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?

Unread books by favorite authors

In her post “Unread books by favorite authors,” Linda at Three Good Rats writes, “Weirdly, there are some authors who I consider favorites and whose books I usually read as soon as they come out, but who still have one book I haven’t gone back and read.” She asks, “When you find an author that you like, do you make a point to read all of their books? Do you ever stop at one even if you really like that one?”

Right away, I thought of a few novelists I adore, but whose complete works I haven’t read. (I’ve read most of their books, but not all of them.)

  • I had Jenny in Powell's Books in Portland, OR, with Number9Dream in handDavid Mitchell‘s Number9Dream and Ghostwritten in my hands at Powell’s just last week, and I couldn’t decide between them, so I put them both back. (I’ve done the exact same thing at Porter Square Books. Can anyone make an argument for one or the other, or both?) Those are the only two Mitchell novels I haven’t yet read, and I’ve loved his others, even when I needed a nudge from book club to pick them up (Cloud Atlas, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet). I’m a little worried that his earlier books won’t live up to the later ones, but they got very good reviews when they came out. So why haven’t I read them yet?
  • After reading Maggie O’Farrell‘s Instructions for a Heatwave, I tore through every other book of hers, except for My Lover’s Lover. After that kind of reading binge, why stop with just one left? Partly I didn’t want to be left O’Farrell-less, partly I wasn’t sure it would be as good as the others.
  • Between 2009 and 2012, I read five of Margot Livesey‘s novels; why not read Banishing Verona and Homework and collect ’em all? I always enjoy her books, but I’m not as passionately head-over-heels as I am for, say, Ann Patchett.

After coming up with those three, I realized there are more nonfiction writers than novelists in the “unread books by favorite authors” category for me.

  • Eula Biss: On Immunity was fantastic, so why didn’t I immediately run out and get her earlier, National Book Critics Circle Award-winning essay collection, Notes from No Man’s Land?
  • Stephanie Coontz: Every single book she writes sounds fascinating to me, but the only one I’ve read so far is A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.
  • Leah Hager Cohen: Cohen writes both fiction and nonfiction, and she writes both exceptionally well. There’s no good reason I haven’t read all of her books, as I know they are good and I will like them. I’ve even checked out Train Go Sorry before and returned it to the library unread. I will read it though!
  • Steven Johnson: I read The Ghost Map: the story of London’s most terrifying epidemic – and how it changed science, cities, and the modern world when it came out in 2007 and have been recommending it to other readers ever since. Why haven’t I gotten around to The Invention of Air or How We Got to Now? I have no good reason.
  • Rebecca Solnit: Men Explain Things to Me is one of those books I would make everyone read if I could. (Cohen’s I Don’t Know is also one of those, as is Andrew Kaufman’s All My Friends Are Superheroes, just for fun.) I’ve heard great things about The Faraway Nearby but haven’t picked it up…yet.
  • Alan Weisman: The World Without Us is, like The Ghost Map, a nonfiction book I read in 2008 and have been recommending to others since then. But I haven’t read his others, and I’m not sure I’m going to. I do want to re-read The World Without Us though.

Maybe next year’s project will be to read favorite authors’ backlist titles. What about you – any unread books by favorite authors?

Vacation reading and July TBR check-in

In my book, vacations of any sort include reading. (Though this is not the case for everyone; recently, I was stunned to learn that a fellow librarian was traveling to Europe without a single book. I was actually struck speechless. What do you do with all that time on in airports and on the plane? Waiting in line for things? Before bed? Is this common, for people to travel without books?) At any rate, our summer vacation this year consisted almost entirely of sleeping, eating, walking, and reading.

Cover image of The Starboard SeaI knocked my TBR list down by one by finally reading The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont, which I’ve had on my shelf in paperback for well over a year. It’s a boarding school book, and I’m a sucker for those (see: A Separate Peace, Looking for Alaska, Prep, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, The Tragedy Paper, The Secret Place). It reminded me a bit of Looking for Alaska and a bit of Ordinary People in the way the main character, Jason, experiences the loss of someone close to him (two someones, actually) and struggles with his grief alone. Like today’s “helicopter parents,” the 1980s parents of most of the students have high expectations for them, but they don’t hover – far from it. The kids are afraid of failure, but the parents use money and influence to bail them out when they make mistakes, protecting them from real consequences whenever possible but doing so from a distance. Jason’s problems can’t all be remedied with the second chances that money can buy, and he recognizes this.

I enjoyed The Starboard Sea, but it wasn’t my favorite of the books I read during vacation. Actually, I’m not sure I can pick a favorite. I read three excellent galleys that I was thrilled to have gotten my hands on: David Mitchell’s Slade House; Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s We Never Asked for Wings; and Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun. I also finished Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, and read a stack of picture books in a tiny local library. Reviews of all of these are or will be on LibraryThing soon, but here’s the short version:

Cover image of Slade HouseSlade House: Those who loved The Bone Clocks will devour this, as it takes place in the same Mitchell universe. It’s a much more compact book, length-wise, and, like Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, it has a somewhat looping pattern. The Bone Clocks is literary fiction with fantasy elements (the Anchorites and the Horologists, etc.), and Slade House is that too, but it also has a few hallmarks of the horror genre (e.g. The Haunting of Hill House), especially the ending. There are the usual allusions and references to characters from other Mitchell books: one of the characters works for Luisa Rey’s Spyglass magazine, though Luisa isn’t mentioned by name; Marinus from Bone Clocks and Thousand Autumns makes an appearance in the final section; and of course there’s the ubiquitous moon-grey cat. Slade House can certainly stand alone, but might be more enjoyable if you’ve already read some Mitchell.

Cover image of We Never Asked for WingsWe Never Asked for Wings: The Language of Flowers was not a once-off – Vanessa Diffenbaugh is a really good writer, and she takes characters uncommon to literary fiction and puts them at the center of her stories. Wings is about a struggling Mexican-American family in California. Letty’s parents, who effectively raised her two children (15-year-old Alex and six-year-old Luna), suddenly return to Mexico, leaving Letty to learn how to be a mother for the first time. Alex misses his grandparents, especially his grandfather, Enrique, a feather artist who taught him about birds and migration patterns. He goes searching for his father, bringing him back into Letty’s life for the first time in 16 years, and if that wasn’t enough, Alex also tries to get his girlfriend, Yesenia, out of a bad situation – but ends up getting her into a far worse one. Diffenbaugh writes with compassion and understanding, but her books aren’t “issue books” – they’re about her characters, who all seem utterly lifelike.

Cover image of Circling the SunCircling the Sun: This book spans Beryl’s childhood in Kenya through her early adult life, from about 1904 into the 1920s, with a prologue/epilogue set in 1936. Beryl is an adventurous woman, but even in Africa there are societal rules to follow (or break, and bear the consequences). She trains racehorses, marries and divorces and marries again, has affairs, and learns to fly a plane. I enjoyed Circling the Sun, and the quality of the storytelling is on par with that of The Paris Wife, but I felt there was a loss of momentum in the later parts of the book. Perhaps I simply read it too quickly, and I would have appreciated it more in smaller chunks. Still, it’s very good, and I haven’t read much fiction set in Kenya; the descriptions conveyed an excellent sense of the place and time.

Cover image of SeraphinaSeraphina: I was interested in this from the moment I heard about it, yet it didn’t make it to the top of my list until recently. I am so glad I read it; it’s a unique YA fantasy novel (with a new sequel, Shadow Scale) set in a world where dragons can take human form. Thanks to a peace treaty brokered 40 years ago, dragons and humans have been co-existing (somewhat uneasily), but tensions are on the rise. Seraphina, the new assistant music mistress at the palace, is caught in the middle of the conflict by the nature of her identity. The audiobook is excellent, though as usual I had to check the print for spellings of the invented vocabulary.

That’s some of my summer reading – what’s yours?


I want to go to there: places books have made us want to visit

I promise it’s not going to be all Top Ten lists all the time from here on out*, but I am new to The Broke and the Bookish and some of their prompts are too tempting to ignore.

*For example, you might be wondering who the next Librarian of Congress will be, in which case I recommend you mosey over to the page Jessamyn West set up, Librarian of PROgress. It turns out that the Librarian of Congress doesn’t even technically have to be a librarian, though, in my humble opinion, it would be good if s/he were, not least to avoid a terrible misnomer.

The Top Ten Tuesday list that caught my eye this time is top ten places books have made us want to visit. Both real and imaginary places are on the list, but we’ll start with the real:

1. The Orkneys, Scottish islands that are the setting for most of The Flight of Gemma Hardy, Margot Livesey’s retelling of Jane Eyre. They are a bit remote to get to, but I’d still love to go.

Cover image of The Boggart2. The Isle of Skye, because of both Susan Cooper’s The Boggart and Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning. It must be magical if those two honed in on it.

3. Antibes, France, because of the American expatriate scene there in the 1920s (Fitzgeralds, Murphys, etc.). I’ll give credit to Everybody Was So Young by Amanda Vaill for piquing my interest.

4. Various locations in London, especially the Tower of London (where Anne Boleyn was executed) and the Globe Theater (Shakespeare!) (modern reconstruction, I know, but still). We can’t time travel, not exactly, but it is an incredible feeling to stand in the exact place where a historical figure (or fictional character) once stood.

Cover image of The Time Traveler's Wife5. Various locations in Chicago, including but not limited to the Art Institute, Millennium Park, the Newberry Library, Ann Sather’s Swedish Diner, and the Monroe Street Parking Garage – all because of The Time Traveler’s Wife. And speaking of Chicago…

6. The Field Museum’s exhibit on the 1893 World’s Fair, because of Devil in the White City by Erik Larson.

7. The Temple of Dendur in the Met in New York, partly because of an episode of Sesame Street (or else a dream I had – did anyone else see that episode?) and partly because of From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

And now for the imaginary:

8. Lyra’s Oxford in The Golden Compass, because I’d want to know what my daemon would be.

Cover image of The Night Circus9. Who could read The Night Circus and not want to visit Le Cirque de Reves? The real question is, which tent would you visit first? Which treat would you taste first?

10. I have to copy from the Broke and the Bookish for the last one, because I’d love to visit J.K. Rowling’s Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. If only Muggles were allowed…

This list would seem to indicate that I have read books set almost exclusively in the U.S., Europe, and fantasy lands, which isn’t the case, but the books I’ve read set in Russia, Asia, Africa, and South America haven’t filled me with the desire to travel there myself – I’m happy just reading about them.

Which places from books have caught your imagination? Where have you traveled because of books, and has it been satisfying or disappointing? Which places have you traveled to first and read about afterward, and how is that different?

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?