Epistolary books on The Reader’s Shelf

M.C. Escher's Drawing Hands

M.C. Escher’s Drawing Hands, via Wikipedia

I’ve written about letters and epistolary novels here before, but I revisited the topic with my friend, librarian and fellow blogger Brita, in the Reader’s Shelf column for Library Journal. It was tough to narrow down our initial list of epistolary books to just six titles, but we did it!

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Check it out, dear reader, and let us know what you think. Then come back and let us know, what are your favorite epistolary books?

Top Ten Books I’ve Read So Far in 2015

I always enjoy threegoodrats’ “Top Ten Tuesday” posts, inspired by The Broke and the Bookish, and this week I thought I’d chime in as well (even though it isn’t Tuesday), because the topic is “top ten books I’ve read so far in 2015” and that sounded like a fun list to make.

Listed in the order that I read them, with links to reviews/quotes in LibraryThing:

Cover image of Greenglass House1. Greenglass House by Kate Milford: Friends and strangers alike will attest I have not shut up about this book since reading it in January. It is absolutely overflowing with “appeal factors” such as: adoption, a snowbound closed-house mystery (a la Agatha Christie) in a smugglers’ inn, a role-playing game, stories within stories, an entire fictional place complete with its own history and lore, plenty of hot chocolate, Christmas, and a ghost. And it’s got a beautiful cover.

2. Alanna (Song of the Lioness quartet) by Tamora Pierce: I definitely should have read this in middle school or at least high school, but I’m glad I didn’t let it slip by completely. A fantastic set of fantasy novels with that “strong female protagonist” that everyone loves (plus horses, plus a magical crystal that prevents pregnancy). I inhaled all four of these in the space of a week.

Cover of NPH Choose Your Own Autobiography3. Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography: This is one of the best audiobooks I’ve ever listened to (but get the print version too so you can see the pictures). Entertaining and funny but not at the expense of depth. A must for all NPH fans, and the “choose your own adventure” format worked better than it had any right to.

4. Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug: I’ve been meaning to read this for ages – it could/should have been on my 2015-TBR list – and it was well worth it. Anyone who uses computers, let alone anyone who makes software or hardware, ought to read this book (and also Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things).

Cover of A Visitor for Bear5. Bear & Mouse series by Bonny Becker: Starting with A Visitor for Bear (spoiler: it’s Mouse!), I adored these picture books, which have just the right amount of beauty, charm, and humor. A Birthday for Bear, A Bedtime for Bear, and A Library Book for Bear are all worthwhile follow-ups to the first in this series.

6. Dead Wake by Erik Larson: For someone who has read an awful lot about the Titanic, this was my first book about the Lusitania, and it was fascinating. I’d been a little disappointed by Larson’s last, In the Garden of Beasts, but Dead Wake was gripping from start to finish. Larson provides several points of view: captain, crew, and passengers on the ship; the U-boat crew; President Wilson; and the secret, pre-Bletchley “Room 40” in England.

Cover image of Trigger Warning7. Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman: Another fantastic audiobook, read by the author himself. There’s not a dud in this collection of strange stories, myths, and even poems, but there are a few standouts; my favorites were the Doctor Who story “Nothing O’Clock,” “Black Dog” (featuring Shadow from American Gods), and “And Weep, Like Alexander.”

8. Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman: Like many much-hyped books, I avoided this for a while, but when I read it I discovered it was much more practical and less frothy than I had expected. A useful insight into another way of doing things (plus a recipe for yogurt cake).

Cover image of Graceling9. Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore: I just wrote a whole separate blog post about how much I loved these three books. I already want to re-read (re-listen-to) Graceling. If you liked the Song of the Lioness quartet or the His Dark Materials trilogy, you need to read these.

10. Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon: I started this back in 2013, but didn’t finish until I bought the e-book; in this case, not carrying around a thousand-page tome really did help. If everyone in the world read just the introduction to this book (48 pages or so), the world would be a better place. Solomon is a talented writer who did an immense amount of research, speaking with experts and families, and Far from the Tree provides an astonishing level of insight into various kinds of difference or “horizontal identities.”

I will resist the temptation to continue the list with honorable mentions. What have your favorite books been so far this year?

MLA 2015: Through the Library Lens, Part II

Here we go, Day Two of MLA! Read about Monday sessions here.

Flexibility in Library Design, or Agile Libraries that Evolve with You, presented by Lauren Stara and Rosemary Waltos of the MBLC and Sal Genovese of the Walpole Public Library (Tuesday, May 5, 8:30am)

Three cheers for Lauren Stara, who posted her presentation slides online in advance of this session. Check out her slides for lots of great visuals of “lightweight, portable, modular, convenient, approachable” furniture, from service desks to comfy chairs; she included examples from many libraries in the U.S. and Canada. (The presenters’ contact info and a link to several useful Pinterest boards are available through that link as well.) There were tons of tweets during this session (see below), and between those and the slides, I don’t have much to add except that I’m in favor of flexible, adaptable design in libraries and I want to use at least 75% of these ideas right away. Also, I’ve added Aaron Schmidt’s Useful, Useable, Desirable to my ever-growing to-read list.

Screenshot of tweets including What is the first thing a new user sees when they enter your library building?Screenshot of tweets including If you're gonna have movable furniture, make sure it fits in your elevator.Screenshot of tweets, including "When we opened the new building, we put a piece of furniture everywhere there was a window and an outlet."

An Introduction to Fighting Surveillance and Promoting Privacy in Libraries, presented by Alison Macrina of the Library Freedom Project and Kade Crockford of the ACLU (Tuesday, May 5, 9:50am)

I’ve heard Kade and Alison before, but even though most of their presentation was familiar, it’s worth hearing and sharing again – plus I picked up a couple of new tips, as usual. Alison introduced a whole series of online privacy tools, which are also collected on the Library Freedom Project’s resources page.

Libraries can introduce patrons to some of these tools by installing them on public computers, and posting signs to explain the changes and raise awareness about protecting online privacy. The TOR browser is one option (“it’s not just for criminals anymore!”), and the Firefox browser with the DuckDuckGo search engine and HTTPS Everywhere and Privacy Badger plugins is another great choice. (I’m planning to switch from the Ghostery plugin to Privacy Badger, after learning that Ghostery sells information to advertisers – though this is something you can control in your settings if you do have it installed.) Good privacy options (secure texting and phone calls) for mobile phones  can be downloaded from Open Whisper Systems.

Screenshot of tweets, including Libraries can help educate patrons how to protect their digital privacy. Try duckduckgo instead of google search.

Screenshot of tweets, including Book rec from @flexlibris: The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser #masslib15

Advocacy and Your Library, with panelists Edward M. Augustus, Jr., City Manager of Worcester; Representative Kate Hogan, 3rd Middlesex, Chair, Public Library Caucus; John Arnold, Town Moderator, Westborough. Moderators: Susan McAlister, Dinah O’Brien, and Beverly Shank, MLA Legislative Committee Co-Chairs  (Tuesday, May 5, 11:15am)

The takeaway point from this session: the importance of building a relationship with local legislators so that your only contact with them isn’t when you’re asking for money. (At the same time, “You are never going to get what you want if you don’t ask for it.”) It’s important for library staff to be involved, and also to encourage library trustees and patrons to advocate for the library; often, a patron’s voice is more persuasive to a legislator than a librarian’s. When librarians do speak on behalf of the library, the focus ought to be “We’re not here to preserve my job, we’re trying to make the community a better place.”

Demonstrating real outcomes for real people, through qualitative (anecdotes, stories) and quantitative (numbers and statistics) evidence, is most effective. Collaborating and building coalitions with other community groups is also helpful; there are many groups and limited resources. That said, libraries do a lot with a little – specifically, with 0.07% of the Massachusetts state budget.

Screenshot of tweets, including Be aggressive and persistent. There are an endless number of worthy causes competing for limited resources. #advocacyScreenshot of tweets, including Library budget is 7 one-hundredths of the total operating budget (.07%) in Mass!!

A Whale of a Good Time: Summer Library Programming for All Ages, presented by Jennifer Harris and Margaret McGrath of the Plymouth Public Library (Tuesday, May 5, 2:30pm)

Attendees had two choices during this session: get inspired, or take your ball and glove and go home, because this was a hell of a summer reading program/community read (“One Book, One Community”). First of all, they got people to read Moby-Dick, which is impressive on its own. Second, they did a massive PR push, with mailings to 25,000 households and visits to all the elementary schools, raising awareness for all ages; high school art students were recruited to help with PR design. Third, they used every last drop of a $3,000 programming budget, spreading programs for all ages throughout the summer. Programs included three book discussions (it’s 600+ pages, folks), concerts on the lawn in front of the library, knot-tying lessons, a mini-readathon, a craft program series for teens, a hard tack tasting (verdict: not tasty), a movie screening, a Melville impersonator, a field trip to the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and visits from two separate inflatable whales.

Key to the success of the Plymouth Public Library program was staff buy-in and great brainstorming sessions, as well as a healthy budget, good planning, and great PR (in addition to the mailings, they were active on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and Pinterest, and events appeared in the Boston Globe and on local TV as well).

Our library does a Community Read (Arlington Reads Together) in the spring, separate from our summer reading programs for children, teens, and adults. I’m curious how many other libraries combine their Community Read with summer reading.

Screenshot of tweet: PR: The message has to go out so that we can bring the people in. #summerreading #masslib15Screenshot of tweet: "If someone doesn't call you back, and you call a few days later and they still don't call you back, move on!" #lifeadvice #masslib15Screenshot of tweets: A Melville impersonator for Moby Dick summer reading program. I'm thinking of the Ben Franklin episode of The Office. #masslib15

RA Toolbox: Staying Alive – Readers’ Advisory Continuing Education, presented by Laurie Cavanaugh of the Holmes Public Library, Nanci Milone Hill of the Parker Memorial Library, Molly Moss, of the Forbes Library, and Leane M. Ellis of the Lucius Beebe Memorial Library (Tuesday, May 5, 4:15pm)

Each panelist in this session had been the recipient of a LSTA grant for readers’ advisory, administered through the MBLC, so each panelist talked about how they’d implemented the grant, as well as how they’d come to be interested (and expert) in readers’ advisory. Molly had a background in science and academic libraries; readers’ advisory was the most intimidating part of working at a public library reference desk for her. She tackled the task and became involved in the Adult Reading Round Table (ARRT) of Illinois. There is now a Readers’ Advisory Round Table (RART) for every region of Massachusetts (Northeast, West, Metrowest, Southeast), and each one has a blog.

Grant money can be put toward speaker fees, conference fees, materials (books), shelf talker materials (those plastic things that clip on to shelves), staff time, and mileage. Nanci invited Duncan Smith from NoveList to speak to her staff, as well as the Sisters in Crime; Molly invited Barry Trott of the Williamsburg (VA) Regional Library. The WRL was the first library to put a “reader profile form” online; many libraries, including the Forbes in Northampton and the Robbins in Arlington, have adapted the form (with permission) to use on their own websites. Librarians at the Forbes have also done blitz-style RA, asking patrons to post to the library’s Facebook wall with a book they liked, and recommending another book based on that one.

All the panelists talked about genre studies. A typical model includes monthly or bi-monthly meetings where participants read one “benchmark” book in a genre or subgenre, and one secondary selection. This allows for common ground (the book everyone read) and new recommendations. Genre studies can be done within a library, in partnership between two libraries, and through the round table groups across the state. Virtual participants are welcome in the Massachusetts Readers’ Advisory Goodreads group.

Laurie said that readers’ advisory was “customer service in the digital age,” providing a personal touch. Leane, too, said that RA was “public service on a personal level for your readers and potential readers.” Customized forms are just one way to provide great recommendations to patrons; other models include “five to try” booklists, “If you like [author/title, TV show, etc.], you might also like [___],” subgenre booklists, and staff picks lists.

This session concentrated on the LSTA RA grant and implementing genre studies, rather than specific RA tips such as including appeal factors as well as a summary when talking or writing about a book (and no spoilers!). The RA interview was covered in a previous session, RA Toolbox: Conversing with the Reader – the Readers’ Advisory Interview. Additional RA tips and resources are available from MLS. The MLA RA Toolbox handout should, hopefully, be available soon on the Presentations & Handouts page of the conference site.

Screenshot of tweets including #readadv is a public service on a personal level for your readers and potential readers.Screenshot of tweets including Making sure entire library staff is on board with #readadv as an essential library service. #masslib15Screenshot of tweets including Writing about a book can cement information about it in your mind. Create booklists. #readadv #masslib15 2 retweets 1 favorite

Overall, a great conference experience that gave me plenty of ideas and resources to follow up on in the coming weeks, plus an opportunity to see friendly faces from grad school, past library work, fellow committee members, and even friends from Twitter.

If you have questions about any of these recaps, or have written your own recaps to share, please ask or link in the comments!

 

MLA 2015: Through the Library Lens, Part I

Thanks to my library’s wonderful support for professional development, once again I got to attend the Massachusetts Library Association (MLA) annual conference. This year’s theme was “through the library lens,” though none of the sessions I went to specifically addressed what that might mean. (Could it just be a joke about how most of us wear glasses?) (Probably not.) The conference hashtag was #masslib15 and several of us were active on Twitter during the conference.

Throughout my session recaps, I will include links to presentations and slides when possible; most aren’t available online yet, but they should be posted on the presentations & handouts page of the MLA site. (I spoke to a conference organizer about maybe having the materials posted online before the conference started; she said it was hard enough to get the details of everyone’s programs in advance of the conference, getting presentations ahead of time would be next to impossible.)

Bite-Size Learning: Staff Training a Little at a Time, presented by Michelle Filleul, Amy Lannon, and Patty O’Donnell of the Reading Public Library (Monday, May 4, 10:30am)

This session started off with a seven-minute video (“Did You Know 2014“); it’s worthwhile, but I recommend watching it without the sound. The main point is that the world is changing rapidly, especially technology. Libraries can encourage their staff to be “lifetime learners” and create a learner-centric culture by implementing a “bite-size learning” program: each participating staff member gets to spend an hour a week learning something new. This learning is self-directed, internally motivated, goal-oriented, and self-paced; it is relevant to the individual, and is experiential (learn by doing).

Individuals might choose to familiarize themselves with Overdrive or read storytime blogs; they might explore Ancestry.com or take a webinar on any number of subjects. Managers/leaders can start with competency checklists and tailor them to their departments. Staff set specific goals and check in with their supervisor each week to track progress; supervisors participate in the program too. Seeing department heads and directors learn new things sets a good example and breaks down the fear of failure that can accompany trying something out of one’s comfort zone.

A paralibrarian from Reading spoke movingly about how the bite-size learning helped her; she said, “Technology isn’t my thing, but learning is….I don’t want to become a senior citizen who didn’t keep up with technology. I want to communicate with the younger generation on their terms….We have to know how to do these things.” Learning new skills builds confidence in one’s ability to learn, and in one’s ability to help others – a pretty big payoff in exchange for an hour a week.

Screenshot of tweet: Self-directed learning: internally motivated, goal oriented, self-paced, relevant to learner, experiential #masslib15Screenshot of two tweets: Cross-training helps staff better understand and appreciate others' work in the library -and- Bite size learning: Overcome fear of failure, learn something new, increase confidence.

Stealth Reference: Reaching Non-Library Users, presented by Margot Malachowski from the Baystate Health Sciences Library, Anne Gancarz from the Chicopee Public Library, and John Walsh from the Newton Free Library (Monday, May 4, 1:15pm)

“Stealth reference” is a very cool name for what is usually referred to as “outreach.” Margot from Baystate talked about identifying your vulnerable populations, and aligning programs with community needs. She teaches the public directly, taking questions and answering them by mail (five stars for follow-up!), and she also teaches the people who teach the public, like The Literacy Project.

Screenshot of tweet: If a user population isn't using the library, the library may not be serving them effectively.

Anne from Chicopee asked herself, “Who am I seeking? What am I offering?” and asked what motivation potential users had to come to the library. Anne, I suspect, doesn’t sleep much: she has gone into schools, visited homebound patrons, worked with teens, connected to the visually impaired community, gone to the farmers’ market, worked with the sheriff and ex-offenders, and worked with the Council on Aging (COA); there is a bookmobile in her future. Anne suggested collaboration: with town departments like Parks & Rec, the COA, planning boards, and local events. She noticed that program popularity is cyclical; what works one year may not work the next year. “We’re always awesome and helpful,” she said, “but people don’t always know that.” If every library had a Community Services Librarian like Anne, more people would know about all the things libraries have to offer.

Screenshot of tweets and RTs, including "Any opportunity to discuss your library gives you the opportunity to engage your community of potential library users"

Last but not least, John also talked about leaving the library building, going where the people you want to be users are, and showing them what they’re missing. “They don’t know they want things” or they don’t think the library has them. He recommended contacting businesses in the area; even chains like Starbucks and Whole Foods sometimes have community relations people who may be eager to help. Bring some handouts with you, he advised, but those handouts should be immediately useful – a calendar of events, a link to the digital media catalog, etc.

One of the challenges libraries face with outreach efforts – assuming that library leadership supports it – is finding the time for staff to leave the building. Many public libraries are short-staffed, and most won’t consider leaving the reference desk unattended while librarians are at the farmers’ market, the high school, or the senior center. Off-desk hours are precious too – that’s when we order books and other materials, plan programs, create booklists and displays and flyers and a hundred other things – but starting small is better than nothing at all.

Connecting the Dots of Internet Freedom: The Future of Free Speech, presented by Evan Greer from Fight for the Future (Monday, May 4, 2:45pm)

Like many privacy advocates, Evan is an impassioned speaker. She concentrated on four modern threats to freedom of expression on the Internet: (1) attacks on Net Neutrality, (2) mass surveillance, (3) overzealous copyright enforcement, and (4) secretive trade deals, e.g. the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Her presentation was both entertaining and convincing, though I suspect the people in attendance were convinced before they showed up. I tweeted throughout this session; see below for tweets and additional links.

Screenshot of tweets, including Net Neutrality is the First Amendment of the Internet. Slowness equals censorship. Screenshot of tweets, including PEN America report on chilling effect of mass surveillance:  http://pen.org/global-chill  #masslib15Screenshot of tweets including TPP will export US copyright law to the rest of the world - minus Fair Use. Congress loves phone calls https://www.stopfasttrack.com/ Links:

Power of the Written Word: Librarian Influence Through Writing Reviews, presented by Kristi Chadwick of the Massachusetts Library System, Rebecca Vnuk of Booklist, and Nanci Milone Hill of the M.G. Parker Memorial Library in Dracut (Monday, May 4, 4:00pm)

Rebecca, Kristi, and Nanci all gave general advice about writing reviews as well as specific tips for which publications are looking for reviewers and whether or not they pay (mostly they don’t, but book reviewing shows engagement with the profession and looks good to potential future employers, etc.). They also talked about how they got started; they all “fell into it” (but only if “falling into it” means seeking out and creating opportunities for writing reviews and honing their blogging skills).

Rebecca (Shelf Renewal) talked about some of the standard review publications – Library Journal and SLJ, Booklist, Kirkus, VOYA – and their different style guides. Find your voice: is it conversational or formal? Figure out what you want to say and who your audience is. Incorporate readers’ advisory aspects (e.g. appeal factors) into your reviews, and a sense of humor. If you do get your reviews published in one of these sources, cut out your printed review and compare it to what you submitted, line by line; this will improve your reviews. Take cues from existing blogs and websites, and practice writing reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, or LibraryThing.

Kristi’s advice: find your review style, decide your limits, have a review policy, and don’t read other reviews of the book you’re reviewing (beware unintentional plagiarism). Identify the hook, the who/what/when/where/why, who the book will appeal to, and of course…no spoilers! Get e-galleys through NetGalley and/or Edelweiss and submit reviews to LibraryReads.

Screenshot of tweets, including Writing book reviews: What do you want to say? Who is your audience? #masslib15 -and- Find a style that works for you, decide your limits, have a review policy, don't plagiarize! -@booksNyarn Nanci suggested getting involved with your local Readers’ Advisory Round Table (every region of Massachusetts has one), and mentioned a few less obvious candidates for would-be reviewers and writers: NoveList, Public Libraries magazine, Bookmarks magazine, ALA Editions, the Massachusetts Center for the Book, and your local newspaper. Creating readers’ advisory materials for your own library is good practice too: shelf talkers (“If you like ___, try ___”), author and title readalikes, appeal readalikes, “five to try” (genre suggestions), etc.

As usual, presenters mentioned so many good resources and opportunities that follow-up will take me the next several weeks. And this was just day one – stay tuned for day two.

Reading roundup: Fall books

I’m absurdly fond of Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” column in The Believer. His reading taste is so wide-ranging that I forgive the lack of transitions between paragraphs; the books aren’t related, so why bother contriving a connection? Better to use the limited word count to talk about more books.

My taste runs a bit more narrowly to literary fiction (though Nick might like Against Football by Steve Almond), and I’ve read enough new fiction in the past couple months to justify a roundup. Without further ado:

hundredyearhouseMy friend and fellow librarian Brita recommended The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai. Brita has impeccable taste and I’d read Makkai’s first novel, The Borrower, not long ago, so it didn’t take too much of a push for me to pick this one up, and I’m so glad I did. The story is set in and around a house called Laurelfield – a private residence or arts colony, depending on the year – and told backward, starting in 1999, skipping back to 1955, then to 1929, then a “prologue” in 1900. This structure lends a puzzle-like feel to the book, as readers must hold details in their heads as the story moves backward, picking up additional pieces and fitting them in. In addition to compelling characters and a plot filled with secrets and twists, Makkai employs a number of familiar elements – a locked attic, an archive, blackmail, a hidden painting, false identities, buried bodies, a haunted house – and weaves them into a delightful, satisfying story that feels entirely unique.

payingguestsThe Paying Guests by Sarah Waters is a long, tense read. It’s set in London after the first World War. Frances has lost her brothers in the war, and her father has died; she and her mother are forced to take in a couple of lodgers (“paying guests”) to make ends meet. Despite class differences, Frances becomes friends, and then more, with one of the lodgers. They plan to run away together, but are interrupted and surprised one night. A moment of violence shatters their plans and puts their future in jeopardy. The Paying Guests is full of period detail and suspense. I enjoyed it, but I’ve been told I really need to read Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet to get the classic Sarah Waters experience.

miniaturist I picked up a galley of The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton at BEA in May, attracted by the editor’s description and the gorgeous cover. Set in Amsterdam in the 1700s, it’s the story of Nella, who comes from the country to marry a wealthy merchant. Prepared to be a wife, she is instead ignored; Johannes buys her an expensive dollhouse, a replica of the real house, and leaves her alone with his sister, Marin, and two servants. “It is not a man she has married,” Nella observes, “but a world.” Obviously something is not quite right, but it is a little while before Nella discovers precisely what. In the meantime, Nella writes to a miniaturist to begin filling the dollhouse with figurines, but the mysterious miniaturist sends more than Nella asked for, and seems to know more about the family than should be possible – even more than Nella knows. Burton brings Amsterdam to life in this slow-burning story, and though the truth about the miniaturist is never fully revealed, I found the story satisfying regardless.

italianwifeAn Italian Wife by Ann Hood was another BEA galley. I hadn’t read Ann Hood before, and I enjoyed The Italian Wife, the story of an Italian immigrant, Josephine, and her large family. The title refers to Josephine, but there are many Italian wives in the book, and most of them, to some extent, follow the same pattern: their husbands and boyfriends call the shots, sex is a chore (or worse), life consists of housework and child care and little else. Though the larger world changes around them, their small Italian-American community stays remarkably the same, and even the ones who leave don’t break free of the entrenched gender roles, until, perhaps, Josephine’s great-granddaughter Aida. Hood writes about selected members of the family, so the book is almost like a collection of linked stories, but it comes back around to Josephine in the end.

everythinginevertoldyouA co-worker had a galley of Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, and then I read an interview with the author in Shelf Awareness. Those two things together convinced me to read the book, and I’m so glad I did. At the outset it reminded me of Hannah Pittard’s The Fates Will Find Their Way, but other than the disappeared-girl aspect, the novels aren’t that similar. Everything I Never Told You is the story of the Chinese-American Lee family: parents James and Marilyn, and children Nath, Lydia, and Hannah. When Lydia disappears, the family is stunned, and the reader is puzzled, but as more is revealed about each character, it begins to make sense. The whole family is under the pressure of racial discrimination – sometimes subtle, sometimes less so – but Lydia is under the additional pressure of her mother’s expectations: that she will fulfill Marilyn’s own thwarted dream of a medical career. This is one of those books that makes you ache for a family in which communication of the important truths seems impossible, despite the love they have for one another.

magicianslandI read The Magicians and The Magician King, books one and two in Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy, back in 2011, and I wasn’t sure if I’d remember them well enough to enjoy The Magician’s Land, but it got such glowing reviews (such as the one from Edan Lepucki in the Sunday Book Review) that I went ahead…and it was fantastic. Quentin Coldwater at thirty is incalculably more fun to spend 400 pages with than Quentin at eighteen: still clever but less egotistical, more sure of his place in the world and less whiny. Having been ejected from Brakebills and Fillory, he embarks on a heist to steal a suitcase with unknown contents; Plum, an ex-Brakebills student and a Chatwin descendant, is in on the heist as well. When it goes awry, the two of them hide out in Plum’s apartment in Manhattan, where Quentin turns his attention to a new spell: a spell to make a land. When that, too, goes awry, but brings back niffin-Alice, Quentin focuses on getting her back into her human form. At this point, Eliot shows up to announce that Fillory is dying, and Quentin returns to see if he can avert the apocalypse.

The Magician’s Land is funny and clever; it’s a victory tour through familiar landmarks, a denouement for all the characters readers got to know in the first two books. Because the characters inhabit the real world as well as the magical one, it’s full of pop culture fantasy and sci-fi references (Harry Potter, Narnia, Doctor Who, etc.). I had mixed feelings about The Magicians, but now I think I’ll go back and re-read it, the better to appreciate The Magician’s Land.

againstfootballLast but not least, some new nonfiction: I first heard of Steve Almond’s book Against Football at BEA, and I knew I had to read the book when he agreed to be the featured speaker at our library’s first book festival this November. I got a galley from the publisher and zipped through it in a day. It turns out that, like being a vegetarian, there are a good number of valid reasons to be against football: social, cultural, economic, and political reasons, any one of which should be enough to turn public opinion against the sport, or at least the sport as it is played, funded, and televised today. Realistically, we probably can’t hope for much except for a few reforms, but at least those will be a step in the right direction. Almond’s writing is passionate and easy to follow, even for someone who isn’t familiar with the details of the game. And if you’re local, you can come see him speak at the Robbins Library on November 1!

That’s it for me for now. Have any of these titles piqued your interest? What else have you been reading lately?

 

 

 

Audiobook recommendations for a friend

At a recent book club meeting, a friend asked the rest of the group for audiobook recommendations. She’d just gotten a new job (yay!) with a much longer commute (yuck), and she was looking for audiobooks to make the commute more enjoyable. I’m afraid many of us audiobook fans fired recommendations at her faster than she could write them down, so I ended up typing mine up for her afterward, and figured I’d share them here as well.

I’ve already mentioned specific books and narrators before, including Rebecca Lowman, Jim Dale, Morven Christie, and Kate Rudd, but here’s a slightly longer list, reflecting another half-year of reading/listening. Young Adult fiction is overrepresented here, because I usually choose shorter books for my relatively short commute.

Talented narrators matched with great books

  • nightcircus_audioThe incomparable Jim Dale reads the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling, as well as The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. All are magical.
  • Rebecca Lowman reads everything by Rainbow Rowell (Eleanor & Park, Fangirl, Landline) and Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. It occurs to me that I am bad at describing voices and can’t properly convey why Rebecca Lowman is so incredible, but trust me on this one.
  • Morven Christie performs upper-class Scottish “Queenie’s” half of Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, and narrates Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, which is set in Iceland.
  • David Tennant – you might know him as the Tenth Doctor, or the star of British miniseries Broadchurch – performs My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher. If Scottish accents (and heartbreakingly good realistic YA fiction) are your thing, don’t miss this one.
  • Alex McKenna reads Every Day by David Levithan. This unique story requires a special narrator: the main character, A, wakes up every day in a different body, and doesn’t identify as one gender or another. McKenna’s grainy voice is perfect.
  • If I Stay and Where She Went, a pair of novels by Gayle Forman, have two different narrators; Kirsten Potter is Mia in the first book, and Dan Bittner is Adam in the latter. The narrators are well suited to the stories.
  • instructionsheatwaveI’m a sucker for British accents (and Scottish ones, obviously), and John R. Lee does a fantastic performance of Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave. This was the first O’Farrell book I read/listened to, and I was a little disappointed that Lee didn’t read her other titles as well. (Anne Flosnik reads The Hand That First Held Mine and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. She does a fine job, and I’m a huge Maggie O’Farrell fan, so I recommend these as well, but Heatwave was exceptional.)
  • As I’ve mentioned before, Kate Rudd reads The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Here is a case where the book is incredible on its own, but the audio version somehow manages to add even more depth, emotion, and humor.
  • I’ve encountered A.S. King almost exclusively in audio, and all of the readers do justice to her brilliant, slightly surreal yet grounded young adult fiction. Lynde Houck reads Please Ignore Vera Dietz, Kirby Heyborne reads Everybody Sees the Ants, Michael Stellman reads Reality Boy, and Devon Sorvari reads Ask the Passengers.

Authors who read their own books

  • sweetheartsYoung adult author Sara Zarr reads several of her own books, including Sweethearts, Story of a Girl, Once Was Lost, and The Lucy Variations. Don’t judge these books by their covers – full of realistic and intense teen problems, they’re far from fluff.
  • Genre-defying Neil Gaiman performs most (all?) of his own books, and his voice is perfectly suited to his stories. Coraline, The Graveyard Book, Neverwhere, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Stardust…
  • Philip Pullman and a full cast read Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass/The Subtle Knife/The Amber Spyglass). I don’t want to say they bring the book to life, because it lives and breathes spectacularly on the page, but they bring the book into the dimension of sound such that each character’s voice is exactly the way I heard it in my head while I was reading.
  • I wasn’t sure if I was going to like Cheryl Strayed’s collected advice columns, but I was utterly hooked after Steve Almond’s introduction. Strayed reads Tiny Beautiful Things: advice on love and life from Dear Sugar, and because many of her stories and anecdotes are personal, it feels like she’s speaking directly to you.
  • Sarah Vowell reads all her own books, including The Wordy Shipmates, Unfamiliar Fishes, Assassination Vacation, and The Partly Cloudy Patriot. Vowell – the voice of Violet Incredible – tends to polarize listeners; some love her voice, some really dislike it. Her audiobooks usually feature cameo performances from other voice actors, including Stephen Colbert and Seth Green.
  • happymarriageThough she doesn’t narrate her novels, Ann Patchett reads her nonfiction, including What Now? (based on her commencement address) and her recent book of essays, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. Ann is the writer to whom I wish I was related, or at least the one I’d most want for a next-door neighbor, and her writing is pure wisdom and humor and craft.
  • Perhaps most popular of all in the author-reads-own-book category, Tina Fey performs Bossypants. I haven’t listened to this myself, but I’ve listened to enough friends rave about it that I feel I can recommend it.

So those are some of my favorites. What audiobooks do you like? Leave suggestions in the comments.

 

On Immunity: An Inoculation, by Eula Biss (Graywolf Press)

onimmunityOn Immunity: An Inoculation was one of the two nonfiction books at this year’s BEA Editors’ Buzz. At just about 200 pages, including the notes and acknowledgements, it is undaunting in length, which I hope will encourage even more people to pick it up.

Disease is defined as “any deviation from or interruption of the normal structure or function of any body part, organ, or system that is manifested by a characteristic set of symptoms and signs and whose etiology, pathology, and prognosis may be known or unknown.” But an obsolete use of the word disease is “lack of ease; trouble,” more like today’s unease. And disease certainly does make people uncomfortable: the idea of it causes mental and emotional discomfort, while its physical effects can range from undetected to uncomfortable to fatal.

Eula Biss wades into this uneasy territory, and finds companions in other writers, historians, philosophers, anthropologists, and doctors. During the writing of On Immunity, Biss – already a published author and essayist – became a mother, and she approaches the topic of immunity and vaccination from a mother’s point of view as well as a “citizen thinker’s” perspective. She acknowledges that all parents’ decisions – to vaccinate or not to vaccinate their children – come from the same desire: to keep their children safe. But it is better to make these decisions from a place of knowledge than from a place of fear, and knowledge is what Biss strives for, and shares, in this book.

Fears of vaccines do not seem easily quieted by an abundance of expert risk-benefit analyses assuring us that the good they do is far greater than the harm.

One of the first steps in the process of deciding whether or not to vaccinate is risk assessment, and yet humans are not as good at this as we would like to think. Biss quotes the historian Michael Willrich, who says, “Perceptions of risk…can be stubbornly resistant to the evidence of experts.” People engage in dangerous activities (e.g. driving, riding in, or walking near cars) every day, but the familiarity we develop with these activities dulls our fear of the associated risks. “The disregard for statistical risk,” Biss writes, “may be at least partly due to an unwillingness to live lives dictated by danger.”

Risk perception may not be about quantifiable risk so much as it is about immeasurable fear….When we encounter information that contradicts our beliefs…we tend to doubt the information, not ourselves.

Safe and dangerous aren’t as binary as we’d like to think, either; as toxicologists say, “the dose makes the poison.” But, Biss notes, “most people prefer to think of substances as either safe or dangerous, regardless of the dose.” I caught myself in this exact thought pattern a single day after I finished reading On Immunity, while I was reading about the ingredients in a multivitamin; it’s difficult to remember, but any substance, even water, can be toxic in large enough doses, and small doses of “dangerous” substances may be harmless.

If vaccination is a choice people make at the individual level (“allowing oneself to remain vulnerable to disease remains a legal privilege today”), it is also a choice individuals are making on behalf of the larger community in which they live. The author’s father Roger Biss, a doctor, explains, “Vaccination works by enlisting a majority in the protection of a minority.” The more people who are vaccinated and carry immunity, the safer everyone is from disease. Achieving a 100% vaccination rate in any given population is unlikely, but by aiming for that rate, we have a better chance of attaining “herd immunity.” Unfortunately, Biss discovers, “We know the threshold [at which herd immunity is lost], in many cases, only after we’ve exceeded it.”

Faced with too much information, or misinformation, some people choose not to vaccinate, threatening the protection that herd immunity confers. Yet refusing to vaccinate “undermines a system…in which both the burdens and the benefits are shared across the entire population.” Or, as the author’s sister notes, “The health of our bodies always depends on choices other people are making.”

Biss includes a wealth of references, both in the text and in the notes; she draws upon such various sources as Susan Sontag, Bram Stoker (Dracula), Rachel Carson (Silent Spring), and Jean-Paul Sartre, among others. While I read On Immunity, however, I was often reminded of a book she didn’t mention: Leah Hager Cohen’s I don’t know: in praise of admitting ignorance and doubt (except when you shouldn’t). In this slim, wise volume, Cohen – also a mother, and also a Hampshire College graduate – explores the question, “How should we make decisions when we can’t know what’s right?”

We have to make the best decision we can, based on the best information we can gather. After a careful examination of research an opinion from many sources, Biss concludes, reasonably, that vaccination is the choice that is best for the individual, and for society at large – of which we are all a part. This works to everyone’s advantage; after all, “No single person…has the genetic material to respond to all diseases, but collectively humans have enough genetic diversity for humankind to survive any disease.”

I received a galley of this book from the publisher at BookExpo America 2014. Quotes in the review above are from the galley, and may differ from the final copy. On Immunity: An Inoculation will be published on September 30, 2014.