Top Ten Friday: the to-read list

Back in June, I wrote about books that I was looking forward to. Coming into the end of the year, it’s time to take stock:

  • The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein: read and liked this little peek into Julie’s life before the war and Code Name Verity.
  • Holding Up the Universe and All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven: read/listened, liked; would recommend to anyone looking for realistic YA fiction.
  • Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy: read and liked, but it’s her first novel, Dumplin’, that has stayed with me more. I may re-read or listen (I’ve heard the audio is good). Related: Moxie by Jennifer Matthieu was another excellent teen novel set in a small Southern (Texas) town.
  • Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister: haven’t read yet
  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman: read and loved. Eleanor is such a unique character and her story is difficult and quiet and strong.
  • The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson: read this for book club and loved it – it was like Jane Austen meets Downton Abbey.
  •  Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen: haven’t read yet
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: read for book club. Important, especially for those in a position to ignore or forget the effects of institutional racism and police violence (i.e. most white people).
  • Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith: read and liked, but I’m not sure I’ll return to it, even though I bought a copy. I did love the line “perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone” (from “My God, It’s Full of Stars”).
  • The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman: read as soon as it was published, loved it, read it again, am waiting for the next one already. Review here, contains spoilers.
  • Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore: read and loved. Different from the Graceling books of course, but equally immersive, and structurally interesting (it’s sort of a Choose Your Own Adventure, but with all the options).
  • Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin: read and liked this one very much, and included it on a “Books on the Bright Side” list I made for my library.
  • The Runaways by Brian K. Vaughan and others: I really liked the first two volumes, didn’t like the third and fourth as much (the Young Avengers crossover lost me), but still excited for whatever Rainbow Rowell comes up with.
  • Turtles All the Way Down by John Green: just as good as expected, possibly better; review here.
  • Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart: haven’t read yet and might not; a trusted fellow reader found it disappointing.

Girl in Disguise and Miller’s Valley are the only two remaining from that list, but of course there are always more to look forward to; Gayle Forman, Maggie O’Farrell, and Jo Walton all have books coming out in 2018. Others I’d like to read:

  • Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (graphic novel/memoir)
  • Far from the Tree by Robin Benway (YA)
  • Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn (fiction)
  • The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin (sci-fi/fantasy)
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (YA)
  • Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier (I read this when I was much younger and I think it went entirely over my head; at least, I don’t remember anything from it)
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (nonfiction)
  • Hunger by Roxane Gay (memoir)
  • The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden (myth/fairytale – I’d love to hear from someone who read this and would recommend it. Reviews look good.)
  • Walking Home by Simon Armitage (nonfiction/memoir/poetry)

And hey, that’s ten! If you count a trilogy as one. (Bear and Nightingale already has a sequel, as well.) What books are you looking forward to? Have you read any of the books above? What did you think?

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Fake News, a.k.a. Information Disorder: an ongoing reading list

Since before the first Libraries in a Post-Truth World conference at the beginning of this year, I’ve been keeping a list of relevant articles. This list has expanded to include books, studies and reports, and other materials, and I am sharing it here. If you have relevant materials to add, please leave a comment here. If you would like to use this list for library programming, teaching, or related work, please feel free – I’d love to know about it if you do.

Though “fake news” is a term most people recognize these days (unfortunately), it is not the best term to use, for reasons Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan state in their Council of Europe report:

We refrain from using the term ‘fake news’, for two reasons. First, it is woefully inadequate to describe the complex phenomena of information pollution. The term has also begun to be appropriated by politicians around the world to describe news organisations whose coverage they find disagreeable. In this way, it’s becoming a mechanism by which the powerful can clamp down upon, restrict, undermine and circumvent the free press.
We therefore introduce a new conceptual framework for examining information disorder, identifying the three different types: mis-, dis- and mal-information.

Misinformation is when false information is shared with no harmful intent; disinformation is when false information is shared to cause harm; and mal-information is when genuine information is shared to cause harm (e.g. by moving it from the private to the public sphere). Unfortunately, again, we are dealing with all three today (plus satirical sources like The Onion, which are the only good kind of fake news).

Fake News a.k.a. Information Disorder: A Resource List

Again, feedback is welcomed; please let me know if you use this list, or have anything to add. I am particularly interested in using the rise of interest in the topic of fake news to advocate for librarians in schools, as they are the ones who do the important work of teaching research skills, critical thinking, information literacy, and media literacy.

 

Top Ten Unique Book Titles

As usual, I am using Linda’s list for inspiration, and it’s not a Tuesday at all. Also, there are eleven twelve, and I could keep going. This is a fun one.

    1.  Cover image Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers: This book mystified me when I read it – was it fiction? Memoir? What? – but I always liked the brash confidence of the title. And the bit about French fries.
    2.  We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler: I think I came to this as an Ann Patchett recommendation, but the title would have made me want to pick it up anyway.
    3.  Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman: It may have been the title that made me pick this book up, I can’t remember now. Either way, I’m glad I did.
    4.  I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley: This one is on Linda’s list, but I liked the book better than she did. It probably helped that I read it in New York in my early twenties (the essays are about the author in New York in her twenties), and the title always makes me smile.Cover image of Men Explain Things to Me
    5.  Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman: Well, obviously she’s not.
    6.  Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit: The title is so good, and so appropriate, that it’s the only thing on the cover of this book: white text on a deep blue background. (I hate to think what Solnit would have done to a cover designer who put a pair of heels on the front of her book.)
    7.  Someone Could Get Hurt by Drew Magary: A perfect title for a laugh-out-loud parenting memoir.
    8.  I Crawl Through It by A.S. King: My least favorite of her books – I really didn’t get it at all – but I love the title. Her others are good too (e.g. Please Ignore Vera Dietz).Cover image of Someone Could Get Hurt
    9.  Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer: I heard the song by The Cure before I read the book; both are atmospheric. I love discovering literature via music and vice-versa; when done well, it adds to both. (I discovered The Smiths’ song “Asleep” via The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.)
    10.  A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh: The title was more promising than the book itself turned out to be, but then, how could that not be the case?
    11.  Shh! We Have A Plan by Chris Haughton: Initially, I didn’t think this picture book quite lived up to its funny title, but after enough re-reads I came to love it.
    12.  A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace: I’ve never read this collection of “essays and arguments,” but I’ve thought about this phrase a lot over the last two years. It’s rarely apt, but when it is, it’s so perfect.

Least favorite title:

Baking With Less Sugar by Joanne Chang: This doesn’t sound appealing at all.

What are your favorite titles? Least favorite? Book you read because of (or in spite of) its title?

The Power by Naomi Alderman

US cover of The Power by Naomi AldermanAn absolutely remarkable thought experiment that is also an engaging, suspenseful novel. The premise is simple: “An environmental build-up of nerve agent…released during the Second World War…changed the human genome.” As a result, all girls have “the power,” the ability to send out an electrical jolt through their fingertips. Adolescents can “wake up” the power in older women. Some have more power (and better control) and some have less, but it’s not going away – which means that the historical gendered imbalance of power has flipped. Suddenly, women are more powerful than men, and in places where women have been most oppressed, “justice is at last being meted out.”

The framing device for this story is a letter from the author, Neil Adam Armon (an anagram of Naomi Alderman), to Naomi, asking for feedback on his “historical novel.” His novel is set in a time close to our present, but Neil and Naomi’s exchange takes place about five thousand years after the “Cataclysm,” in a future where women have been dominant for five thousand years.

A few characters, some of whose stories intersect, take us through the momentous emergence of the power: Roxy, daughter of a London crime boss; Allie, an orphan suffering sexual abuse at the hands of her foster parents; Tunde, a young male journalist who follows the most explosive events; and Mayor Margaret Cleary and her daughter, Jocelyn. Also throughout are Kristen and Tom, TV news anchors whose gender power balance shifts subtly but definitively throughout the novel.

The Power succeeds marvelously in its aim, and is therefore disheartening: it shows that when the disempowered attain power, they do not necessarily wield it any better than those who were previously in power. (As the voice in Allie’s head tells her, The only way to be safe is to own the place.) The solution, it is implied, is not simply to flip the gendered power imbalance, but to make it so that everyone is equal. And as the voice in Allie’s head also says: You can’t get there from here.

The Book of Dust

Cover image of The Book of Dust, volume one: La Belle SauvageIt’s been seventeen years since we left Lyra and Will under the hornbeam trees in their two separate Oxfords; twenty-two years since we met Lyra and Pan, scurrying through Jordan College. When the kind bookseller at Porter Square Books slid my copy of The Book of Dust across the counter, I teared up. “A lot of people are excited about this book,” she said, smiling. I mentioned that my daughter’s name was Lyra, and that today was her birthday. “Oh,” she replied, “You’re really excited.”

True. I took that day off and the next to read La Belle Sauvage, and when I finished, before noon on the second day, I immediately wanted the next volume. Alas, it will be another wait – so I simply began reading this one again.

Pullman brings us back to Oxford ten or eleven years before The Golden Compass begins, when Lyra is a six-month-old baby, and Malcolm Polstead – our new protagonist – is the eleven-year-old son of the owners of the Trout Inn, across the river from the Priory of St. Rosamond. Malcolm does work around the inn and and for the nuns, goes to school, and paddles around in his canoe, which he has named La Belle Sauvage. But things are changing, in Malcolm’s small world and in the larger one: the Magisterium (the Church) and the Consistorial Court of Discipline (CCD) are growing more powerful and frightening, and the League of St. Alexander comes to the schools, encouraging children to sign up and turn in anyone disloyal to the Church; this encouragement to inform on friends and family felt reminiscent of 1930s Germany.

This swing to the political/religious right is countered by liberal forces working in secret; one of these, Oakley Street, has a few familiar members, including scholar Hannah Relf and gyptian Coram van Texel (later to become Farder Coram). Malcolm becomes involved, meeting with Hannah weekly, but his true loyalty is to baby Lyra, who is in the care of the nuns at the priory. When a flood comes – as Coram warned – Malcolm and Alice Parslow (Parslow being another familiar name from The Golden Compass) take Lyra and flee in the canoe, but they are pursued by the CCD and by Gerard Bonneville, a scholar with knowledge of the Rusakov field whose daemon is a terrifying three-legged hyena.

The second half of the book takes place on the water, as Malcolm and Alice try to keep Lyra and themselves safe. First they plan to head to Jordan College in Oxford, where Malcolm thinks they could ask for sanctuary for Lyra, but the river is flowing too fast, and they head for London instead, hoping to find Lord Asriel and deliver Lyra to him. On the way they have several run-ins with scary figures, lose Lyra and get her back, and meet a fairy (a different sort of magic than any Lyra or Will encountered in His Dark Materials, but consistent with British fairy lore; Pullman has said he was inspired by William Blake). In the very last pages, Malcolm and Alice do find Asriel, and he manages to get them all to Jordan, where he entrusts the Master of the college with Lyra’s care; there the book ends.

Although La Belle Sauvage takes place about a decade before The Golden Compass, it has much the same feel. The CCD is immediately sinister, and unsurprisingly, Mrs. Coulter is behind the League of St. Alexander. Lord Asriel is much the same as he is in His Dark Materials. Hannah is to Malcolm much as Mary Malone is to Lyra; a scholar who mentors him, though she is somewhat in the dark herself. Baby Lyra’s brief time in a sort of orphanage, and Malcolm’s rescue of her there, is reminiscent of Bolvangar. But the most similar part, oddly enough, is Malcolm himself: he is like a blend of (older) Lyra and Will, with her facility for thinking on her feet (making up false names, for example) and his ability to be unnoticed. In their steadfastness to each other, despite initial antagonism, Malcolm and Alice are a bit like Lyra and Will as well; they rely on each other because they’re all they have, and that bonds them.

Now, we wait for the second volume of The Book of Dust, and we wait even longer for the third. I am confident that both will be worth the wait.

Turtles All the Way Down

Cover image of Turtles All the Way DownAza Holmes – Holmesy to her best friend, Daisy – has a mental illness, a version of OCD. More than most people, she lives in her own head, but she doesn’t feel like she has control over her thoughts; she gets into obsessive thought-spirals, during which she withdraws from her surroundings, down into her worries, fears, and compulsions – only none of those are strong enough words to communicate her experience to others. Metaphor is the best she can offer, but even metaphor falls short: “The words used to describe it – despair, fear, anxiety, obsession – do so little to communicate it. Maybe we invented metaphor as a response to pain.”

The plot, such as it is, is rather simple: Daisy convinces Aza to reconnect with an old friend from “Sad Camp,” Davis, so they can collect a reward for information on his recently disappeared billionaire father. But there’s more sadness than mystery here: Davis knows his father was a criminal and a jerk, but his younger brother Noah still hopes his father will find a way to get in touch with them. Aza and Davis do rekindle their friendship, while Daisy finds romance with fellow high school student and artist Mychal.

Climactic scenes are not related to plot, but to character: Aza going deep into a spiral; Aza and Daisy fighting; a car accident, an underground art show. The people and the relationships are the heart of the book, and it’s Aza and Daisy’s friendship that is its core. The romances fizzle, but the friendship remains – even through to adulthood, as we find out in the last few pages, which have the flavor of an epilogue even if they aren’t marked as such.

Pettibon spiral with text: No one had remembered ever seeing him so animated as when the picture went on the blink during one of his favorite cartoons.

Pettibon spiral

John Green’s hallmarks are all here: the fast-talking, articulate teens (who are more likely than the average bear to launch into enthusiastic speeches about science or art or  history), the realistic relationships with parents and other adults (Aza’s therapist, for example), frequent literary quotations, and the way that technology suffuses all the teens’ relationships, from texting and FaceTime to blogs and fanfic and Wikipedia.

But Turtles All the Way Down is a deeper dive than, for example, An Abundance of Katherines. The characters face difficult issues, and not just mental health problems, though that is the primary one for Aza; there are also tensions around money and what it means to have too much (Davis) or not enough (Daisy), and the impact of losing one or both parents.

For all Aza’s difficulty in communicating her struggle to those closest to her, Green succeeds as well as one can in bringing readers into her experience (which is also, in many ways, his own). Turtles All the Way Down met, or even exceeded, my high expectations, and I plan to read it again. The not-an-epilogue toward the end was especially touching; I teared up a little on the last page.

Additional reading: Green answers many questions from readers on this reddit thread, including an image of the Pettibon spiral (image above) that Aza appreciates at Davis’ house; he also reveals that the fast-forwarding into Aza’s adult life at the end of the novel was his wife Sarah’s idea.

 

 

 

 

 

Top Ten Books I read ten years ago

Once again, I’m borrowing a co-worker’s Top Ten Tuesday list to inspire my own. Hers was “Top Ten Books I read the first year I had my blog“; because my blog is not specifically a book blog, I looked to my Goodreads and LibraryThing accounts instead. I started my Goodreads account in 2007, though I didn’t start reviewing each book consistently until later.

What was I reading, then? Out of college (no more assigned reading) and into the publishing world (okay, sometimes assigned reading), bombarded with more novels than I could ever read, my reading choices fell into a few categories:

  • Contemporary fiction about which there was “buzz,” e.g. Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which I loved, and Ian McEwan (I tried and hated Saturday and Atonement; I liked On Chesil Beach better but decided that everyone else could just go ahead and continue loving him, but I was done).
  • Classics I didn’t read in school: No matter how good your education was, there’s no way you could read ALL the classics, but I had missed some key ones. I actually think this was for the better; I loved Pride and Prejudice much more in my early twenties than I think I would have as a teenager.
  • Nonfiction: Left to my own devices, I read barely any nonfiction for almost a year; then I realized I need to read some, so I made it a goal to read one a month. I started with a lot of memoir and biography (Audrey Hepburn, Jeannette Walls, Augusten Burroughs, Alice Sebold, Ann Patchett) and pop psychology (Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Gilbert), but I sought out some feminist books as well, though I didn’t use that term at the time – I discovered Katha Pollitt (Learning to Drive) and read This Common Secret and The Girls Who Went Away. I caught up on classic nonfiction too, from Capote’s In Cold Blood to Joan Didion’s essays.
  • Poetry: I discovered Nick Laird’s poem “On Beauty” in Zadie Smith’s novel by the same title, and Laird’s To A Fault is still one of my favorite poetry collections.

But of course it was mostly fiction. I was just starting to separate out the authors I thought I should read from the ones I actually liked; there was some overlap, of course, but there was also Ian McEwan and Special Topics in Calamity Physics. So here’s the list part – what did I read then (mid-2007-early 2009) that I still love now?

  1. Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman
  2. To A Fault by Nick Laird (poetry)
  3. In the Woods and The Likeness by Tana French
  4. Ursula, Under by Ingrid Hill (I feel this one was overlooked, and I often put it on my Staff Picks shelf at the library, hoping others will discover it)
  5. The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer
  6. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (the right book at the right time)
  7. The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett
  8. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken
  9. Magic for Beginners and Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link
  10. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  11. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  12. The World Without Us by Alan Weisman (nonfiction)
  13. Overture by Yael Goldstein (found this on a remainder table at the Strand; overlooked in the same way as Ursula, Under)
  14. Stardust by Neil Gaiman
  15. Touchy Subjects by Emma Donoghue

It’s more than ten. Of course it is. And this is not to be confused with my all-time Top Ten list (either the one from 2007 or the one from 2017).

What books have stayed with you over the years? Which authors do you follow faithfully, which ones have you parted ways with?