“I’d listen to her read a grocery list”: On Audiobooks

It doesn’t take that much endurance to read a picture book aloud. Reading for longer periods of time, however, can be taxing, which makes the work that audiobook narrators do even more impressive. I started listening to audiobooks when I started driving to and from work; I used to commute via subway, where I found that external noise drowned out anything coming through my headphones.

At first, not sure how much concentration I’d be able to spare, I started by re-reading books I’d already read, such as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which is performed by the author and a full cast. (It’s excellent.) I moved on to the Hunger Games trilogy, which Carolyn McCormick narrates (she is also excellent). Then I listened to Life by Keith Richards, read by Johnny Depp, Joe Hurley, and “Keef” himself; the switching between narrators seemed random and was somewhat jarring, but each individual reader was very good.

eleanorandpark_audioEventually, I started reading books I hadn’t read before, and I’ve become hooked on audiobooks; as soon as I finish one, I start another. Because my commute is blessedly brief and I’m usually only in the car for half an hour each day, I read a lot of shorter books (7-9 hours), often young adult novels. I’ve started seeking out particular narrators, such as Rebecca Lowman (Eleanor & Park, Rules of Civility) and Morven Christie (Code Name Verity, Burial Rites).

Luckily for me, audiobooks are becoming more popular, and publishers are producing more of them (see “Actors Today Don’t Just Read for the Part. Reading IS the Part,” Leslie Kaufman, The New York Times, June 29, 2013). As for whether listening to an audiobook counts as reading, there is plenty of debate. I would venture to say that as long as one has mastered the ability to read in print, audiobooks are as legitimate a way to consume books as reading them on paper (or on a screen). “We tend to regard reading with our eyes as more serious, more highbrow, than hearing a book read out loud,” T.M. Luhrman wrote in a New York Times  piece called “Audiobooks and the return of storytelling” on February 22. She continued, “The ability to read has always been invested with more importance than mere speech….But for most of human history literature has been spoken out loud.”

TFIOS_audioOne experiences a story differently, and remembers it differently, when hearing it read aloud as opposed to reading the text visually. Partly, audiobooks are a different reading experience for me because I don’t skip over sentences or skim paragraphs; I hear every single word. And a truly talented narrator can bring a book to life: listen to Jim Dale perform the Harry Potter books or Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, or Rebecca Lowman read Eleanor & Park or Rules of Civility. Kate Rudd reading The Fault in Our Stars brought me to tears, though I didn’t cry when I first read the book in print.

I think we are all hungry for stories, whether we read them to ourselves in print, listen to them as audiobooks, or read them out loud to ourselves or each other. If you aren’t an audiobook devotee already, I’d encourage you to give them a try. Libraries usually carry them on CD and sometimes on Playaways, and they are often downloadable in mp3 format too.

Characters, Gender, and Likability

Yesterday I followed a couple of links from Twitter and read these two pieces: “Why Talking About Girl Reading Matters” from Kelly Jensen at Stacked and “On Liking Characters” by Liz Burns at School Library Journal (SLJ). The Stacked post linked to Laurel Snyder’s post “Boys Will Be Boys, And Girls Will Be Accommodating.” Together, these pieces make the point that in focusing on “books for boys” (boys are generally more reluctant readers than girls) we do everyone an injustice.

If boys only ever read “books for boys,” they may never discover that they like other kinds of books as well. Those of us putting books into the hands of growing readers can’t underestimate them; we ought to encourage them to stretch and try something new. At the same time, “girl books” tend to be pushed to the sides, sending the message that they are less important. “The best solution,” writes Snyder, “would require us to push against the gender bias in the world, and in ourselves.”

If there’s one thing The Hunger GamesDivergent, and The Fault in Our Stars have proved, it’s that boys will read books that have girls as the main character. (As for the author’s gender, it’s not something I remember ever paying attention to much as I was growing up, and I don’t pay much attention now, either; this is borne out in my reading stats. But in the above examples, those incredibly successful trilogies are written by women.)

A character’s gender also affects their likability, as Burns points out in her piece. Some readers are quick to label girl characters unlikable if the character acts in a nontraditional way. But a likable character isn’t the same as a good one (i.e., a well-written, realistic one). Here’s my response to Burns’ piece:

The most important thing about character is believability. Are the character’s actions believable? Is there an internal consistency? Does the reader understand the character’s motivation? If the answer to these questions is yes, then the author has probably created a good character: recognizably human, with some flaws and some talents.

Likability is a different issue entirely. Personally, I would be bored reading about likable characters all the time, or if all characters were binary, either likable or unlikable – protagonist/antagonist, hero/villain. Real people are more complicated than that.

As Claire Messud has pointed out, the likability issue does affect female characters (and female authors) disproportionately; it’s more common for readers to criticize female characters for being unlikable than male characters.

My friend Anna has also written about the “books for boys/books for girls” issue, both at YALSA’s The Hub and on her own blog. On The Hub, she wrote, “…it doesn’t matter if a book is ‘for’ a guy or a girl; the gender of the intended audience tends to get all mixed up when you factor in the power of a good story. Boys like stories; girls like stories. Readers in general like stories” (emphasis added). Anna added to this thought a few days later on her blog, asking, “What About Books for Girls?” She wrote,

“Readers are readers. If we could just take off the gendered lenses entirely, I think we could serve our readers better. Let’s focus on writing, reading, and recommending stories that are true (in the manner of Truth, not necessarily a nonfiction story), that matter, that touch the soul, that are real, that show the varieties of human emotion and experience, that are maybe even an inspiration. Let’s do that instead of focusing on the gender we think might like the book the best. Books for girls are books for boys, and books for boys are books for girls. It’s all just stories.”

A skilled author, male or female, can write excellent, believable, well-rounded characters of any gender. Let’s try to focus on getting great stories into the hands of all readers.

Landline by Rainbow Rowell

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She had to call. You can’t just ignore a phone that calls into the past. You can’t know it’s there and not call.

In her three previous books, Attachments, Eleanor & Park, and Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell has demonstrated an ability to create characters that are as recognizable as real people. She has proven herself adept at writing all kinds of relationships – romantic and otherwise – for characters in high school, college, and early adulthood. In Landline, Rowell leaves the YA realm and returns to the adult world, delving into the marriage of Georgie McCool and Neal Grafton.

Georgie and Neal meet in college, marry at twenty-three, and have two children. Georgie works as a TV writer with her friend Seth, who has been her writing partner for longer than Georgie and Neal have been together. Georgie and Seth are on the verge of achieving their longtime dream of getting their own show, but there’s a catch: they have to have material ready in a matter of days. But it’s almost Christmas, and Georgie is supposed to go with her family to Omaha for the holiday.

Instead, Georgie stays in California to work on scripts with Seth while Neal takes their daughters to Omaha. Georgie’s mother and sister treat her as though Neal has left her, which is not what Georgie thinks has happened at all…or has it? Georgie begins to fall apart. She can’t get in touch with Neal on the phone, until she tries calling from the old landline phone at her mom’s house. Talking to Neal on the phone brings back old memories of their time in college, and the terrible week when they were broken up, before he drove twenty-seven hours back from Omaha to California and proposed to her on Christmas morning. Georgie can’t remember that week very well, but as she talks to Neal, pieces she didn’t know were missing begin to fall into place.

The plot hinges on two phones: Georgie’s dead cell phone, and the landline (a.k.a. the magicfuckingphone). I found the landline, where present-day Georgie talks to past Neal, much easier to go along with than the idea that a responsible adult with children would let her cell phone die as often as Georgie did. But that’s my one complaint.

Rowell has an incredible depth of understanding of her characters, and of marriage generally, but she also has a lovely light touch: there are plenty of funny, witty moments alongside (and sometimes during) the darker, bleaker ones. At one point, Georgie realizes that even though Neal is perfect for her, she might not be perfect for him; that “she wanted him more than she wanted him to be happy.” Throughout the novel, Georgie wrestles with big questions like these. She has always known what she wanted: a career in TV, Neal, and her kids. Neal has never really known what he wanted, except for Georgie. Seth adds another layer of tension to Georgie and Neal’s relationship: there’s no love lost between Seth and Neal, but they’ve maintained a tense truce all these years, for Georgie’s sake. Is Seth ready to break that truce? 

Readers may occasionally pause to dwell on issues of feminism. (Georgie wanted to take Neal’s last name, but he wouldn’t let her, because “You don’t come into this world with a name like Georgie McCool and throw it away on the first pretty face.”) In the McCool-Grafton marriage, Georgie is the careerist, the breadwinner, the busy one, while Neal is the stay-at-home dad; Georgie’s own sister points out that Neal would get custody in a divorce. But the novel doesn’t read like a book with an agenda; it only presents a scenario that is the reverse of the traditional one.

Rowell is as magical as her landline phone. Georgie and Neal’s marriage, with all its history and weight, comes through clearly: their good moments and bad moments, the joys and stresses, the selfishness and compromises. Georgie and Neal recognize that they may not be perfect for each other, that their lives might not “fit together,” but, as Neal says, “Nobody’s lives fit together. Fitting together is something you work at. It’s something you make happen – because you love each other.” Stranded half a country away from Neal and her kids, Georgie has to figure out how to make it happen.

I had incredibly high expectations for this book, and though high expectations often lead to disappointment, that wasn’t the case here at all. Instead, I was wholly delighted, and I think Rowell’s fans will be too. In fact, moving seamlessly between YA and adult, she’s likely to bring her old fans with her and attract some new ones as well.

I received an e-galley of LANDLINE from publisher Macmillan via Edelweiss. The expected publication date is July 8, 2014. Quotes in the review above are from the galley, not the final copy.

“New Adult” Revisited, Or, Where are all the books about college?

It’s easy to find books about characters in high school. And it’s easy to find books about adult characters anywhere, doing anything. But there is a sparsely populated area between these two: books about characters who are transitioning from childhood/teenagerhood to adulthood. A few years ago, in response to a post on the Young Adult Review Network (YARN), I struggled to come up with a handful of titles that fit this category. YARN responded with additional titles (November 2011), but I don’t think anyone was satisfied that there were enough “new adult” books at the time.

fangirlinfinitemomentofusThe topic came up again at ALA 2013. I didn’t attend in person, but followed the coverage on blogs and Twitter; Hannah Gomez’s piece for YALSA’s The Hub provides a great recap, as well as a link to a resource list, which has been updated – a pleasant surprise! - since the conference. (There’s another good piece on The Hub about adult books with teen appeal, from August 2012. I’d add Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt to this list, and I’m not alone – it’s a 2013 Alex Award winner.) I was glad to see that a few of my recent favorites that fit snugly into the “new adult” category are on the reader’s advisory resource list, including Bunheads by Sophie Flack, The Infinite Moment of Us by Lauren Myracle, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando, and Just One Day and Just One Year by Gayle Forman; I’d also add How to Love by Katie Cotugno.

howtolovejustoneyearThe years after high school, whether they include college or not, and the first few years in the working world are a transitional time of great change and (hopefully) growth. It is strange that authors haven’t mined this emotion-rich area more. Perhaps these books fell into that gray area that is neither YA nor adult, and publishers weren’t sure how to market them, but if that’s the case, it’s a weak one: so many adults are openly reading YA lit now that these”crossover” books should appeal to both audiences, rather than being lost between them.

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Lourdes at YARN made an important point about some of the books I suggested back in 2011: that they contained an element of nostalgia, and were told from an adult point of view in a present that looked back on the past, as opposed to being told from the point of view of a young adult in the present. The books I mentioned above fit this criteria much better, and I hope to discover and read more of these (suggestions are welcome in the comments).

However, as a reader, I like the adult-looking-back perspective; one example I can think of is Joshua Henkin’s Matrimony, which starts when its three main characters are in college. Maggie Shipstead’s forthcoming Astonish Me (April 2014) also begins when its main character is a young adult, and it follows her until her own son is a teenager. (I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who liked Bunheads.) Much of the action in Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves takes place when the narrator is in college, though in the present she is middle-aged. Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters also deals with three young women who have been out in the world for a few years, but who don’t yet feel like (or, sometimes, act like) adults. All the Light There Was by Nancy Kricorian is also adult fiction, but its main character, Maral, grows from fourteen to twenty during WWII in Paris – perfect for “new adults” who like historical fiction, as Maral makes several difficult and important choices as she comes of age.

The titles in the paragraph above were gleaned from my own reading over the past several months, so clearly “new adults” exist in literature – they can just be hard to find. I’d love to see more books like Fangirl and Roomies, though. Again, if you have suggestions, let me know in the comments!

Note: There are many definitions of the “new adult” category (and many disagreements about whether it’s a genre or a marketing ploy, exciting or a hassle), but no consensus. Therefore, I’m using my preferred definition of “new adult”: books about characters who are in the 18-25-year-old range, told from their perspective (not necessarily first person, present tense, but not from an adult perspective looking back). 

Yearly wrap-up, 2013 edition

In the spirit of those sites that do a weekly wrap-up (like Dooce’s “Stuff I found while looking around” and The Bloggess’ “Sh*t I did when I wasn’t here”), here are a few odds and ends I found while going through my work e-mail inbox and my drafts folder.

How to Search: “How to Use Google Search More Effectively” is a fantastic infographic that will teach you at least one new trick, if not several. It was developed for college students, but most of the content applies to everyday Google-users. Google has its own Tips & Tricks section as well, which is probably updated to reflect changes and new features.

How to Take Care of Your Books: “Dos and Don’ts for Taking Care of Your Personal Books at Home” is a great article by Shelly Smith, the New York Public Library’s Head of Conservation Treatment. Smith recommends shelving your books upright, keeping them out of direct sunlight and extreme temperatures, and dusting. (Sigh. Yes, dusting.)

The ARPANET Dialogues: “In the period between 1975 and 1979, the Agency convened a rare series of conversations between an eccentric cast of characters representing a wide range of perspectives within the contemporary social, political and cultural milieu. The ARPANET Dialogues is a serial document which archives these conversations.” The “eccentric cast of characters” includes Ronald Reagan, Edward Said, Jane Fonda, Jim Henson, Ayn Rand, and Yoko Ono, among others. A gem of Internet history.

All About ARCs: Some librarians over at Stacked developed a survey about how librarians, bloggers, teachers, and booksellers use Advance Reader Copies (ARCs). There were 474 responses to the survey, and the authors summarized and analyzed the results beautifully. I read a lot of ARCs, both in print and through NetGalley or Edelweiss, and I was surprised to learn the extent of the changes between the ARC stage and the finished book; I had assumed changes were copy-level ones, not substantial content-level ones, but sometimes they are. (I also miss the dedication and acknowledgements.)

E-books vs. Print books: There were, at a conservative estimate, approximately a zillion articles and blog posts this year about e-books, but I especially liked this one from The Guardian, “Why ebooks are a different genre from print.” Stuart Kelly wrote, “There are two aspects to the ebook that seem to me profoundly to alter the relationship between the reader and the text. With the book, the reader’s relationship to the text is private, and the book is continuous over space, time and reader. Neither of these propositions is necessarily the case with the ebook.” He continued, “The printed book…is astonishingly stable over time, place and reader….The book, seen this way, is a radically egalitarian proposition compared to the ebook. The book treats every reader the same way.”

On (used) bookselling: This has been languishing in my drafts folder for nearly two years now. A somewhat tongue-in-cheek but not overly snarky list, “25 Things I Learned From Opening a Bookstore” includes such amusing lessons as “If someone comes in and asks for a recommendation and you ask for the name of a book that they liked and they can’t think of one, the person is not really a reader.  Recommend Nicholas Sparks.” Good for librarians as well as booksellers (though I’d hesitate to recommend Sparks).

The-Library-Book-154x250_largeOn Libraries: Along the same lines, I really enjoyed Lucy Mangan’s essay “The Rules” in The Library Book. Mangan’s “rules” are those she would enforce in her own personal library, and they include: (2) Silence is to be maintained at all times. For younger patrons, “silence” is an ancient tradition, dating from pre-digital times. It means “the absence of sound.” Sound includes talking. (3) I will provide tea and coffee at cost price, the descriptive terms for which will be limited to “black,” “white,” “no/one/two/three sugars” and “cup.” Anyone who asks for a latte, cappuccino or anything herbal anything will be taken outside and killed. Silently.

On Weeding: It’s a truth often unacknowledged that libraries possessed of many books must be in want of space to put them – or must decide to get rid of some. Julie Goldberg wrote an excellent essay on this topic, “I Can’t Believe You’re Throwing Out Books!” I also wrote a piece for the local paper, in which I explain the “culling” of our collection (not my choice of headline).

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Public Libraries”: In an essay for In the Library with the Lead Pipe, Australian Hugh Rundle wrote about the lack of incentives for public librarians to do research to test whether public libraries are achieving their desired outcomes.

Public Journalism, Private Platforms: Dan Gillmor questions how much journalists know about security, and how much control they have over their content once it’s published online. (Article by Caroline O’Donovan at Nieman Journalism Lab)

What’s the first thing you remember?

A couple days ago, our library director issued a call for contributions to our annual “staff picks/best books” column for the local paper. I skimmed my LibraryThing catalog to look over what I’d read this past year, disqualifying anything that was published before 2012…and I ended up with nineteen (19)* titles that belonged in my own personal “favorite” category.

*Compiling the “other favorites” list at the end of this post, I added a few more.

fangirlFor my contributions for the column, I excluded YA books because many of us on staff – including, of course – the YA librarian – read and love YA, and I figured the books I would write about (Every Day by David Levithan, Eleanor & Park and Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Wonder by R.J. Palacio, The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, and Just One Day by Gayle Forman) are the ones they would write about also.

I still couldn’t possibly narrow it down to fewer than five. Here’s what I wrote about my choices (below), and after those are the rest of the list.

Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell
O’Farrell’s sixth novel is set in London during the legendary heatwave of 1976. Robert Riordan goes to get the paper one morning and disappears; his wife, Gretta, is frantic, and calls their three grown children home. Misunderstandings between siblings are resolved and buried secrets come to light, but the true genius of this book is how deeply the reader sees inside each character, while the characters lack that same insight into each other.

feverFever by Mary Beth Keane
I’m afraid this brilliantly imagined work of historical fiction did not receive the buzz it deserved. Keane brings Irish immigrant Mary Mallon, a.k.a. “Typhoid Mary,” to life in early 1900s New York, and creates a portrait of a woman whose calling was cooking, but whose cooking was lethal. For perhaps the first time, readers will have sympathy for Mary.

The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley
Ripley follows three American exchange students through a year in Finland, Poland, and South Korea – all countries whose PISA scores have shot up over the past decade – to investigate how these countries have improved their education systems and whether the United States can adopt a new approach successfully. The writing is lively and clear, the research is solid, the results are not tremendously surprising – it comes down to teachers and rigor.

lifeafterlife_atkinson

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Life After Life is like the movie Sliding Doors, but with more doors; protagonist Ursula Todd tries them all, dying and being reborn into her same life again and again. Born in England in 1910, Ursula lives through (or doesn’t) World War I, the Spanish flu, World War II and the Blitz. It’s historical fiction, time travel, and philosophical what-if all rolled into one masterful book.

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer
“The impossible happens once to each of us,” the story begins. Greta in 1985 is grieving: her twin brother is dead of AIDS and her lover has left her. But then Greta wakes up in 1918, and then in 1941. In each time, she is herself, in the same apartment, with the same friends and family, but their relationships are different. As Greta cycles through three selves – in 1918, 1941, and 1985 – she eventually realizes she must decide whether to return to her present, or stay in the past. Toward the end of this beautiful book, she concludes, “What is a perfect world except for one that needs you?”

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Other nonfiction favorites:
Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett (essays)
I Don’t Know by Leah Hager Cohen
The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, translated by KA Yoshida and David Mitchell
Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield
Dear Friend: Rainer Maria Rilke and Paula Modersohn-Becker by Eric Torgersen (1998)

oceanattheendofthelane

Other fiction favorites:
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell
Astray by Emma Donoghue (short stories)

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Poetry:
Go Giants by Nick Laird
Aimless Love by Billy Collins
Dog Songs by Mary Oliver

Here are last year’s favorites.

The title of this post is a line from Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

David Levithan and Rainbow Rowell at Brookline Booksmith

The Monday before Thanksgiving, I trekked across the river to Brookline to see David LevithanRainbow Rowell, Bill Konigsburg, and Paul Rudnick at the Booksmith. Each author read from one of their books: Rudnick read from Gorgeous, Konigsburg from Openly Straight, Rowell and Levithan from Fangirl (hers) and Two Boys Kissing (his). This might be the first time I’ve seen a pair of authors do a joint reading like this – Levithan made a very funny Levi – and they seemed like they were really having fun (though maybe YA authors just have more fun, in general).

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After the readings, they opened up Q&A right away. Here are some snippets:

Levithan, on the 10th anniversary of Boy Meets Boy: “Boy Meets Boy was about creating reality. With Two Boys Kissing I wanted to write something that reflected reality.”

On a reaction to Rowell’s decision to write a novel about college-age characters: “‘College students don’t read.’ I know, be offended, write a letter! ‘Nobody wants to read about college students.’ But I don’t think of writing for one specific audience.” And, she added, readers often want to read about characters a little bit older than themselves (e.g. high school students would be interested in reading about college students).

On the extra pressure Levithan felt for his novel Love is the Higher Law: “You write a bad book, that’s okay. You write a bad book about 9/11, that’s bad.”

Levithan, on writing the character A in Every Day: It was less difficult than he expected; “[When you] take gender out of the equation, sexual orientation doesn’t exist.”

Rowell, on humor in writing: “Funny is subjective.” If a joke she wrote made her laugh, she fought to keep it in the manuscript, even if her agent or editor wasn’t sure about it.

Rowell, on why she chose the physical appearances for Eleanor and Park that she did (chubby and red-headed, and half-Korean, respectively): “You make the decision and you don’t always know where it came from, but it comes from somewhere.” And on attractiveness and attraction: “Attraction happens between two people. That’s it. Two people become attractive to each other.”

Levithan, on making stuff up: “If you’re a writer you make up everything. You’re always being presumptuous.”

On Rowell’s jealousy of the Harry Potter/Internet generation: “Fanfic writers have different rules than published authors.”

Rowell, on writing: “The more you do it, the better you get.”

Levithan, on writing: It’s like the cello. No one expects you to pick up a cello and play a concerto your second time playing. It’s like a muscle you have to develop and strengthen with practice. “Allow yourself to fuck up a lot…Don’t put an expiration date [on your writing], just keep going.”

Someone asked, “What happens when The Lover’s Dictionary Twitter account (@loversdiction) reaches the letter Z?” Levithan said he’s going to wait and see how Sue Grafton (A is for Alibi) handles it, because she’s going to get to the end of the alphabet first. The Twitter account, which he started as a promotion for the book’s release, is now longer than the actual book. He’s currently on the letter G (“Good, adj.: You should choose this so much that it no longer feels like a choice”), and expects to be done in a decade or so. (On losing track of time: “Isn’t 2013 like twelve years from now? No, it’s not.”)

After the Q&A, the authors signed copies of their books. Here’s my new paperback copy of Every Day:

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And here’s my new hardcover of Eleanor & Park. The first time I “read” it was the audiobook - and Rebecca Lowman is superb – but I’m looking forward to reading it again in print.

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Of course, I already do love them.

The dog, however, is less impressed. Here she is in the background of the title page of Every Day:

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She’d be more impressed if she could read, though. (Or if paper tasted more like chicken. But I’m very glad it doesn’t, or none of the books in my house would be safe.)

Anyway…YA books! Read them! Especially these ones.

 

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

Last year, on the last day of November, Dana Sachs published an essay in Publishers Weekly called “Doing 50,000 Words in 30 Days.”  The title of the article refers, of course, to National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which started in San Francisco in 1999 and has grown and spread since then. Now there are participants all over the world – over 300,000 in 2012 - and hundreds of “write ins,” many at libraries.

NaNoWriMo2013bannerThe idea behind NaNoWriMo is simple: write a novel in a month. Specifically, write 50,000 words in 30 days. This works out to 1,667 words per day. (For reference, Sachs’ essay in PW is 750 words.) Admittedly, 50,000 words is pretty short for a novel – about 200 pages – but still, to write that much in a month is nothing to sneeze at, regardless of quality.

In fact, quality isn’t the point of NaNoWriMo. As Sachs writes, “Many writers…suffer from a gnawing perfectionism that can, at its worst, torment us over the placement of a single comma. Forget completing a first draft; perfectionists have trouble completing even a paragraph. NaNoWriMo forces us to ignore our incapacitating inner critic and keep going. The genius of NaNoWriMo is that it obliges us to (temporarily) lower our standards.”

After November, the writer has a working draft; s/he can edit, cut, amend, tinker, and add. The novel may eventually go into a drawer (or computer folder, more likely), may be self-published, may be published through the traditional process with an agent and an editor. No matter the outcome, it’s still an achievement: you’ve made something. And NaNoWriMo provides an encouraging community in which to make that something.

nano_12_new_Come_Write_In_Logo1Library literature has been full of buzz about MakerSpaces lately. Many libraries are re-envisioning their mission and redesigning their space. This is an old idea with a new label (“making” instead of “crafting”) and new technology (e.g. 3D printers). The library was never purely a place for consumption; people have always come to libraries to create as well as consume. And what better place to write (or “make”) a book than a library?

That’s why I’m pleased to be hosting Write Ins at the Robbins Library for the second year in a row. Are you a writer in the Arlington area? “Come Write In.” 

“The real secret is that anyone can write a book… Writing is for everyone, and this is your chance to scrawl your name across the page. By month’s end, you’ll have done that which many dream of, but never accomplish.” -Gennifer Albin, author of Crewel

“As you enter this month of writing, write for yourself. Write for the story. And write, also, for all of the people who doubt you. Write for all of those people who are not brave enough to try to do this grand and wondrous thing themselves.”  -Kate DiCamillo, author of The Tale of Despereaux and Because of Winn-Dixie

“Everyone has a different idea of what constitutes ‘appropriate content’”

There is lots of great Banned Books Week-related stuff on Twitter this week (#BannedBooksWeek), and today’s Library Link of the Day was an NPR segment from Tell Me More called “Could banning books actually encourage more readers?” (Answer: we hope so!) My favorite find via Twitter (so far, at least) is this post from Shoshana at the Brookline Booksmith. It was a good reminder that librarians aren’t the only ones fighting for intellectual freedom and defending everyone’s right to read; publishers and booksellers are in it with us. 

Shoshana wrote, “Everyone has a different idea of what constitutes ‘appropriate content.’ I’ve talked with a lot of parents about what’s right and what’s not right for their kids to read. Some parents want to avoid anything “scary.” Others ask about the The Hunger Games and relax as soon as they learn that although it’s about teenagers being forced to fight to the death, it doesn’t have any sexual content….What I love about the customers in our kids’ section, though, is that the question is pretty much always what’s appropriate for the particular kid in question, not what should be published or be on our shelves….People around here seem to get that what’s all wrong for one reader might be just right for another; even siblings have different levels of scariness tolerance or ability to understand difficult topics.”

She makes a great point: what is “appropriate” for one reader may not be appropriate for another (this is one of the reasons that putting ratings on books is a terrible idea). This is part of readers’ advisory, and it’s a great skill – as a bookseller or a librarian – to be able to talk with parents about what their kids are ready to read (or to talk directly with kids; I know an eight-year-old who didn’t feel ready to read Harry Potter when he was seven, but feels like he might be ready now).

Remember: Every reader his/her book, and every book its reader.

 

Fall Titles: The Signature of All Things, The Lowland

This fall should be a good one for publishers and readers alike. Many beloved authors are coming out with new titles in September, October, and November, including Margaret Atwood (MaddAddam), Stephen King (Doctor Sleep), Amy Tan (The Valley of Amazement), and several others. I was lucky enough to read advance copies of two of these anticipated titles: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, and The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.

lowland First, and most eagerly awaited, The Lowland: a friend of mine who attended ALA in Chicago snagged a galley and generously let me borrow it. Lahiri (Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth) treads familiar ground with a story of an Indian family, some of whom move to the American Northeast, and some of whom stay behind in India.

Those who read the fiction section of The New Yorker may recognize the first several pages of The Lowland, in slightly altered form; it was published as “Brotherly Love” in the June 10 issue earlier this year. The brothers are Subhash and Udayan: the elder is cautious, the younger is reckless (“[Subash's] parents did not have to worry about him and yet they did not favor him. It became his mission to obey them, given that it wasn’t possible to surprise or impress them. That was what Udayan did”).

Though the brothers grow up side by side, their paths diverge, with Udayan becoming involved in a dangerous political movement – the drastic consequences of which echo for decades after Udayan’s death and Subhash’s marriage to his brother’s widow, Gauri.

The narration is a close third person, shifting perspectives every so often, from Subhash, to Gauri, to their daughter Bela, to the brothers’ mother Bijoli, and finally to Udayan. Lahiri creates intensely believable characters in the Mitra family, and she covers a significant time span with her spare, beautiful prose.

The Lowland has been shortlisted for both the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize.

signatureofallthingsThe Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (Stern Men; Eat, Pray, Love; Committed) covers an even greater span of time, at a much more leisurely pace. For once, I could not agree more with the Publishers Weekly review, which is a marvel of conciseness. This thoroughly researched story begins with Henry Whittaker, a scrappy young thief whose father works at Kew Gardens. Henry eventually becomes one of the wealthiest men in Philadelphia, and his daughter, Alma, grows up on the family estate, White Acre.

Alma is given all the advantages Henry did not have, especially education; but, because she is plain (especially compared to her beautiful adopted sister, Prudence), she must resign herself to spinsterhood while Prudence and their mutual friend, Retta, both marry.

Alma devotes her time to business – after her mother Beatrix’s death, she is Henry’s right hand – and the study of mosses. Her life continues in this quiet, circumscribed, but more or less satisfying manner until the arrival of Ambrose Pike, an orchid artist. For the second time in her life, Alma falls in love, and she and Ambrose marry, but the marriage is not what either of them expected, and Ambrose leaves White Acre.

Soon afterward, the inimitable Henry Whittaker dies, and Alma decides, finally, to leave White Acre and travel. She follows Ambrose’s path to Tahiti, and after a few years there, makes her way to her mother’s homeland of Holland.

Gilbert incorporates her research into the story in a way that is natural, not distracting – a harder task than it appears. From beginning to end, she maintains control over the story and the characters; I was aware of the narrator’s voice and presence throughout the time I was reading. Perhaps this slight distance was the reason I did not feel the full emotional impact of admittedly dramatic events throughout Alma’s life. Still, this is a unique book, and an especially great choice for those who are interested in botany, science, history, or travel.