The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

There’s been plenty of buzz about Karen Walker Thompson’s debut novel, The Age of Miracles. Often I’m skeptical of hype, but I did enjoy this book very much. Rather than jumping on the post-apocalyptic or dystopian bandwagon, The Age of Miracles is a slightly different genre, “speculative fiction.” It reminds me of Alan Weisman’s nonfiction thought experiment book, The World Without Us, which examines what would happen to the planet if humans disappeared. In this case, however, the premise is that the earth’s rotation – for some undiscovered and unexplained reason – has slowed.

This, of course, has immediate and drastic effects on ordinary life for the narrator, Julia, and her family and friends. Unlike most post-apocalyptic or dystopian books, here the reader gets to experience the transition itself, rather than being dropped into a world after the catastrophe – whether natural or man-made – has occurred. In addition to “the slowing,” there are the changes Julia would be going through anyway as an eleven-year-old girl; the author’s focus is on character and theme, on the effects of the slowing rather than its cause.

Julia narrates her childhood in the past tense, at a distance of several years. Her reflection is more matter-of-fact than nostalgic: “One thing that strikes me when I recall that period of time is how rapidly we adjusted. What had been familiar once became less and less so…But I guess every bygone era takes on a shade of myth” (82).

There is no definite solution to the slowing, no wrapping up of loose ends or determination of the narrator’s ultimate fate. Julia and her friend Seth’s message, written in wet concrete, serves as the conclusion: We were here.

Beautifully written and thought-provoking, I can see this inspiring great discussions in book clubs.

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

He keeps his deepest belief tight to him: that people are good and want to be good, if only you give them a chance. That’s the most magnificent thing about Arcadia, he knows. It is the shell that protects them. (98)

I just finished Arcadia by Lauren Groff two days ago, and I’m inclined to agree with the back-of-book blurb from Richard Russo: “It’s not possible to write any better without showing off.” I have enjoyed Groff’s previous work (The Monsters of Templeton, Delicate Edible Birds) and she just seems to be getting better. Arcadia is the story of Bit, who was born to hippie parents on a commune – Arcadia – in rural New York. The first sections of the book are his childhood and teenagerhood in Arcadia, as the commune evolves and eventually dissolves. Then there is a skip forward in time, and Bit is an adult living in New York City, with a small daughter and a disappeared wife. The final section, which takes place in the near future (2018), is full of hope and fear: a pandemic, SARI, is sweeping the globe. At the same time, Bit’s mother Hannah is dying of ALS. Hannah, Bit, and Bit’s daughter Grete return to the house Bit’s father Abe built in Arcadia to wait out the pandemic and take care of Hannah.

The imagination required to create the atmosphere of Arcadia and the character of Bit is similar to that of Room, Emma Donoghue’s novel about a boy who has spent his whole life in one room, and is overwhelmed by the world when he escapes. As the 1970s end and the commune crumbles, Bit’s entire way of life, everything he has known and that has been normal to him, disappears, and he has to learn to live in the world “outside.” (Regretfully, this transition doesn’t get its own section, but it is briefly sketched out in the adult Bit’s memories.)  Everyone must leave their childhood behind, but it is a rare case in which the whole community and its way of life ceases to exist as well. “It isn’t important if the story was ever true,” Bit realizes. “…He knows stories don’t need to be factual to be vital. He understands, with a feeling inside him like the wind whipping through a room, that when we lose the stories we have believed about ourselves, we are losing more than stories, we are losing ourselves (208).

One of the things that does remain is Bit’s relationships with others from Arcadia; most of them reconnect later in life. Many also end up in New York City, which would seem to be the opposite of a commune, but in fact has similarities. as Bit says to his father Abe, “It wasn’t the country that was so beautiful about the whole Arcadian experiment, don’t you see? It was the people, the interconnection, everyone relying on everyone else, the closeness. The villages are all dying now, small-town America is dying, and the only place where the same feeling exists now is here, in the city, millions of people all breathing the same air” (208).

Overall, this is a work of tremendous imagination and empathy. I would suggest it to anyone, particularly those who enjoyed Groff’s earlier work, Emma Donghue’s Room, or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad.

Summer Books

It’s been far too long since I’ve posted any book reviews here (though I’m always active on Goodreads). I realized recently that the last several books I’ve read are either very new or haven’t been published yet, but all come out this summer, so I’m offering a little preview.

Broken Harbor by Tana French (July 24, 2012)
This is the fourth Dublin Murder Squad book. I hesitate to call it a series, because you can read the books in any order and they are all perfectly good standalone novels; however, characters in one book often appear in the other books. Broken Harbor features detective Scorcher Kennedy, who investigates what looks like a quadruple-homicide in a housing development called Brianstown (an area that used to be called Broken Harbor). Together with his rookie partner, Kennedy digs for the truth, relying on expertise and instinct. French does a beautiful job maintaining the suspense throughout, and there’s real character development there as well. I’d rank this just below The Likeness (my favorite of hers), and if you’re looking for a good creepy murder mystery with some good twists and turns, this one’s for you.

The Red House by Mark Haddon (June 12, 2012)
Author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and A Spot of Bother, Haddon follows those two successes with another. It may take some time to adjust to the style of storytelling – point of view often changes from one paragraph to another – but once you get to know the characters, the reading experience becomes smoother. The Red House is the story of eight people on holiday, and the way in which Haddon tells the story shows their relationships to each other as well as what is going on in their own lives. It’s nothing earth-shattering, but it is very well done.

The Lost Prince by Selden Edwards (August 16, 2012)
I had high hopes for this one, as it is a follow-up to The Little Book, which I adored. The Little Book involved time travel to fin de siecle Vienna, and was fascinating because of its setting, characters, and plot (the time travel bit). The Lost Prince simply isn’t as good. The main character, Eleanor Burden, returns from Vienna with her destiny in her hands: specifically, in a journal that sketches out future events that she must help bring about. She struggles to follow the incomplete instructions, never knowing if her actions are the right ones. She is determined and brave, but the sense of magic and adventure that The Little Book had is lacking in The Lost Prince. Even twists that should have the impact of revelations (relating, for example, to Arnauld “the Haze” Esterhazy’s true past) lack power.

One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper (August 21, 2012)
If you liked Tropper’s previous work – How to Talk to a Widower, for example, or This is Where I Leave You – then picking this up is a no-brainer. Again, Tropper delivers a heartbreaking suburban comedy. Silver, our middle-aged male narrator, has an ex-wife, an estranged daughter, supportive parents, and friends in situations similar to his own. His life is stagnant, but when he discovers that he has a life-threatening medical condition, he has to decide if he wants to live or wants to die. For most, this isn’t a tough question, but it takes Silver the length of the book to decide. Meanwhile, there are moments of laughter, introspection, shame, and love. Recommended, especially for fans of Nick Hornby and Michael Chabon.

Gold by Chris Cleave (July 3, 2012)
I missed Cleave’s first two books, Incendiary and Little Bee, but now I see I shall have to go back and look them up, because Gold blew me away. It is the story of three Olympic cyclists – Zoe, Kate, and Jack – their coach, Tom, and Jack and Kate’s eight-year-old daughter Sophie, who has leukemia. Zoe, Jack, and Kate met at age nineteen, and Zoe and Kate have been friends and rivals ever since. They are now thirty-two, and London 2012 will be their last Olympics. Due to a rule change, however, only one of them will be able to qualify to go. Will it be Zoe, who has been racing away from events in her past since childhood, and for whom winning is everything? Or will it be Kate, who, having missed out on Athens and Beijing to take care of Sophie, inarguably deserves to go? The relationships between these five characters, as much as the actual events of the story as it unfolds, are the reason to keep reading. This is a five-star (five-Olympic ring?) book.

Tango with censorship

Ray Bradbury can go ahead and start rolling over in his grave pretty much right away: a committee of parents, teachers, and administrators in the Davis County district in Utah have voted to restrict access to the book In Our Mothers’ House (yes, that apostrophe is correct, it’s about a family with two mothers). This in itself is not unusual; books are challenged all the time, and sometimes moved (from the children’s section to young adult, or from YA to adult, or behind the counter, as in this case).

However, the district has taken the additional step of asking librarians to pull other titles that may cause controversy. (And Tango Makes Three, a picture book based on a true story of two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo who hatched a chick from an egg and raised it together, is likely next.) McCarthyism, anyone?

It’s easy to get outraged against censorship; there are hundreds, if not thousands, of eloquent examples in print and on the web. (Here’s a defense of In Our Mothers’ House in The Salt Lake Tribune.) But let us take a step back and consider the purpose and mission of the library. How do these “controversial” books appear on library shelves in the first place, and why should they stay there despite strenuous objection from community members?

Most libraries have a collection development policy: guidelines for what kinds of materials the library ought to have in order to serve its community. Different libraries may choose to allocate their resources in different ways, but most public libraries aim to provide a broad range of materials – educational, recreational, and cultural – for people of every age, socioeconomic status, race, religion, political affiliation, and sexual orientation.

Our collection development policy states, “The…community includes people from diverse educational, cultural and economic backgrounds displaying a wide variety of interests, needs, values, viewpoints and occupations.” It continues, “The library has the obligation not only to serve its current users but also to search for materials and methods that will meet the needs of new members of the community and those who have not been traditional library users.”

The library is, or should be, an inclusive place. It should be a safe space. If parents want control over what their children are reading, that is perfectly within their rights – but exercising control over what everyone else’s children are reading is most definitely not.

Librarians are advocates for everyone in their communities. We are advocates for equal access to information. It is our responsibility to make sure that there are materials for everyone. (The Utah librarians who added In Our Mothers’ House to the school library collection did so in part because a child in the elementary school has two mothers.) As one librarian said, at a panel at MLA, “If you have to come up with a reason not to buy something, that’s when you should add it to your collection.” We are in the business of selection, not censorship.

If a library had plenty of books for adults but none for children, someone would object. If a library had a hundred books about Christianity but none about Buddhism, someone would object. If a library collected books by and about Republicans but not Democrats, someone would object. A balanced collection includes materials for and from many points of view – an increasingly rare thing in a world where most news sources are slanted, and only offer one viewpoint.

If history is any indication, there will always be people who want to censor books. There will also always be people who defend them.

Library Q&A

Stack Exchange, “a network of free, community-driven Q&A sites,” now has a Library and Information Science site in beta. Most of the library Q&A I have seen has been through LinkedIn groups’ discussions (mostly ALA), so this seems like a great forum for detailed, professional questions.

Because librarians are all about sharing knowledge, I’m optimistic that this site will be successful if enough library professionals know about it. So, librarian-friends, check it out! Read the FAQ before jumping in and asking/answering.