Problem Novels or Resilience Literature?

speakLast month there was a snippet in EarlyWord that caught my eye; librarian Nancy Pearl interviewed YA author Laurie Halse Anderson. Anderson’s books, which tackle difficult but real topics such as rape (Speak) and eating disorders (Wintergirls), are occasionally targeted by those who wish to censor them. Pearl asked her about the “problem novel” label that is “often applied to books about teens dealing with real-life situations.” Anderson reframed the issue by calling these books “resilience literature” instead, “because the goal of the books is to help strengthen kids facing difficult situations.” I think that’s a beautiful and apt way to put it.

As my co-worker Rebecca wrote during Banned Books Week last year, “Books are safe spaces to experience new things. New thoughts. New ideas. Different points of view….Books teach us how to empathize with each other, how to stand up for the little guy, and how to recognize the bad guys in our lives….We experience strong emotion alongside our favorite characters – joy, catharsis, loss, excitement. Books are a safe way to learn about life, without all the painful bumps and bruises.”

There is a quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.” Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Words are important, and labels are especially so. Anderson’s renaming “problem novels” to “resilience literature” is not only a more accurate term, it also casts these books, and the discussion surrounding them, into a more positive and constructive light.

Speak: Have you read books that fall into this category? What did you think of them?

“A letter always feels to me like immortality”: on letters and epistolary novels

Cross-posted at the Robbins Library blog, with minor modifications.

“A letter always feels to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.” -Emily Dickinson, quoted in To The Letter by Simon Garfield

An epistle, from the Latin epistulais a letter: a composition in prose sent from one person to another, or from one person to a group of people. An epistolary novel is a novel in letters, a unique style of narration. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the first novel written in this way was Pamela by Samuel Richardson in 1740; Richardson employed the form again with Clarissa in 1748. Other authors began to write epistolary novels as well, including Goethe, who published The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774. And one of the most well-known epistolary novels is Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Acquaintances), which has been adapted into film more than once (Dangerous Liaisons in 1988Cruel Intentions in 1999).

Why are epistolary novels so compelling? One reason may be that they feel intimate. There’s the illegal thrill of reading someone else’s mail, but there’s also a first person voice, usually one character writing to another that they know well, or come to know well. The pace of the correspondence may heighten the suspense as characters – and readers – wait for a reply.

griffinandsabineMost epistolary novels are printed in the same way as regular books, but some go as far as to include actual envelopes and letters. Nick Bantock’s beautiful, mysterious Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence is one of these: Griffin Moss and Sabine Strohem correspond in handmade postcards at first, then move on to longer letters, which the reader pulls out from an envelope and unfolds to read. (A word to the wise: there are six of these books. You may want to get them all at once and set aside a day or two to read them. You will want to know what happens next.)

guernseyOne deservedly popular novel in letters is The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, published in 2008. This book has had lasting appeal, and at least some of that appeal must come from the style in which it is written. The characters’ letters are direct, honest, funny, sorrowful, angry, heartbreaking, and romantic in turn. The reader feels as though she has direct access to the characters, without the authors as intermediaries.

attachmentsOther authors use a more traditional style of narration, but employ letters, journal entries, or – more recently – e-mails, text messages, and chats. A significant chunk of Rainbow Rowell’s first novel, Attachments, is told through two characters’ e-mail exchange – an exchange read by a third person, their company’s IT manager. Kimberly McCreight’s Reconstructing Amelia includes text messages and facebook status updates. The young adult favorite The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky is written as a series of letters from Charlie to an unknown recipient; Roomies by popular YA authors Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando also includes lengthy e-mails between the two main characters, high school graduates who are to be roommates in the fall.

lettersfromskyeOther recent epistolary or semi-epistolary novels are Letters From Skye by Jessica Brockmole, set in Scotland and America, and The Confidant by Helene Gremillon, set in France. These two novels don’t just use the contents of the letters to tell the reader a story; the letters’ discovery by other people becomes part of the plot. Letters are physical: they can be lost, delayed, delivered to the wrong address, or received, read, and tucked away in a drawer and forgotten until someone else comes along and finds them.

Letters often become a part of history, like journals, newspapers, books, and other documents. Simon Garfield’s book To The Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing provides dozens of examples of historical letters, from Cicero to Kerouac. Many biographies include a subject’s letters and journals (e.g. Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in LettersThe Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, and Jane Austen’s Letters). There is even a website, Letters of Note, that gathers fascinating letters from a variety of letter-writers, such as this one from Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) to his wife.

There are far more epistolary novels and excellent collections of letters than I have mentioned above. What’s your favorite? What are your thoughts on this manner of telling a story? And when was the last time you wrote (or received) a pen-and-paper letter?

“Men and women have been collecting letters since letters began. Unlike other collecting hobbies, philately say, or beautiful antique cars, the collecting of letters has always been a wholly natural endeavor. If you treasured what was said in a letter you kept it, and once you have three, you had a correspondence, and no one would accuse you of being a nerd or obsessive.” -Simon Garfield, To The Letter

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Landline by Rainbow Rowell

landline

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.

Intro to Historical Fiction

Cross-posted, with a few changes, on the Robbins Library blog. Links go to past blog posts or LibraryThing reviews. 

Recently, a friend asked me for some recommendations of historical fiction books. She said she had read a lot of historical fiction when she was younger (think A Break With Charity by Ann Rinaldi and Number the Stars by Lois Lowry), and had recently enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things. She has also enjoyed historical fiction by Geraldine Brooks (March, People of the Book) and Colm Toibin. She expressed a preference for books about wholly fictional characters rather than fictionalized real people from history.

Using the above information as a starting point, here’s what I came up with:

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein: CodeNameVerityMarketed as a young adult novel, this book has earned rave reviews almost universally. I loved it for its journal-style narration; the friendship of its two main characters, captured spy “Verity” and downed pilot Maddie; and the fantastic plot twist. It is WWII fiction, but unlike much of WWII fiction, it doesn’t take place in Germany and doesn’t center around Jewish characters: Verity was captured on a mission from England into France, with Maddie as the pilot. The narrators on the audiobook are absolutely wonderful; there’s a lot of added value there, but the voices come through in the text as well. A wrenching, incredible book.

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly: anorthernlightThis is another young adult book, a classic coming-of-age story set in the Adirondacks in 1906. I find it difficult to imagine the reader who could resist sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey, who loves school and dreams of being a writer, but may end up sacrificing that dream to take care of her family, as she promised her mother on her deathbed. As an additional complication, there is a murder at the hotel where Mattie works – the same murder that inspired Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.

Astray by Emma Donoghue: astray_donoghueDonoghue has written historical novels and short stories before, but Astray is a standout collection. Each story is based on some fragment of historical truth, and Donoghue builds on these facts to create fully realized characters. Each story is preceded by its setting (time and place) and followed by a note about its inspiration. The audio production is stellar; I highly recommend listening to this book, because it makes the stories last longer. My favorite in the collection is “The Gift.”

Honolulu by Alan BrennerthonoluluHonolulu is excellent historical fiction: it sheds light on a little-known time and place in history, it has a compelling main character, and it covers several years without ever dragging in pace. The Library Journal review sums it up perfectly: “This sweeping, epic novel follows Jin from her homeland of Korea to a new life on the blossoming Hawaiian Islands. The year is 1914, and Jin is a “picture bride,” a sort of mail-order bride to a Korean man living in Hawaii whom she has never met. Not the wealthy husband she was promised, he is a poor laborer who treats her cruelly. Escaping her abusive husband, Jin must make her way in Honolulu, eventually finding love and stability…Seeing life through Jin’s eyes is a pleasure as she changes from a farm-bound, repressed immigrant girl to an outgoing, educated member of Hawaiian society…” There are also strong female friendships in this book, which is nice to see.

Losing Julia by Jonathan Hull: losingjuliaHonestly, it’s been over a decade since I’ve read this, but I remember really liking it; partly I found it refreshing (if that’s the word) to read a war book that wasn’t about WWII, though nowadays with the Downton Abbey craze we’re seeing more WWI fiction. Patrick Delaney narrates, focusing on three time periods in his life: his time as a soldier in WWI, ten years post-war, and his present situation in an old folks’ home. Hull’s description of war is graphic and immediate, and the love story is poignant and romantic without being sappy. I may have just talked myself into re-reading this.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. StedmanlightbetweenoceansSet in Australia after the Great War (WWI), The Light Between Oceans has few characters but a big impact. Soldier Tom Sherbourne takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on a lonely island. On a trip back to the mainland, he meets and then marries Isabel Graysmark; they live together on the island, alone and happy, until Isabel has a miscarriage, then another, then another. At the center of this beautiful book is a moral dilemma, and a love story. It’s thought-provoking, discussion-worthy, and its setting in a remote part of Australia is unique.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles:rulesofcivility I love this book for two reasons: narrator Katey Kontent, and the way 1937-1938 New York comes to life. I find it hard to believe this (first!) novel was written by an investment banker (with an M.A. in English from Stanford, but still), but obviously I shouldn’t judge; Rules of Civility (the title is from a pamphlet by the young George Washington) is a remarkable book. Katey is independent, well-read, serious, fun, and moral without being prissy. New York in the late thirties is a character all its own; if ever you were going to read a book for the setting alone, it could be this one.

Cascade by Maryanne O’Hara:cascade If Mattie Gokey was ten years older and was an artist instead of a writer, she’d be Desdemona Spaulding, nee Hart. Set primarily in Massachusetts in the 1930s, with a few scenes in New York, this is the perfect book for fans of A Northern Light. Dez faces the family-or-career choice that many women still face today. In O’Hara’s own words, “life is full of tough choices between less-than-perfect alternatives.” Readers may sympathize or disagree with Dez’s decisions, but no one could say they were easy ones to make.

Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum: thosewhosaveusThis is another WWII novel, one that alternates between WWII-era Germany and present-day Minnesota. I enjoy split narratives, and this one is easy to follow, but some readers prefer chronological narratives. The character in the present is Trudy, a history professor, and the character in the past is her mother Anna, who had an affair with a Nazi officer during the war. Anna has never talked to her daughter about her past, but Trudy is determined to find out what happened. This compelling book stands out among the glut of WWII fiction.

Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres: corellismandolinIt is rare to find a book that has moments of such humor (it begins with a doctor curing a man’s deafness by removing a pea from his ear) and scenes of such overwhelming horror, cruelty, and sadness; in fact, one of the most powerful scenes I have ever read is in this book, which takes place on the Greek island of Cephallonia before, during, and after WWII. Captain Corelli is a member of the occupying Italian army who falls in love with the daughter of the deafness-curing doctor. Yes, Corelli’s Mandolin is also a movie, but – as is nearly always the case – the book is better.

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky: suitefrancaiseAs if we did not already have enough reasons to hate Nazis, here’s another: they have deprived us of volumes 3-5 of this book. Suite Francaise contains two parts, “Storm in June” and “Dolce,” but the author intended to write five parts; unfortunately, she was arrested, deported to Auschwitz, and killed before she completed them. However, Nemirovsky – who was born in Russia, but moved to France with her family when she was a teenager – accomplished a great deal in the first two parts of Suite Francaise. She captures the atmosphere of France during the early part of WWII: in “Storm in June,” people flee Paris as the Germans invade, and in “Dolce” German officers are quartered in French homes in a small village. Moral complexities abound, as difficulties bring out the best and worst in people.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society guernseyby Annie Barrows and Mary Anne Shaffer: Don’t let this long, tongue-twister title put you off; Guernsey is a delightful epistolary novel (a novel in letters), and at its center is Juliet Ashton, an English author looking for a subject for a new book. Set in England in 1946, Guernsey has a WWII story embedded in it, but primarily the reader sees the aftereffects of the war, both in London and on the island of Guernsey. If I were forced to muster up a complaint about this book, it would be that the characters, especially Elizabeth, are too perfect; but I’ve read it three times now (once on audio, which I recommend) so it’s not really a complaint at all.

And here are some historical fiction novels that do take real historical figures as their main characters:

Fever by Mary Beth Keane (“Typhoid” Mary Mallon)

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (Zelda Fitzgerald)

The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin (Anne Morrow Lindbergh)

The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields (Edith Wharton)

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Thomas Cromwell)

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (Hadley Hemingway)

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan (Mamah Borthwick and Frank Lloyd Wright)

Above All Things by Tanis Rideout (George Mallory)

Best of 2011: Fiction (continued)

“I’ll be posting more soon,” I wrote (February 28, 2012). If we are going by geological time, I suppose nearly two years later qualifies as “soon,” but by normal human calendar time, I missed the mark a bit. Here is the final batch of read-in-2011 favorites, a continuation of this “best of 2011″ post.

Many of these books have gotten a fair amount of attention in the last couple years (Cloud Atlas was made into a movie), and some authors have published additional books since these: Hilary Mantel followed up Wolf Hall with Bring Up the Bodies, Patrick Somerville published This Bright River in 2012, Emma Donoghue published Astray the same year, and Simon Van Booy came out with the slender and luminous The Illusion of Separateness last year. Here, though, are my brief and belated roundups of some favorite novels I read in 2011.

everythingbeautifulEverything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy (2011): Having read Simon Van Booy’s short stories (The Secret Lives of People in Love; Love Begins in Winter), I was looking forward to his first novel, and it didn’t disappoint, although I think his style is best suited to short stories and novellas. Characters take precedence over plot in this story (except for one main event): the relationships between Rebecca, Henry, and George are the central aspect of the story. The setting – Athens, Greece – is also a character of sorts. Van Booy’s writing is poetic, and creates a mood that lingers even when you’ve put the book down.

goonsquadA Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010): This novel spans a few decades, stretching into the near future; sections are linked through loosely connected characters. Each section serves as a snapshot or cross-section of a time in a life, and the character’s interaction with others during that time. I enjoyed these sections on their own (many parts appeared in The New Yorker in advance of the novel’s publication) and would have gladly spent more time with the characters. However, I remember not liking the sections set in the future as much as the ones set in the past or present, and now that it has been a few years, I don’t remember the overall arc of the book.

cloud_atlasCloud Atlas by David Mitchell (1999): As impressed as I was with Goon SquadCloud Atlas blew me away. Structurally, the book is unlike any other I’ve ever read: like the eponymous “sextet for overlapping soloists” described in the novel (“In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order”), the book is made up of six sections, five of which are divided in half, with the sixth in its entirety in the middle of the book. The six narratives are so wildly different in setting, character, voice, and style that they could have been written by different authors, but a single theme emerges. Most readers will prefer certain narratives over others, but overall, the book is masterful, and David Mitchell’s genius is apparent.

wolfhallWolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009): Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII are two of the most popular characters for historical fiction authors, but Thomas Cromwell, who lurks in the shadows in most books, takes center stage (center page?) in Mantel’s. She describes his miserable childhood, his travels as a young man, and his rise to power with superb and engaging thoroughness, so the reader empathizes with the character completely. Wolf Hall has a strange grammatical quirk – every “he” or “him” refers to Cromwell, regardless of subject/object conventions – but this quirk was ironed out in the subsequent Bring Up the Bodies. I can’t wait for the third and final book, The Mirror and the Light, expected sometime in 2015. (Will it, too, win the Booker Prize?)

widowerstaleThe Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass (2010): Set in the Boston area, The Widower’s Tale may be Glass’ saddest book to date, but it is also one of her best. She weaves a web of interconnected characters, creates a beautiful and believable setting, and writes with emotional truth about the people she has brought to life – in this case, the Darling family, including retired librarian and grandfather Percy; his daughters, high-achieving Trudy and floundering Clover; and his grandson, Harvard student Robert.

room_donoghueRoom by Emma Donoghue (2010): A distinctive departure for Donoghue (Slammerkin, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits: Stories, The Sealed Letter), Room centers closely on two characters, mother and child, in a tightly circumscribed environment – the single, eponymous room. The reader gleans that the mother has been kidnapped, imprisoned, and raped, but her five-year-old son Jack knows none of this; the room is his whole world. When they manage to escape, the real world is a shock to both of them, for different reasons and in different ways. A novel premise, thoughtfully carried out.

cradle_somervilleThe Cradle by Patrick Somerville (2009): For better or worse, there wasn’t a tremendous amount of buzz about this book when it came out, so reading it felt like a wonderful and secret discovery. It is about the marriage of Matt and Marissa, who, facing impending parenthood, are reflecting on their own family histories. On the back of the book, Benjamin Percy wrote, “Like a magic trick, The Cradle will make you blink, chew your lip, try to figure out how he did it, how in the world Patrick Somerville managed to sneak this big, beautiful story of familial love into such a slender novel – a saga writ small, swiftly paced, intricately structured, precisely told.” Well put.

chroniclesharrisburdickThe Chronicles of Harris Burdick: fourteen amazing authors tell the tales (2011): I have long been entranced by Chris Van Allsburg’s illustrations, especially The Chronicles of Harris Burdick. Each illustration in this collection has a title and a caption that tantalizes the imagination. As the subtitle of this edition suggests, fourteen authors have taken on the challenge here, with one story per illustration (how did they decide who got which?). Each tale is magical and inventive; some are funny, some are dark. My favorites are “Oscar and Alphonse,” written by Van Allsburg himself, and “The House on Maple Street” by Stephen King. Great for most ages (10 and up?).

 

Best of 2011, Part the Third: Nonfiction

Some might say it’s too late to revisit favorite nonfiction books read in 2011, but I disagree, partly because I am intent on cleaning out my drafts folder, and partly because plenty of good nonfiction stands the test of time. Especially when that test is only three years. (Those who are interested in my other “best of 2011″ reading posts can catch up with the “prequel,” favorite young adult books, humor and baking books – separate categories, same post – and fiction).

As I’m now writing about books I read about three years ago and my memories of them are not comprehensive, my notes will be correspondingly brief, but I still remember and recommend the following biographies, histories, and memoirs:

Under the Banner of Heaven: a story of violent faith by Jon Krakauer (2003): Booklist calls this a “true-crime/religious expose, which delves deep into the heart of Mormon fundamentalism,” which sums it up neatly. Krakauer alternates between a history of Mormonism and contemporary Mormon fundamentalism. As always, he chooses a gripping topic and writes in a clear, compelling way.

unbrokenUnbroken: a World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption by Laura Hillenbrand (2010): Incredibly, for a book that came out four years ago, there are still holds on the library copies. This is an enduring work: an incredible piece of scholarship and research, written in an accessible and gripping way, with some truly stomach-churning scenes. Technically it’s a biography of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner in the 1930s and an airman in WWII who was shot down, spent over a month at sea, only to be held as a Japanese POW for the remainder of the war, but the story seems too big to belong to just one person.

The Devil in the White City: murder, magic, and madness at the fair that changed America by Erik Larson (2003): Larson’s book, too, remains popular more than a decade after its initial publication. He tells twin narratives: that of the Chicago World’s Fair architects, and that of the serial killer Henry Holmes. The year 1893 comes alive, both the “white city” and the “black city.” I had thought that the two narratives would eventually weave together and converge, and that doesn’t happen, but it’s still an excellent read – sometimes terrifying, filled with interesting details (did you know the Ferris Wheel premiered at the Chicago World’s Fair?), and never boring.

professorandmadmanThe Professor and the Madman: a tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester (1998): The subtitle really sums it all up. The eponymous professor, James Murray, was the editor of the first edition of the OED, and the eponymous madman was one Dr. William Minor, an American doctor incarcerated in an asylum in England, and a significant contributor to the OED. Fascinating on a number of levels, and refreshingly brief at under 300 pages.

Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl (1998) and My Life In France by Julia Child (2006): Those who like memoirs and who are interested in food couldn’t choose a better book than Tender at the Bone. Reichl is a funnier writer than I expected, and I still intend to read her other books (Garlic and Sapphires, Comfort Me With Apples). Having said that, for those who like history and travel as well as memoirs and cooking, My Life in France is the book for you. Child is funny, observant, brave, and unselfconscious; I adored this book.

Life by Keith Richards (2010) and John Lennon: The Life by Philip Norman (2008): If you are planning to read both of these books, read Lennon first; Norman’s book is packed with detail, thanks to his thorough research, but it is less lively and immediate than Richards’ Life. Partly the difference stems from the voice; Lennon is a biography, while Life is an autobiography, and Richards’ account has the benefit of being in his own words. He remembers far more than anyone could expect him to, and in addition to plenty of anecdotes, Life contains memorable lines like “I imagined everything. I never thought it would happen.” (The audiobook is great too.) The Norman is a bit drier, but it does contain plenty of early Beatles history, who-wrote-what-and-why bits, and perspective on the later years; while one can’t help thinking John was a bit of a jerk, Yoko Ono is presented in a way that even I can’t hate her (as I was brought up to do). On balance, though, Keith’s book is just more fun.

charlesandemmaCharles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman (2008): Biographies written for adults – especially biographies of such major historical figures as Charles Darwin – tend to be doorstops, which can deter those of us who want to learn about someone without, perhaps, learning every single thing about them that a biographer can unearth. Charles and Emma is written for a young adult audience, but it’s a wonderful book for older readers too. Heiligman chooses to view Darwin’s life through the lens of his marriage to his cousin Emma Wedgwood; she is a faithful Christian, and he is a scientist whose theory still sends modern Christians into fits (see: evolution vs. “intelligent design” in science textbooks). Their marriage is a microcosm of this debate that is still ongoing, but it is a thoughtful and respectful one.

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?”

happymarriage

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)

gogiants

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.

LibraryThing vs Goodreads, redux

Back in April I wrote about transitioning from Goodreads to LibraryThing after Amazon bought Goodreads. The transition was a bit halting, but I have now more or less stopped updating my Goodreads account (though I still contribute to my library’s account for readers’ advisory purposes) and shifted all my activity over to LibraryThing.

Though both Goodreads and LT are social reading sites, they are different in a number of ways. For example, let’s look at the messages on their home pages, before sign-in. Here’s Goodreads:

goodreads_home_logo

And here’s LibraryThing:

LT_home_logo

Goodreads (“Meet your next favorite book”) is encouraging readers to find new books to read, through lists (“shelves”), ads, and other users’ reviews. LibraryThing, on the other hand (“A home for your books…A community of book lovers”) emphasizes its cataloging quality and its user community.

There are a variety of uses for social reading sites (and by no means are Goodreads and LibraryThing the only choices), but my primary uses are (in descending order of importance):

  1. Keep track of what I’ve read and what I want to read.

  2. Write and store reviews and notes on the books I’ve read.

  3. See what my friends are reading and read their reviews.

I also appreciate the chance to get the occasional early review copy (I’ve gotten one or two from Goodreads over the past six years, and at least four from LT over the past year), and the serendipity of connecting with authors (more than once, authors on Goodreads have contacted me after I’ve written a review of their book: one ended up attending a book club meeting, and another gave a presentation at the library).

So, how do the two sites compare? Let’s go point by point.

Keep track of what I’ve read and what I want to read. I’m certainly able to do this on both sites. Goodreads has “read,” “currently reading,” and “to-read” shelves, whereas LibraryThing has “to-read” and “currently reading” collections (everything else is, by default, “read”). I like Goodreads’ “date added” sorting option, but I like that LibraryThing offers different display styles.

LY_styleoptions

Write and store reviews and notes on the books I’ve read. One of LT’s aforementioned display styles includes reviews – so you can see all your reviews at a glance, rather than having to click into each book’s record. You can also click directly into the review to make any edits. There is no way to skim all your reviews in Goodreads.

See what my friends are reading and read their reviews. Goodreads has a clear advantage here, because most of the people I know who are on a social reading site are on Goodreads. I’m not that interested in reading strangers’ reviews, but I do like seeing what my friends are reading. Fortunately, I still get e-mails from Goodreads with updates that include friends’ reviews.

goodreads_greenbuttonIn terms of function, then, the sites aren’t all that different. Though I’m committed to LT now, I still don’t find it as intuitive or user-friendly as Goodreads (though, like most LT users, I’m not a fan of Goodreads’ dreaded green button).

LibraryThing organization

Even after a few months of using LibraryThing, I still don’t navigate it effortlessly. The font is absolutely tiny, which leads to a cluttered appearance. Searching within your library takes a second or two longer than I’d like to return results (yes, I’m impatient). The organization also takes some getting used to – the Home tab shows your most recent books, but if you click into a book’s record from there, it just shows metadata and other users’ reviews, not your review or when you started or finished the book; that information is under the Your Books tab (this is where you can choose your own display style).

There’s a separate tab to Add Books, and when you search, there’s usually only one edition of the book, whereas Goodreads lists all of them (hardcover, paperback, mass market, audiobook, various publishers, etc). However, if you put in the ISBN of the specific edition you’re looking for, it will show up.

The other tabs – Groups, Talk, Local, More, and the mysteriously named Zeitgeist (“more information than you require,” indeed, though it’s probably useful/interesting for some) – I don’t use often, though I probably should look at the Local tab more often to see what’s going on. It’s customizable too, so you can choose your favorite bookstores, libraries, or other literary venues to see what authors might be in town. The More tab includes the link to Early Reviewer books.

Stats are accessed from the Home tab; I don’t look at stats that often, just a few times a year, but LT presents them pretty creatively. For instance, my library (which, to be fair, includes books on my “to-read” shelf as well as those I’ve read and am currently reading), if stacked book upon book, would be slightly taller than the Great Pyramid, slightly shorter than the Washington Monument. The value of its weight in gold would be $22,173,471. Goodreads data, on the other hand, is a bit more straightforward – number of books read in a calendar year, number of pages read, etc. I wish LT had these types of numbers as well.

Overall, I’m not thrilled with LibraryThing, but I’m going to stick with it because it isn’t owned by Amazon, which means my personal data isn’t being harvested (at least not so rapaciously and overtly). Perhaps some of the things that irk me about it will change, and more of my friends will join over time. Till then, it does what I need it to do.

Recaptains to the rescue

allegiantAllegiant, Veronica Roth’s third and final installment of the trilogy that began with Divergent, has finally hit the shelves (and promptly been snatched up by eager readers). I’m still waiting for a library copy, but in the meantime I needed to refresh my memory of the first two books. I’m in the habit of writing reviews of nearly everything I read, and indeed I wrote about Divergent and Insurgent, but with series there are always details that fade, and I try not to give away the ending in my reviews. However, I also don’t want to re-read all the preceding books in a series every time a new one comes out, so what to do? (Hannah Gomez at The Hub has one solution, but I don’t have the willpower for that.)

Recaptains to the rescue! I forget where I originally heard about the Recaptains. (If it was you who told me about them, please let me know. I have a feeling it may have been via Maggie Stiefvater, who wrote the recap for her own book, The Raven Boys.) The Recaptains, as the name suggests, write recaps – not reviews – of series books, including spoilers to help those who read the first book(s) but want a refresher before starting the next in the series.

If you, too, are waiting for a copy of Allegiant, here are the recaps of Divergent and InsurgentThey aren’t perfect, but they serve their purpose. And if you’ve read them both but still aren’t sure about continuing on with the final book, the FYA review of Allegiant is pretty safe (no major spoilers).