2018 Mid-Year Reading Wrap-Up

It’s almost time for the mid-year wrap-up of books I’ve read and liked best so far this year. There’s still plenty of June left, but I’m preparing for a book talk later this month, so it seemed like a good time to go over the past five months of reading in my LibraryThing catalog. This isn’t BuzzFeed so I won’t be doing a “Top [odd number] Books You MUST Read RIGHT THIS SECOND” style of list, but I have separated them by category. As always, these are books I’ve read in this time frame; some are recently published, but others are older.

There are a lot of picture books, because we read a lot of picture books (and, at about 32 pages each, you can read many more of those – even with repetition – in the same amount of time it takes to read an adult book). So we’ll start there, and if you have no interest in picture books, then skip ahead!

Cover image of A Different PondPicture Books
Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall
There Might Be Lobsters by Carolyn Crimi (illus. Laurel Molk)
The Way I Feel by Janan Cain
A Different Pond by Bao Phi (illus. Thi Bui)
Toys Meet Snow by Emily Jenkins (illus. Paul O. Zelinsky)
Henry & Leo by Pamela Zagarenski
Sleep Like A Tiger by Mary Logue (illus. Pamela Zagarenski)
Flyaway Katie by Polly Dunbar
Cover image of Henry & LeoThe Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah by Leslie Kimmelman
88 Instruments by Chris Barton
More More More Said the Baby by Vera B. Williams
Perfect Square by Michael Hall
Miss Brooks Loves Books (And I Don’t) by Barbara Bottner
Flora and the Flamingo by Molly Idle

Fiction
Interestingly, all of these fall under the umbrella of “speculative fiction.”
Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
Cover of StarlingsAn Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
Starlings by Jo Walton
Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories by Kelly Barnhill (esp. the novella “The Unlicensed Magician”).

Nonfiction
Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling by Philip Pullman
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
Cover of So You Want to Talk About RaceWhen They Call You A Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele

Cookbooks
Dinner by Melissa Clark: lots of good ideas to follow or riff on, all based on the idea of a single dish being a whole meal (though that single dish usually has many components)

Middle Grade & Young Adult
Stella by Starlight and Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
The Marvels by Brian Selznick
Cover image of The MarvelsThe Boy From Tomorrow by Camille P. DeAngelis
Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson & Emily Carroll (graphic novel)
The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert
And this batch of novels, each of which is satisfying if you’re looking for contemporary realistic fiction with some romance and diversity: I Have Lost My Way by Gayle Forman; The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler; When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon; Puddin‘ by Julie Murphy; You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins

Looking ahead to the second half of the year, I’m excited to read new novels by Kate Atkinson (Transcription), Rebecca Makkai (The Great Believers), Angie Thomas (On the Come Up), Hank Green (An Absolutely Remarkable Thing), and Therese Anne Fowler (A Well-Behaved Woman). Looking back at a to-read list from November 2017, there are still a few titles there I haven’t gotten to, and more coming out all the time….What books are you looking forward to reading?

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Libraries: Our Common Wealth (MLA 2018)

The Massachusetts Library Association conference was in Framingham this year; I followed along on Twitter (#masslib18) for the first two days, and attended (and presented) on the third and final day.

It seems that the opening keynote by Debby Irving, author of Waking Up White, was extremely well received. For those who missed it, she has a TEDx Talk here.

The first session I attended on Wednesday morning was Co-Creating Library/Social Services Partnerships: A Statewide Collaboration, presented by Michelle Eberle of MLS, Joe Vallely from the MA Department of Mental Health, and Shelley Quezada from MBLC. Michelle showed data that a majority of libraries are interested in partnering with social workers, but only 30% already do, to manage issues like homelessness, mental health, substance abuse, and help for immigrants. Library workers are interested in partnering with social workers – perhaps even students of social work – and in receiving staff training such as mental health first aid. MLS has a LibGuide for “Responding to the Social Services Needs of Our Library Communities.

Next, Joe told the room about the outreach and engagement teams serving over 1600 individuals within Massachusetts. They have had a few trainings at different libraries to introduce themselves (“what we do”) and look for ways to collaborate. “We have a common mission,” which gives us the opportunity to collaborate to assist people in need. “You provide a safe, warm place where many individuals, who are very fragile, go.” Many are clients or potential clients – how can we begin to assist? The organization Eliot was also mentioned, a part of PATH (the federal Project for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness).

Shelley spoke next, telling the audience about available LSTA grants and how MBLC can help with the grant process. Before applying for a grant, she said, there are a number of questions to ask, including: Who are your best community partners? How do you identify them? What is the overarching goal for your library to achieve? What resources do you need (staff, materials, training, equipment, publicity, space, etc.)?

Shelley reeled off a list of additional resources, including: Massachusetts Behavioral Health Partnership, Mass Legal Help, the Opioid Overdose Prevention project of Mass.gov, and Mass 211. Audience participants added Pine Street and Rosie’s Place. Audience members also spoke up to say that “Even with a social worker on staff, there are overwhelming needs”; staff training is still necessary for trauma-informed care, mindfulness, etc., and a series of trainings is better than a one-time session (grant funding can help with this!). One person also spoke about enforcing library policies apologetically, but “It’s okay to have rules. Rules keep people safe.”

The need for social services for a variety of often related issues (mental health, homelessness, substance abuse, domestic violence) is receiving more attention recently due to the movie The Public (trailer), which writer/director/actor Emilio Estevez said was inspired partly by an article by Chip Ward (I’m guessing this one: “How the Public Library Became Heartbreak Hotel,” 2007).

For the next morning session, I chose Charlie Grosholz’s interactive session on “The Role of Fantasy in the Library.” This was a small, hands-on session in which Charlie led participants through three exercises: world building, character creation, and role play. But first, a definition: What is fantasy? It is the “improbable, impossible…held down by rules.” (As any reader of fantasy knows, even magic has rules; otherwise it would be surrealism.) Any of these three exercises would be a great prompt for a creative writing workshop, but they could be used in a variety of other programs too, or to re-envision the library itself. For example…

  • Around Halloween time, a library in a walkable area might host a program starting with a zombie attack scenario: Where in town are the safest places, the most valuable resources?
  • Character creation can be used to develop personas; staff can collaborate to build personas based on library “characters,” an exercise that can build empathy.
  • Role play allows people to build social skills, public speaking skills, empathy, and conflict resolution skills. Charlie ran a successful murder mystery party for teens, complete with costumes, music, artifacts, and Shirley Temples (there was a speakeasy theme).  Role play can also be used for emergency preparedness drills, or even in ELL conversation groups.

If your library has (or is thinking of starting) a Library of Things collection, acquire some board games; you can build programming around each new game as you introduce it, and bring fans of the games together.

The last program of the morning was a general session, “Librarians on the Front Line: Protecting Free Speech,” presented by Steve Woolfolk of the Kansas City Public Library. Woolfolk’s name may be familiar to those in the library world; he was arrested during a program at his library for defending a patron’s right to speak. Though the case seemed incredibly clear-cut (for an overview, see the American Libraries article from October 2016), it dragged on until he was ultimately cleared. The incident certainly didn’t shake his dedication to free speech and the free exchange of ideas; when an audience member asked if it had had a chilling effect on programming at KCPL, Steve replied, “Nope! If anything, we’re getting more controversial.”

The First Amendment, he said, is about more than just being able to say what you want; “you have a right to express your ideas, and I have the right to be exposed to your ideas.” He pointed out that the government does not lead on issues, the public does – and librarians are already “committed to opening people’s minds.” He asked, why can’t we do with ideas what we do with books? Recommend something outside their comfort zone. “Nobody’s obligated to agree with the ideas they hear…but we have to make an effort to understand why people believe the things that they do.”

Steve’s talk was very well received, and I wasn’t the only one taking photos of his slides to post to Twitter.

Dennis Ross quote
Dennis Ross quote from the Truman & Israel author event
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George Bernard Shaw quote
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Harry S. Truman quote
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John Scalzi quote (from his blog)

After a break for lunch, it was time for “Readers’ Advisory in the Age of Uncertainty,” which I presented along with Kevin O’Kelly from Somerville Public Library and Louise Goldstein from Waltham Public Library. We each took a different angle on the topic: Louise talked about the “Initiating Inspiration” book group at the Waltham library, in partnership with the Agape Spiritual Community. The group met five times in its first year, discussing five different titles. Kevin talked about bibliotherapy, from the little-known Sadie Petersen Delaney (“Our Lady of Bibliotherapy”) to author Alain de Boton’s “School of Life” to the Changing Lives Through Literature program. And I talked about readers’ advisory at the reference desk, whether people are looking for escapism or a deeper understanding of current topics (or – through speculative literature – both!). My handout with book lists is here.

Cover image of On TyrannyThe closing keynote session featured Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale and author of (most recently) On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017) and The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (2018). The talk was entitled “The New Authoritarianism: Where It Comes From and What Readers and Citizens Can Do About It,” and was essentially a summary of On Tyranny. If you missed the talk, read the book – it’s only 126 pages.

All in all, it was a worthwhile conference day! And let’s not forget Book Cart Drill Team

 

 

 

MLA 2017: Charting Our Course

Conference days are long and tiring, but energizing too: It’s great reconnecting with former colleagues, classmates, and other librarian acquaintances and friends from committee meetings, other conferences, etc., and sometimes putting a face to a name from e-mail or Twitter. (The official hashtag for the conference was #masslib17.) And of course, there are always plenty of new ideas to steal borrow and resources to consult.

This year I made the most of my one day of MLA, starting with an 8:30am session and including the “YA Smackdown” during lunchtime. Without further ado…the recap!

Why Don’t Patrons READ Library Signage? Graphic Design and Libraries

Presented by Larissa Farrell (YA) and Jessica Lamarre (Children’s) from the Duxbury Free Library, and Jed T. Phillips (Tech & User Experience) from the Ames Free Library

Fonts Matter example "You'll Always Be Mine" in two fonts
From the Duxbury presentation slides. Fonts matter!

This presentation was not about wayfinding signage, but about advertising and PR. Duxbury has a six-person marketing team, including one person from each department; they meet quarterly (at least) for some big-picture discussion, and work together to ensure a cohesive look across platforms (print, facebook, instagram, etc.). They suggested getting a mid-range digital camera that all library staff could use, to ensure a minimum photo quality.

The presenters explained pixels, resolution, file types, and hexidecimal (“hex”) colors, and then shared their favorite sources for free licensed fonts (fontspring.com, fontsquirrel.com) and copyright-free images (pexels.com, Google Creative Commons search, Canva, unsplash.com, pixabay.com, NASA, LOC, NYPL, Smithsonian). Remember, a picture’s worth a thousand words – but not clipart. (“Clipart is not ideal.” “Do not use clipart.”) Images, illustrations, and fonts will all begin to look dated over time, so if your library uses a template, consider refreshing your look every few years.

Screenshot of tweet: avoid comic sans and papyrus

All three presenters use the online design program Canva; libraries can get free business accounts that up to six people can use. In addition to Canva (and Canva Design School), other graphic design programs and software include Microsoft Publisher, Adobe Photoshop or InDesign, and classes through Lynda.com.

In addition to basic technical information and specific software recommendations, the presenters also discussed the principles of graphic design, and recommended Chip Kidd’s book Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design, which I also recommend as both an intro and a refresher.

Screenshot of tweet: form after function. Hierarchy.

Additional takeaways: Make your entrance(s) welcoming. Remember that “Where is…?”-type signage can advertise your collections and services, as well as helping people orient themselves and find what they need.

Screenshot of a tweet: Clipart is not ideal.

Transforming Teen Spaces

Presented by Jennifer Forgit from the Cary Memorial Library in Lexington and Katrina Ealy from the Holbrook Public Library

While support for teen collections has grown in many libraries, spaces and programming haven’t necessarily. YALSA policy supports a space that is exclusively for teens (see YALSA’s Teen Space Guidelines). If you don’t have a dedicated teen space in your library, where do the teens congregate? Can you make that their space? Repurpose underutilized space or move things around. (Have you weeded your print reference collection lately? Really, really weeded it?)

In Lexington, Jen was part of a very long process culminating in a major shift that included renovation. “Lots of support means lots of stakeholders”: library director, staff, trustees, Teen Advisory Board (TAB), town facilities department, Friends, Foundation, architect, library patrons & donors. They were ultimately able to move adult fiction upstairs with the rest of the adult materials and create a teen space downstairs, on the same floor as the Children’s department, which made sense to most people: Jen said she encountered less resistance to change than she’d expected.

Both Jen and Kat recommended getting input from teens. Jen advised keeping your teens involved throughout the process: dreaming, planning, decision-making, fundraising, installation. Get them involved early. But don’t make promises you can’t keep. Get feedback on choices you already know are “safe” (e.g. furniture in your price range – but let them pick the color). Furniture and shelving on casters is a great idea, so the space can be reconfigured for different uses.

Screenshot of tweet: Teens love to sit on the floor. Get a cool rug.

Kat works at Holbrook now but presented about her former workplace, the South Yarmouth Library, which is a very small library in an old sea captain’s house. They were able to take over the Friends’ book sale room (“They made about five dollars a week”) to create a space for teens: they stripped old wallpaper and put on fresh paint, got a new rug and some furniture, and added cheap, cute decorations that can be replaced every so often. They didn’t have much of a budget – just enough to cover the rug and furniture – but “small changes can make a big difference.”

Once you’ve designated a teen space, post clear signage: Lexington’s Teen Space sign is about six feet tall and reads, “This room is exclusively for the use of library patrons who are in 6th-13th grade. Others are welcome to get books and other materials from the Teen Space, but please do not linger in the room.”

Advocacy tips:

  • You can use American Fact Finder to look up population stats for your town. According to the 2015 American Community Survey, about 22.5% of Arlington’s population is 19 years old or under; nearly 10% are between 10-19 years old. That’s a not-insignificant chunk of the population.
  • The #1 reason teens try drugs is boredom (followed by anxiety and loneliness). We can help with that!
  • If someone objects, “But there aren’t any teens who use the library,” reply, “If you build it, they will come.”
  • Further resources: Teen Spaces: the step-by-step library makeover by Kimberly Bolan; VOYA’s YA Spaces of Your Dreams Collection edited by Anthony Bernier; and the aforementioned Teen Space Guidelines from YALSA.

Screenshot of two tweets about teen population stats from American Fact Finder and "if you build it, they will come"

Slides and notes from the Youth Services Section presentations are or will soon be available at the MLA YSS wiki. (Here is the MLA Conference 2017 link.) Stay tuned for my next blog post(s) on Mind in the Making, the YA Smackdown, and Step Into Your Office: The Library as a Co-Working Space.

Oh – and the Robbins Library Book Cart Drill Team finally won a much-deserved first place award! Watch the video.

 

Nonfiction by author

Cross-posted, with a few modifications, on the Robbins Library blog as “Nonfiction: Where to Begin?

Since finding out that the public library in Northampton, Massachusetts offers “YOUR NEXT GREAT READ LIVE!” – that is, live readers’ advisory on the Forbes Library Facebook page on Fridays – I’ve been interested in doing the same, and last month I just went ahead and started. If you follow the Robbins Library Facebook page, you might have seen these sessions from the past few Friday mornings. Some comments are quite specific, mentioning particular authors, titles, or genres; but once someone simply asked for “nonfiction.”

Nonfiction is…well, everything, really, that isn’t made up. It’s a category of reading that people tend to approach more by subject than by author. That said, there are several authors who turn out a book every few years in different interesting areas, whether narrative nonfiction or memoir/personal essays. I started brainstorming (with help from my brilliant, well-read co-workers, of course), and here’s what we came up with:

Narrative nonfiction

Local author Steve Almond has written about music (Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life), chocolate (Candyfreak), and football (Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto). In other words, something for everyone!

British professor and influential thinker Mary Beard’s most recent book is SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. At over 600 pages, it may take you a while, but when you do finish, don’t worry – she’s written more.

Cover image of A Walk in the WoodsBill Bryson is well-known and well-liked; you’ve probably heard of (or already read) A Walk in the Woods – it’s the one with the bear on the cover – but he has many others, including A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bryson’s writing style is welcoming and witty.

Stephanie Coontz is a social historian and author of several books, including: Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap and The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms With America’s Changing Families.
Think you know (or remember) how it was in the ’50s? Think again.

Perhaps you are interested in letter-writing (To the Letter), fonts (Just My Type), maps (On the Map), time (Timekeepers), or a specific shade of purple (Mauve)? Simon Garfield is your man.

Cover image of The Checklist ManifestoBoston surgeon Atul Gawande is also a wonderful author, who writes with medical expertise and deep empathy, and is driven by a constant desire to improve. His most recent book is Being Mortal, but don’t miss his earlier ones: Better, Complications, and The Checklist Manifesto. (See also: Siddhartha Mukherjee.)

A staff writer for The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell made a splash with The Tipping Point in 2000 and has written four books since: Blink, Outliers, David & Goliath, and What the Dog Saw and Other Adventure Stories. If you’re interested in psychology and human behavior, give Gladwell a try.

Laura Hillenbrand‘s two books have been huge successes, and with good reason: they are fascinating stories, tremendously well-researched and compellingly told. Both Seabiscuit and Unbroken are very nearly un-put-down-able. Both have been made into feature films.

cover image of The Ghost MapI discovered Steven Johnson through his book The Ghost Map, about a cholera outbreak in London and how people figured out how the disease was spreading – and how to stop it. It’s like a mystery novel, except it’s real! Johnson has written several other books as well: The Invention of Air, How We Got to Now, Everything Bad is Good for You, Where Good Ideas Come From, and Wonderland. If you’re interested in innovation and discovery, past and present, try one (or more) of Johnson’s books.

Highly informative, not particularly cheerful: Elizabeth Kolbert wrote The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, which won a whole slew of prizes, including the Pulitzer, in 2015; she is also the author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change (2007).

Mark Kurlansky writes about food and about history, often together (Salt, Cod). His most recent book is Paper: Paging Through History. Learn about the world through a new (fisheye?) lens.

One of the most prominent popular nonfiction authors, Jon Krakauer has written riveting stories of extremes: Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, Where Men Win Glory, Under the Banner of Heaven, and Missoula.

Cover image of Dead WakeErik Larson is another perennially popular nonfiction author, and with good reason: his well-researched books often use multiple narratives to tell the same story, enhancing the aspect of suspense through different perspectives. The pacing, particularly in his latest, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, is superb. His other books include The Devil in the White City, Isaac’s Storm, Thunderstruck, and In the Garden of Beasts.

Do you like extensively researched doorstoppers about historical figures? Allow me to introduce you to David McCullough, author of The Wright Brothers, 1776, John Adams, and several others.

In a starred review of The Emperor of All Maladies, Booklist wrote, “Apparently researching, treating, and teaching about cancer isn’t enough of a challenge for Columbia University cancer specialist [Siddhartha] Mukherjee…” and indeed, his “biography of cancer” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. Those interested in science and history should pick this one up, and try Mukherjee’s more recent book, The Gene: An Intimate History as well. (See also: Atul Gawande.)

Michael Pollan is a well-known writer on the topics of food, nutrition, sustainability, and related issues. Try The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, The Botany of Desire, or Cooked. Or, for a condensed version of Pollan’s guidance, Food Rules.

Cover image of StiffMary Roach‘s clever one-word titles (with the exception of Packing for Mars, which is three words, but still intriguing) encapsulate her sense of humor and scientific curiosity, and invite you to read on to learn more about human cadavers (Stiff), the afterlife (Spook), humans at war (Grunt), sex (Bonk), and digestion (Gulp). Who knows what she’ll write about next? But it’s sure to be interesting…

Neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote about the brain and how it (sometimes doesn’t) work. Check out The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales (1998), Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (2007), or Hallucinations (2012). Sacks published his autobiography, On the Move, just four months before he died in 2015.

Rebecca Skloot has only written one book, but what a book: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks will have a lasting impact. Tumor cells taken from an African-American woman without her knowledge in the 1950s became known as “HeLa” cells, the key to many scientific discoveries. Booklist says Skloot writes with “a novelist’s artistry, a biologist’s expertise, and the zeal of an investigative reporter.”

Dava Sobel is a former New York Times Science writer. Her most recent book is The Glass Universe try it if you liked Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly – but she has been publishing steadily every few years since Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time in 1995.

Cover image of Far From the TreeIf you only ever read one 900+ page book in your life, there is a very good case for Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon. (If 900 pages is simply too many for you, it’s worth reading the introduction, which is only about 50 pages.) Solomon writes about identity, particularly when a child has an identity that isn’t shared with the parent, such as deafness, schizophrenia, or musical genius. This book will expand your understanding of other people and increase your empathy. Solomon has also written The Noonday Demon, a book about his struggle with depression.

Interested in a bit of true crime, Victorian-style? The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale is just that; detective Jonathan Whicher of Scotland Yard provided a model for many fictional detectives. Summerscale is also the author of Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady and The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer.

Cover image of The World Without UsEven wonder what would happen to Earth if all the humans just…disappeared? Alan Weisman takes that thought experiment and expands it into a book in The World Without Us, explaining what would last, what would crumble, and what would explode in a rather dramatic fashion. In 2013, six years after The World Without Us, Weisman published Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?

From the seemingly tame subject of the Oxford English Dictionary (The Professor and the Madman; The Meaning of Everything) to the large and explosive (Krakatoa; A Crack in the Edge of the World), Simon Winchester writes “just the kind of creative nonfiction that elevates a seemingly arcane topic into popular fare” (Booklist).

Jeffrey Zaslow was a journalist for The Wall Street Journal and also an advice columnist. He wrote thoughtful, serious, tender books about women’s lives, including The Girls From Ames and The Magic Room, and co-wrote a number of other books, including The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch and Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope with Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly.

Personal experience/memoir/essays

Cover image of The Year of Magical ThinkingJoan Didion: There are too many books to list here, but try her memoirs, The Year of Magical Thinking or Blue Nights, or the collection We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live.

Jonathan Franzen is better known as a novelist (The Corrections, Freedom, Purity), but his essays are both thoughtful and thought-provoking; he has the ability to make any topic (birdwatching; the postal service in Chicago) interesting. Try How to Be Alone, The Discomfort Zone, or Farther Away.

Elizabeth Gilbert: Probably still best known for Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert has also written Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage and, more recently, Big Magic: Creative Living Without Fear. She is also the author of the novel The Signature of All Things.

Nick Hornby: In addition to writing novels and screenplays (e.g. High Fidelity), Hornby has written a decade’s worth of “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns for The Believer. They’re collected in Ten Years in the Tub.

Cover image of On WritingStephen King: King is best known for his novels, of course, but his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is “a blend of memoir and craft” that makes for fascinating reading whether or not you ever plan to become a writer yourself.

Caitlin Moran: Colorful British feminist writer Moran wrote the hilarious bestseller How to Be A Woman, as well as essay collections Moranthology and Moranifesto. She is also the author of the novel How to Build A Girl.

Ann Patchett: Beloved novelist Ann Patchett brings the same wise, considered approach and deep understanding of people to her nonfiction writing. This Is The Story of A Happy Marriage is a collection not to be missed.

Cover image of The Happiness ProjectGretchen Rubin: The Happiness Project was a year-long personal project supported with research; it’s a memoir only a very “Type A” person could write, and may lead to other interesting academic reading. Rubin followed up the success of that book with Happier At Home and Better Than Before.

Cheryl Strayed: You know her as the author of Wild, but she also spent time as the advice columnist “Dear Sugar”; many of her columns were collected and published as Tiny Beautiful Things.

What are your favorite nonfiction books or authors? Which ones on this list are new and interesting to you?

Top Ten Historical Fiction

September kind of got away from me. September is always a busy month during which I think I’ll have more time than I do have, but this year, thanks to two bouts of stomach flu, I pretty much missed half of it entirely. Which is to say, I’ve been meaning to write a Top Ten Tuesday post for the historical fiction genre since I read Linda’s Top Ten Favorite Historical Novels blog post over half a month ago.

Historical fiction has always been one of my favorite genres. I find that the best authors in this genre are able to weave period detail into their stories in a way that is subtle and memorable at once. Even though I studied history in college, it’s the history I learned through stories that has stuck with me best.

Cover image of Wolf HallSome novels take famous figures from history and are centered around important historical events. In the case of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, it is the court of King Henry VIII in England. In the former, Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary is the main character during Anne’s rise, marriage to Henry VIII, the formation of the Church of England, and Henry’s disenchantment with (and beheading of) Anne. For her books – the first two of a planned trilogy – Mantel takes Thomas Cromwell as her main character.

Cover image of Suite FrancaiseOther novels are about ordinary people in extraordinary times, and the draw of these stories is how their authors are able to make the time and place come to life in a way that seems real. Like Henry VIII’s era, World War II is a popular time period for historical fiction; most recently, the exceptional All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr was a bestseller (and with good reason). A few of my favorite WWII novels are Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer, Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.

Cover image of FeverStill a third type of historical novel features extraordinary people in ordinary (for them) times. These characters are as vivid as their settings: Mary Malone (better known as Typhoid Mary) in Fever by Mary Beth Keane, set in turn of the century New York. Katy Kontent in Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility, also in New York, in the 1930s. Regret, a Korean “picture bride” in Alan Brennert’s Honolulu. Tom and Isabel in post-WWI Australia in The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman. Mattie Gokey in the Adirondacks in 1906 in Jennifer Donnelly’s A Northern Light, and Desdemona Hart in 1930s Massachusetts in Maryanne O’Hara’s Cascade.

Cover image of AstrayFor those who have been counting, this has been more than ten, but I want to mention just three more. Astray is a collection by Emma Donoghue, in which each story was inspired by a real piece of history; Donoghue is so inventive that she can spin two sentences from an old newspaper into a complete, absorbing story.

Finally, there are two books from my childhood that could be called historical fiction with a twist: Voices After Midnight by Richard Peck includes an element of time travel, and Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix takes place in what appears to be an 1840s village, but – to the main character’s shock – isn’t.

Do you like historical fiction? Which novels are your favorites, and why? If you haven’t read historical fiction before, do any of the above sound interesting?

 

 

 

Pleasure reading should be pleasurable

Makes sense when you think about it, right? Yet so many of us feel obligated to finish a book once we’ve started it, and feel guilty if we set it aside. We really should read it, because a friend recommended it, or it got a good review, or it’s on a topic we really ought to know more about, or everyone else is reading it, or we put it on our to-read list four years ago (but we can’t remember why), or it’s a classic…fill in the blank however you like.

But unless a book is assigned reading for school or work, then presumably you’re reading for pleasure, and pleasure reading should be pleasurable. Not that you shouldn’t ever explore a new genre or try a book that you find a bit difficult, but if you’re 25 or 50 or 100 pages in and you’re just not that into it, then by all means, put it down and pick up something else instead! You have this librarian’s permission.

This is something I have worked on for years myself. I was inspired partly by Knopf editor Marty Asher, who said something along the lines of “I don’t have time to read anything but great books” (and that was almost a decade ago). Of course, you might well think a book is going to be great and it turns out not to be: you can only judge so much by the cover, title, author, first sentence, first page, flap copy, reviews, etc. Most of us don’t choose books we think we’re going to dislike on purpose.

And yet it can be so hard to put down a book we’ve invested some time in already. It feels like giving up; it feels like failure. And who knows? We’re optimistic; maybe it will get better in another 25, 50, 100 pages. But no: at some point you begin to feel certain that this book is not the one for you, at least not right now. (“Every reader his/her book, every book its reader“).

One side effect of my free time having been somewhat curtailed of late is that I have become much better at putting down a book that doesn’t hook me quickly. This is usually not a reflection on the book’s quality; it’s just not for me, not right now. For example, I have decided to return M.T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead to the library – despite the fact that it was personally recommended to me by a reader I trust, and that it was a finalist for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults – because I just can’t get excited about the siege of Leningrad right now.

What can I get excited about? Young adult fiction, apparently: I’ve read nine YA novels so far this year, including some truly stellar books (all right, let’s name names: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Like No Other, Dumplin’, Roller Girl, Echo, A Step Toward Falling, Bone Gap, Rain Reign). I’ve also read (and re-read) some excellent picture books. And, I got to read Gayle Forman’s upcoming adult novel Leave Me, which is just as good as her YA; I read it in just two days, and I have a three-month-old baby, so that should tell you something. (The thing it should tell you is “read Leave Me“!)

So there you have it, from a librarian: if you don’t like what you’re reading, and you don’t have to read it, put it down and read something you love instead. That’s the beauty of the public library: millions of books just there for the borrowing. Don’t do what I did and spend an entire month trying to slog through a book you aren’t that excited about: you’re not being graded, and ticking a box on a checklist you made yourself isn’t nearly as satisfying as spending time reading a book you love. In fact, I think there’s a song about this. Let it go…

[All that said…my library is hosting a 2016 Reading Challenge with some interesting categories, and one book can count toward more than one category. Click through to read more if you’re interested in participating.]

Do you debut? Focus on first books

I only realized how few new debuts* I read when I was offered the chance to contribute to another Reader’s Shelf column in Library Journal,New Year, Nearly New Books: Favorite 2015 Debuts.” Looking back through nearly a year’s worth of reading, there weren’t very many for me to choose from, but I did really enjoy The Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister. If you like magic and illusion, turn-of-the-century America, and (possibly) unreliable narrators, it would be a great book to curl up with this winter.

*”New debuts” isn’t redundant, I don’t think: an author’s first book is a debut whether it was published ten years ago or ten days ago. And if it was ten years ago, then hopefully there have been a few since, and you’ve got some catching up to do!

Do you seek out debuts? I don’t make a point of it, though I certainly don’t have anything against them – if it’s recommended to me or gets glowing reviews or has a great hook, I’m just as interested in a first novel as a tenth, and discovering a new writer is a pleasure. Really, the only downside to reading a new debut is that you’ll be waiting for the next one instead of diving into an author’s backlist.

Do you like to read everything an author has written, or do you read more selectively, even if you really like the author? Do you like to read an author’s work chronologically, reverse-chronologically, or does the order not matter to you?