from 7-12 when she was bouncing around the world.
  • The grandfather's copy of The Jungle Book also came up in reference to the Tiger. We talked about his love of the book, his relationship with the Apothecary who gave it to him (which led to a discussion of the apothecary's role in the death of the Tiger's Wife and then his own death, but these discussions go into too much plot details to recount here; just know those are good discussions areas.)  And of course, we discussed at length the bet the grandfather made with the Deathless Man for possession of this prized book, and the reappearance of the Deathless Man throughout his life as the Deathless Man keeps asking for him to pay his debt.
  • If the Tiger's Wife story is the backbone to the novel, the story of the Deathless Man is its heart. We also described this story as the river that winds through the book. In fact, I noted that I was surprised the book's title did not refer to the Deathless Man story rather than the Tiger's Wife story because in my reading the Deathless Man is more important.  I don't want to give away the story because watching this one unfold was liked by everyone in the group.  Every time he returned, we all loved those scenes.  But why is he there?  Here are some of the responses:
    • He is symbolic-- he gave the grandfather something to believe in at the beginning of his career as a doctor dealing with death all the time.
    • Stories themselves are "deathless." The book drives this point home a lot.  When characters die, their stories are still told.  They give people the hope to continue through bad times.
    • The Deathless Man is the guy I want to come for me when it is my time to go, someone shared.  He will help me come to terms with death.
    • We liked his sense of humor.  Although he has been punished with a curse of being unable to die, he is trying to do the best he can to help people meet their own death.
  • At the end, when Natalia goes to the place where her grandfather died, she surmises that he went there, knowing his cancer was at the end stages and was looking to meet the Deathless Man.  She feels she finds her proof because the Jungle Book is gone.  Her grandfather paid his debt to the Deathless Man and could pass over to the other side now. It also gives her the chance to reflect on how important the story of the Deathless Man was to her grandfather and herself.  This gives her the strength to help the superstitious diggers and honor their stories.
  • As we were on this line of discussion, one person said that this entire book was written as Natalia's grieving process which is why it jumped around so much.  We all were intrigued and talked this out some more.  The novel is about her coming to terms with her grandfather's death.  We are in her head as she works through it.  This is why the book is non-linear.  The grieving process does not go in a straight line.
  • Finally the words or phrases to sum up this complex novel:
    • war
    • storytelling
    • family
    • death
    • myth
    • house of mirrors (there is one in one of the secondary character's side stories that someone pointed out is also a metaphor for the entire novel)
    • superstition
    • hodgepodge
    • confusion
    • accepting death
    • mourning
    • symbolic
Readalikes: A participant said the episodic nature of the book reminded her of when we read One Amazing Thing back in November. Click through to see details. In that post I have a few other readalike suggestions including Bel Canto and The Samurai's Garden that are also good suggestions for fans of The Tiger's Wife.

Another book I have read with an Eastern setting and a granddaughter-grandfather relationship that I think is a good readalike is The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai.  Again click here for my review.

A few other reading suggestions I found via NoveList are:
  • The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway which also focuses on the perspectives of different characters in the same setting.
  • Alice Hoffman is a critically acclaimed writer of magical realism.  I thought of her while I was reading Obreht's novel.  I think many of her books would work as a readalike suggestion.  NoveList suggest The Red Garden which tells the history of a single town in a series of 14 stories.  It might be a different place than Obreht's but it has a similar feel and level of detail.
  • If you want novels set during the Balkan War try Infidelities: Stories of War and Lust by Jospi Novakovich which explores the war and its aftermath through the perspectives of characters from Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia or The Goat Bridge by T.M. McNally which follows a war correspondent dealing with grief who finds himself in Sarajevo during the siege.
Finally, for what its worth, since Obreht's style is so unique I think it is useful to see her influences. Among those that she has mentioned in press interviews are the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Yugoslav Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andric, Raymond Chandler, Ernest Hemingway, Isak Dinesen, and the children's writer Roald Dahl.

We will meet a week late next month due to the President's Day holiday.