Category: books and book notes

january 2011 reading

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson — Our library sponsors a mystery book discussion group, and January’s selection was actually all the Stieg Larsson novels and/or movies — read or watch whatever you want and come discuss. I worked my way through the whole trilogy over the course of the month because, if nothing else, they are compelling, and I am just as bad as the rest of the world when it comes to wanting to know what happens next when a main character has a bullet in the head. It’s also nice to read a thriller with committed leftwingers in it, although like Melanie Newman, I have some discomfort with the discrepancy between Larsson’s professed feminism and the way he writes about women.

Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert — Two of my best and oldest friends are getting married. I am a marriage skeptic, and I’d heard good things about this book from other marriage skeptics, so I thought I’d check it out. Gilbert is a breezy and entertaining sort of writer, and she is pleasantly skeptical about the institution, but I was left largely underwhelmed by her sort of slapdash anthropology.

The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson

We All Fall Down by Nic Sheff — I am amused to no end that WorldCat has the following subject headings for this book: Biography : Fiction : Juvenile audience. I read this via NetGalley (thanks, Michelle!) on the library’s Sony eReader. It’s the first time I’ve ever read an entire book in a digital format, and it worked well enough for this book, which is full of very short sentences and white space and is your basic addiction memoir narrative.

[listen] Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon — This is a novel about identity and identity theft that I ordered for my old library but hadn’t gotten around to reading. I was playing around with downloadable audio at my new library and discovered it was available that way, and, through some set of miracles, I even got it to play on my iPod. It’s an addictive and creepy story with lots of different characters who seem to be totally disconnected to each other but who eventually meet up, which I always love.

There’s a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From by Charles Bryan — Bryan is a struggling writer dude who moves to New York City in 1998 and ends up getting a job on Wall Street writing marketing copy for an investment bank. This is as soul-crushing and awful as you might imagine, and it becomes all the more so when he’s at work on September 11, 2001. Bryan’s a fan of minimalism, and it shows in his prose. It works well for the story he tells.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson

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september – december reading

High on Arrival by Mackenzie Phillips — I actually had little notion of or interest in Mackenzie Phillips, but I love drug addict memoirs, so I picked this up when it rotated through the library. It comes with the special added bonus of being an incest memoir. It may well not be up your alley.

[reread] The Door Into Summer by Robert Heinlein — It’s possible that I reread this book too often. But not probable.

Nobody’s Girl by Antonya Nelson — I ran across this in our collection and picked it up because I used to love a song of the same name sung by Bonnie Raitt. When I read the blurb and discovered this was about a young woman from the Chicago suburbs who decides to move to a small desert town in New Mexico, I figured I’d better read it. It took me a long time to get through it, but it was pretty good, though not really similar to my own experience except in feeling.

Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser — For our Wyoming Humanities Council book discussion series of biographies of American cultural icons. I ended up spending a lot of time talking about the history of the civil rights movement and its various strands and bringing in a whole stack of books, which just goes to show I guess that one’s extracurricular collecting habits do eventually play some role.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen — I love Franzen’s essays most of all, but I liked this quite well — perhaps even better than The Corrections. Despite what you may have read about it plot-summary-wise, it’s really a novel about falling in love and out of love and trying to figure out how to differentiate who you are from who you want to be.

[reread] The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley — When in danger or in doubt, reread.

[reread] The Rooms of Heaven by Mary Allen — Reread shortly after I accepted my new job. The book is about many things, but I reread it primarily because it is set here in my home town of Iowa City, and because it is full of places and people that I knew and wanted to reacquaint myself with.

Perfect Reader by Maggie Pouncey — A charming and hysterically funny (well, hysterically funny if you have any connection to academia) book about a young woman who becomes her father’s literary executor.

Eleanor Roosevelt Volume 1 by Blanche Wiesen Cook — The next entry in our Icons discussion series. Eleanor Roosevelt is one of those people who was, it seemed to me, So Admired by so many people that I figured she must actually be rather dull to read about. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that that was not the case.

Up From the Blue by Susan Henderson — My idea of a psychological thriller is a book just like this one — a book where you suspect and are afraid that frightening things are happening, but you can’t quite figure out what they are, or what they mean, or even whether or not they are totally real. Throw in a (mostly) kid narrator and some mental illness, and I’m hooked.

The Good Daughters by Joyce Maynard — I breezed through this women’s fiction page turner (to reduce a book utterly to a genre phrase) in one day on one of the last weekends I was avoiding packing while I was still living in Wyoming. As long-time readers of this blog will know, I am a sucker for novels with family secrets, and this has them in spades.

Jane Fonda’s War by Mary Hershberger — The final book for our Icons discussion. As I mentioned to several people, I think it’s probably good that it was my last discussion in Meeteetse, or I’m not sure anyone would have shown up, due to the intense hatred of Jane Fonda. The most tangible similarity among all the people whose biographies we read is that they all had FBI files; all of them but Eleanor Roosevelt were against the Vietnam War (and one imagines she would have been, too, had she been alive). Muhammad Ali was in far more trouble than Fonda over his opposition to the war at the time, but he is now revered as a hero, and she’s still hated. No one was able to solve this particular mystery at our discussion, but it made good fodder.

[reread] Deerskin by Robin McKinley — Usually when I move to a new place to embark on a new endeavor, I reread The Blue Sword, but as it’s about moving to a desert outpost and I was about to leave my desert outpost, I went with some other McKinley books instead.

Girls to the Front by Sara Marcus — I wasn’t a riot grrrl in any conscious fashion; I didn’t hear the term or most of the music till I got to college. But this book covers exactly the years I was in high school, and its descriptions of what the world was like then were so completely spot on for me. I hated high school, but those years have a particular poignancy nonetheless. The “first” Gulf War is the first war I ever protested. I remember standing outside the Emma Goldman Clinic when Operation Rescue stopped in Iowa City in 1991. And I remember going to so many shows — the Pixies in Davenport, the benefits in the Unitarian Church basement — where the whole front of the room was dominated by the mosh pit. If a riot grrrl band had ever played there, if one of them had said, before the set, that they wanted all the girls to come up to the front — I would have been there. Immediately.

She Got Up Off the Couch by Haven Kimmel — The she in the title is Kimmel’s mother, who got up off the couch in their rural Indiana home after seeing a television ad wherein Abe Lincoln said she could go back to school. She got a college degree and a masters and became a teacher, and this book is about that, but it’s also, like A Girl Named Zippy, just an excellently (I might even say zingily) written portrait of a place and its people. And it’s funny. And true.

Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House by Meghan Daum — Daum’s memoir-ish book about houses and homes wins the prize for the funniest book I read this year, but it also hits poignantly close to home for me. Like Daum, I have moved a somewhat uncountable number of times (I’ve never lived in a house longer than four years, ever), and I also lust after real estate. Reading this book as I perch in my friends’ house, where I’ll be staying and then housesitting for the next 7 months, made for a particularly rich experience, as the beauty of transience is that you can always imagine that the perfect dwelling really is out there. Daum captures that perfectly.

thinking about banned books

I’ve long been a fan of Jessamyn West’s take on Banned Books Week — that it’s a marketing ploy, that most of the books that claim to be banned are actually just challenged and are not ultimately removed from library shelves, that there are many more issues of importance when it comes to censorship and the disappearance of information that used to be public. So I’ve tended to treat the subject lightly if at all at the library — I sometimes print out some stuff and throw up a book display and put a post on our website (and, in fact, that’s all I’m really doing this year), and then I complain to my librarian friends and colleagues about all my issues with the event.

This year, the lead-up to Banned Books Week in the young adult blogosphere was the attempt to have Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five removed from a school in Missouri. (Anderson also has a followup post.)

Now this is very much your typical book challenge of the sort recorded by the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. Someone gets upset that high school students are reading about sex and swear words and, using media-savvy, raises a huge stink. Nothing too unusual in the annals of book challenges.

But it got me thinking again, perhaps because Speak is one of my favorite books, perhaps because the description of it by the objector (“soft porn”) was so ridiculous, perhaps because I work in what is half a school library.

It’s easy to dismiss school libraries as, well, different. They’re serving a specific population. Their collection all has to “support the curriculum.” But I don’t think that we, as librarians, should take that view. As Justice Abe Fortas wrote in Tinker v. Des Moines, “[i]t can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Nor should they lose their right to read freely. And so many of the books that are challenged in schools deal with topics students want and need to know about. Students with same sex parents, teens questioning their own sexual orientation, young people who’ve been abused or assaulted — people don’t write books about these things to be prescriptive. They write about them because they happen. And reading about them happening is one way that those who’ve experienced those things can learn to deal with them, and one way those who have not can have their eyes opened to them.

I want to talk about a lot of things related to censorship and freedom of information, from government information and free law to the embargoes and copyright agreements and astronomical prices that often keep scholars from accessing their own work. But I still want to talk, as I so often do, about that kid lurking in the stacks, looking for something that just might change her life.

  • 27 September 2010 at 8:56 pm Marianne
    Thoughtful as always. <3.
  • 27 September 2010 at 10:13 pm Steele Lawman
    I enjoyed your perspective on it all. I often think about this essay of Stephen King's when it comes to banning books in schools: http://www.stephenking.com/library/essay/book-banners:_adventure_in_censorship_is_stranger_than_fiction_the.html
  • 28 September 2010 at 3:31 pm laura x
    I had not read that. Interesting, but I disagree MASSIVELY with this: "First, to the kids: There are people in your home town who have taken certain books off the shelves of your school library. Do not argue with them; do not protest; do not organize or attend rallies to have the books put back on their shelves. Don't waste your time or your energy"
  • 28 September 2010 at 3:32 pm laura x
    Organizing is NOT a waste of time or energy. It's a useful skill, a good experience, a way to learn a lot and be involved in your community and with other people, and it should be encouraged.
  • 28 September 2010 at 3:33 pm Steele Lawman
    Ah. That's the part I like. :)
  • 28 September 2010 at 3:34 pm laura x
    Why?
  • 28 September 2010 at 3:35 pm Steele Lawman
    Because it encourages kids to think outside their school. Schools are bound to be oppressive and awful. Go to the public library instead. If it's banned there, then raise a stink.
  • 28 September 2010 at 3:38 pm laura x
    Schools are oppressive and awful, but challenging oppressiveness and awfulness where you find it is important.
  • 28 September 2010 at 3:38 pm laura x
  • 28 September 2010 at 3:40 pm Steele Lawman
    As ever, I'm more of a pragmatist. For me, the important thing is the kid getting the book he or she wants, not the kid challenging the school board.
  • 28 September 2010 at 3:42 pm laura x
    I don't think I'm lacking in pragmatism--I'm interested in the kid getting the book she wants, but I'm also interested in the kid learning things about the power structure and about her own abilities to challenge it, if she so chooses. Also, not every kid has access to a public library, sadly. When I was in junior high, the only way I could get to the library was if my mother drove me. Happily, my mom thought going to the library was important and worthwhile, but I'm willing to bet not all parents do feel that way.
  • 28 September 2010 at 3:44 pm Steele Lawman
    Yes, good point.
  • 29 September 2010 at 1:02 am laura x
    Oh goody! I got a comment from Mr. Safe Libraries!
  • 29 September 2010 at 1:04 am Sir Shuping is just sir
    oh...he's...unique. I got into a comment argument with him once on lisnews and have avoided him ever since
  • 29 September 2010 at 1:08 am Walt Crawford
    He's not entirely unique. Before SafeLibraries there was David Burt. Now, I've never actually seen Dan Kleinman and David Burt in the same room, but...(OK, I've never seen either one.)
  • 29 September 2010 at 1:09 am laura x
    Meh. I do not respond to comments from people I disagree with. I'm into fighting, but not fighting via blog comment.
  • 29 September 2010 at 1:11 am Sir Shuping is just sir
    it was a mistake on my part to get into the comment thing with him...learned my lesson that day and have attempted to avoid it ever since

alone at the library

I spent hours of my youth at the public library. Hours and hours. Sometimes I went just to check out books, but more often than not I went just to spend time there. The Iowa City Public Library had record players and CD players you could use, and I’d flip through the albums (I first listened to the Beatles at the library), pick out a stack, and set up at a record player, put on the headphones, and read or do my homework or just daydream. I loved it there because it was the only place I ever went where people left me alone.

At school, one was usually supposed to be doing something in particular place, and if you were out of that place, or doing something else, you got in trouble. Stores are notoriously hostile toward teenagers, and of course they want you to buy things. I hate buying things. If I wanted company, I’d go to UAY or, if the weather was good, to the ped mall down town, but when I wanted to be left alone, I went to the library.

Aaron has a short jibe about How to Be Alone, a video that’s been making the rounds on YouTube and that suggests the library as a good place to go to be alone. “Not exactly what we’re going for, eh?” he asks. Commenters on the post beg to differ, and I do too.

Oh, I know building community is important. I know gate counts are important, and program attendance statistics are important, and Facebook fans are important, and people getting to know their librarians and their neighbors is important, and people creating content is important, and all that stuff is important. But every time I hear someone talking about how we need to make libraries more popular and not just places for nerds, every time I hear people talking about programming like it’s the most important and perhaps only thing we do, or should do, for teens, a little part of me wonders what place there is in that library for the fifteen year old me, the girl who just wanted listen to records and wander the stacks and look at old magazines and, well, be left alone?

I also fell in love with Jonathan Franzen while reading his book How to Be Alone, which is about a lot of things, but mostly it’s about reading and thinking and exploring ideas and following the paths of your own particular mind — things that are rightfully solitary pursuits. Some of the greatest things I have ever done have been groups and with groups. But not all of them.

“The first thing books teach you,” Franzen says, “is how to be alone.”

july and august reading

Claiming Ground by Laura Bell — Because I grew up in Iowa City (and later attended graduate school there), home of the Iowa Writers Workshop, I have heard a lot of authors talk and read from their books, and I have read a great many books and stories set in my hometown or some place very like it. It’s sort of a game, really — seeing how quickly you can figure out which bar the characters are meeting up at, or deducing what apartment someone lived in during the time their memoir takes place, or whatever. Reading Laura Bell’s book was my first real experience of that in Wyoming (there are other books about this part of the world — Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces and Mark Spragg’s Where Rivers Change Direction spring to mind first — but this is the first one I read while living here). Reading it brought the particular delight recognizing people and places that I know, or know of, but it is also a good read as a memoir by a woman trying to figure out how to belong to a place she is not from.

Illyria by Elizabeth Hand — A good but peculiar young adult novel about theatrically and romantically inclined cousins. I say peculiar because the book is told by a first person adult narrator about her young adulthood, and it ends with the narrator as an adult, which made it seem like an old-fashioned book in many ways (my unscientific perception being that the adult narrator looking back was more common in children’s and YA books of the earlier parts of the 20th century, before the YA explosion of recent years). The story is told by Maddy and is about growing up in what had been a large extended theatrical family that was merely now a large extended rather complacent family, except for Maddy and her cousin Rogan, who were theatre mad and also in love. The main part of the story deals with their high school’s production of Twelfth Night, in which they both star, and of what happens to them afterward, and what eventually reunites them.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman — I loved this book, and then I got taken to task by my very smart friends for not questioning why the gay character must be a tortured youth aspect and for not recognizing that the main female character is not really allowed to be much of a character. I will cop to that. I still loved the idea of magic in this book — that it’s not really actually all that good for anything — and so you have all these with a lot of skills and really no actual purpose in life. Given that that’s pretty much exactly how I felt upon finishing my fancy liberal arts college, I suppose it makes sense that I related to the book. I also found it wickedly funny, and if you’re a fan of children’s fantasy literature in general and Narnia in particular, you’ll have a great time picking out all the references.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan — I love the New York Times reviewer who began his review this way:

If you’re like me, you tend to regard plot summaries as a necessary boredom at best. They’re the flyover country between a reviewer’s landing strips of judgment, revealing almost nothing about the way a book actually works, almost nothing about why it succeeds or fails. . . . At least this is how I felt until I read Jennifer Egan’s remarkable new fiction.

He then proceeds to try to summarize the plot (I’ll let you click through for it), which is crazy and both epic and quotidian. I loved Egan’s first novel, The Invisible Circus, so much that I sort of keep hoping she’ll write it again. She never has, and her subsequent novels are so very different from that one that I always think I’m not really going to like them, but then I read them and I do. This one, in particular, reminds me of what my grandmother once told me: that you never really know when someone is going to show up in your life. A Visit from the Goon Squad is that in literature, writ large.

R Exposure by Kathryn Harrison — Something I read online somewhere made me think I should reread this, but I can no longer remember what. In any case, I love Kathryn Harrison, and this one was worth revisiting.

Father of the Rain by Lily King — One of the best and most satisfying novels I’ve read in a long time. It’s decidedly one where describing the plot — which deals with Daley growing up with her alcoholic father, leaving him, and going back to try to help him — doesn’t do it justice at all.

Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship by Gail Caldwell — Caldwell’s memoir about her friendship with Caroline Knapp (author, most famously, of Drinking: A Love Story) is about dogs and rowing and dealing with death and grief and being a recovering alcoholic and various other things, but the parts that interested me most were those that dealt with being a single woman. Not single in a Bridget Jones/Sex and the City/constantly on the lookout for the next guy, if not The One kind of a way, but single in a living by yourself and having your life and being happy kind of a way. There’s not enough of that narrative in the world.

Cash by Johnny Cash — Our first book for this year’s book discussion group. I made everyone watch the video of Hurt, but what was most interesting to me was hearing from people — our group ranges from age 34 to age 76 — about their experiences listening to Cash over the years, and their sense of how he was talked about in their youth.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan — I knew going into this story told by two high school students named Will Grayson from two very different Chicago suburbs that I would love it, and I was not disappointed. As with many of John Green’s books, I found the ending a wee bit over the top, but I sort of don’t care, because a) it’s fiction and b) the characters and the writing and the dialogue are so wonderful and funny. Actually, b) is the far more important point. I often say that I know I really, really love a book when I find myself punching the sofa during particularly good bits. This book and Father of the Rain were the big couch punching books this summer.

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june reading

American Taliban by Pearl Abraham — This is a novel that is not actually based on the story of John Walker Lindh — in fact, he shows up in the narrative toward the end, just so you know for sure the protagonist isn’t him — although it is a novel about a young American who becomes entranced with Arabic, goes to Pakistan to study, and becomes entranced there with militants in the mountains and ends up going to Afghanistan with them. Like this reviewer, “my first move after finishing was to Google Lindh,” which was interesting, because I read very little of the coverage of him at the time because it made me so angry. Nine years later, I am still incredibly angry about this country’s treatment of the Muslim world and political prisoners, and at its incredible lack of respect for subtlety, and many other related issues, but I’ve calmed down enough to consider, at least, and enough time has gone by that more subtle things have been written. In addition to the New Yorker story linked above, you might also enjoy this piece from Esquire about Lindh in prison. But back to the book, for a moment — it’s good, though maddening at times, particularly toward the end. If anyone else out there reads it, or has read it, I’d love to discuss the ending.

Fat Girl by Judith Moore — There is a great deal of hatred for this book among fat-acceptance activists, at least to judge by Amazon reviews, which I didn’t look at until I was sitting down to write this post. I think it’s a misplaced anger, or an anger based on a misunderstanding of the book (which is a devastating account of both growing up fat and having a truly horrific mother, and yet isn’t at all self-pitying). Consider this, from the opening: “Narrators of first-person claptrap like this often greet the reader at the door with moist hugs and complaisant kisses. I won’t. I will not endear myself. I won’t put on airs. I am not that pleasant. The older I get the less pleasant I am.” Of course, telling the reader you are not endearing is a pretty good way of endearing yourself to this reader, as is writing well — and ultimately, I am afraid, my allegiance to good writing outweighs my allegiance to just about anything else.

Red Line by Charles Bowden — Charles Bowden is my new crush. This is an old and peculiar book that is half memoir, half narrative of trying to trace down the life of a Mexican drug dealer who was executed outside Tucson. It’s full of lines like “Without the music, the last few decades would remain political prisoners of the New York Times” and “I do not care about the table setting, I eye the knife.” And he has the best hat ever.

Boys and Girls Like You and Me by Aryn Kyle — Kyle wrote a great novel about a girl and horses and early adolescence and grief and western Colorado called The God of Animals. This is a collection of stories that, I would guess, were mostly written earlier and dug out to publish after her novel was successful. They are quite good, although I suspect they are probably more appealing to my general demographic than to the broader readership of the world. If you like what I think of as serious chick lit, you’d like these.

The Stormchasers by Jenna Blum — I will generally read almost any novel that deals with mental illness, because I am interested both in mental illness itself and in portrayals of it. This is a fast (as in fast-moving), semi-melodramatic about fraternal twins, a brother and sister. The brother has bipolar disorder and the sister does not; she lost touch with him twenty years ago but then gets a call from a psychiatric hospital where he’s been admitted, only to discover that he’s not there when she arrives. She knows he loves to chase storms, and it’s that season, so she gets her editor to let her cover a stormchasing tour in hopes of finding him. I don’t really think it’s fair to ask the portrayal of one person to be representative of all people with a particular disorder, because how could it be? Charles, the character in this book, isn’t every person with manic depressive illness, but he seems to me like a fair portrayal of one.

The Myth of You and Me by Leah Stewart — Childhood friends suffer a rift and, through mildly improbably circumstances, are brought back together again. I should be more bothered by the contrivances of the plot and the improbably happy ending, but I am endlessly fascinated by friendships, and thus I liked this book.

Live Through This by Debra Gwartney — Part of this story — before it became a book — was on an episode of This American Life some years ago. It’s a memoir about how Gwartney’s two older daughters ran away from home when they were 14 and 16 and lived as street kids, first in their town, and later in San Francisco and elsewhere, and how Gwartney tried to find them and get them to come back, and the ways in which she succeeded and failed. I used to know a fair number of street kids, kids who mostly, like Gwartney’s daughters, had homes but chose not to live in them, and because I was a kid myself, I was always on their side. Their home lives doubtless were horrible — if not outright abusive, then intolerable in some other way. And I was a great believer in self-determination, for people as well as nations, and I hate to see anyone being harassed by the police, as these kids frequently were. I never considered their parents, and what they might actually be like, and how they might feel, and now I realize that probably some of them were like Gwartney — confused and overwhelmed and overly attached, but not monsters. I’d never considered what it might be like to be the mom of one of those kids and not know where that kid was. The book is not prescriptive about parents or runaways, and I’m not either, but I was glad to read it for the whole new angle it gave me on something I thought I pretty much knew all about.

The Butterfly Mosque by G. Willow Wilson — I fell in love with North Africa at a young age, dating, I suppose, from my mother reading King of the Wind to me. I’ve always suspected that this means my love of the place and of Islam is just the sort of exotic, Orientalist view of things that, while I suppose preferable to intolerance and hatred in some respects, ultimately causes just as many problems. I just went over to glance at the opening of King of the Wind again, and, indeed, Marguerite Henry refers to Muslims as Mohammedans, and the illustrations are full of minarets and turbans. I forgive her in part because the book was published in 1948, and in part because I believe it was meant respectfully, whatever its flaws. And I know that Henry fought with her editors to be able to publish a book in which the main characters were a horse and a mute Moroccan boy. My love for and understanding of Islam may have more to do with my mother’s explanation of Ramadan to me when she was reading the book to me and later her telling me about Malcolm X making a hajj to Mecca than it does with my specific memories of the book, but that’s where I pin it.

Anyway, this is all a very long-winded way of getting around to saying how much I loved The Butterfly Mosque and what a good instruction it was for me in the ways in which even a fairly enlightened Westerner can misapprehend another culture. Willow Wilson was born and raised as an atheist in Colorado but always felt somewhat uncomfortable with atheism. She was interested in Islam, had studied some Arabic in college, and was sort of adrift, so she took up an offer to teach English at a school in Cairo. She converted, met and fell in love with an Egyptian, married and lived for several years full-time in Cairo; they now (according to the author biography) split their time between Cairo and Seattle. This all takes place not too long after September 11, so as you may imagine, it’s an interesting ride.

It’s pretty rare to meet people in my demographic (young, college-educated, liberal-minded) who are religious at all. and thus I find I tend in some ways to feel kinship when I do meet them, even when they are of a different denomination or even an entirely different religion. Anyway, this is a lovely, lovely book, and it continues the unofficial theme of this month’s reading by being very much the story of one person — one person within the context of a religion and two cultures, but one person, with her own quirks and loves and fears and stories — an individual, not a representative.

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most of march-may reading 2010

I try not to blog here too often, but I have been seriously remiss in reporting here that our fundraising drive to send Walt Crawford to ALA was successful. 36 people donated a total of $1210, which Walt assures us will be enough to get him to DC and back. Walt writes a little about the whole thing on his blog, too. I can’t make it, but if you are there, please give him my best.

In the meantime, I’ve read a few books, though never as many as I’d like.

A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein — It’s always fun to read a book with a character with your name. . . especially when that character is a no-good prodigal daughter suspected of infanticide who’s returned and is now carrying on a relationship with the college dropout son (there’s a great line about how he flunked out of Hampshire, where you don’t even get grades) of the main character, a suburban New Jersey doctor. I think most people, myself most emphatically included, make bad decisions at some point or other, and reading books about other people’s bad decisions is one way to think about your own. I guess there are people in the world who feel that there lives have been free of tragedy and bad decision making, and I guess perhaps those are the people who find books like this one lurid or over-the-top, and then there are people who have plenty of tragedy and bad decision making to go around and would prefer not to deal with it in fiction. If you do like it in fiction, though, this book is for you. (Also, I love that it got me to sympathize with a character who wants to live in the suburbs.)

Radical Simplicity by Dan Price — I picked this up when someone returned it, because I love to imagine that I have an alternate life full of good health and practical skills and can thus go off and live in a homemade yurt on some farmer’s property whilst living off my income as a freelance writer.

Bad Apple by Laura Ruby — I read this mostly during rehearsals for this year’s Missoula Children’s Theatre production here, and, I must say, it was an unmemorable YA novel.

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks — Even though I often love historical fiction, I also often have a moment of dread when I start it, thinking — thinking what, I’m not sure — I suppose whatever it is that the words “historical fiction” conjure for people who don’t like it — but I’m almost always pleasantly surprised, as I was by this book, which was the March selection for our book discussion group. Despite the slightly out-there ending, the book is put together beautifully, and it made me want to go look stuff up about every thirty pages, which I think is a good thing. It’s set in an actual village that decided to quarantine itself due to an outbreak of the plague; a few characters are real, but all are used fictitiously, and it’s both a good story and a sort of lovely mashup of ideas from plague novels past and present and The Scarlet Letter and a dozen or so other things.

After by Amy Efaw — Well. There are books about other people’s bad decisions that are illuminating, and then there are books about other people’s bad decisions that just make you want to throw them across the room. This YA novel also concerns a teenager who kills her baby, although it is the central subject of the book rather than an alluded to prior event. But oh my. She has a single mother. A single promiscuous mother! She, however, is perfect and only even ever had sex once! She has a young, hip, yet tough female lawyer! She grows up and takes responsibility! Oh, it is terrible. Terrible, terrible. Yet apparently trainwreck terrible, the kind of terrible that compels you to finish the book. Oh well.

R Tam Lin by Pamela Dean — Reread because of an earlier conversation on FriendFeed that I can’t find now, but I’ll offer this somewhat humorous follow-up

R Bel Canto by Ann Patchett — April’s book discussion book, still as good as the first time I read it, although in some ways I think I prefer some of Patchett’s less perfect novels.

Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott — The great thing about working in the library is that you see pre-pub reviews. The terrible thing about working in the library is that it’s such a long time between when the pre-pub reviews come out and when the actual book arrives in your library. A patron who’d never read anything by Lamott told me she read and loved this book. I can’t help but think it’s probably better, or richer, if you’ve read Rosie and Crooked Little Heart, but they’re not necessary to understanding the new one. This may be my least favorite of the three, but I’d want to go back and reread the others again, and let this one sink in a bit longer, to be sure. In any case, I love a writer who revisits characters periodically over the years.

When I Came West by Laurie Wagner Buyer — A memoir by a young woman who dropped out of college in the early 1970s to come live with a man in a cabin in northern Montana whom she’d never met. She wanted to move west, you see, and live close to the wild, and she didn’t know any other way to do it, which is both sad and yet understandable. It’s very hard to be born into a world you are sure you don’t belong in and yet have no idea how to go about getting to or functioning in the place you think you do belong.

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli — I want to review this book by saying, “It’s like Message from ‘Nam, only good,” except then of course I’d have to admit to you that I’ve read Message from ‘Nam, which is an Danielle Steel novel that I did, in fact, read once when I was in college, because my housemates and I were addicted to Lifetime movies, and we had taped their version of this, only it cut off at the end, so I had to find out what happened. Anyway. Both books deal with young women who leave home to work as journalists in Vietnam (one as a writer, one as a photographer), and both have various experiences that lead them to a more complicated understanding of the war and its effects. Soli’s book, though, as I noted, is actually good, and if you happen to be fascinated by journalists in Vietnam in general (as I am, as a result of reading Dispatches and a book called War Torn), it is fantastic.

Devotion by Dani Shapiro — Over a decade ago I stayed up all night reading Shapiro’s first memoir, Slow Motion. I didn’t do that with this one, but only because I am older and have a full-time job and don’t function without sleep. Most of the early reviews I read made it sound like I was going to hate it — like it was going to be another one of those “I did this thing for a year where I asked a rabbi, a Buddhist, and a yogi for spiritual advice,” but it actually wasn’t like that at all. Instead, it’s a series of lovely, numbered mini-essays that go down like canapes, or more properly that reminded me of finding a series of birds nests with tiny, beautiful eggs in them.

january and february reading, 2010

Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc — LeBlanc spent a decade hanging out with two young women in the Bronx and the many people who came in and out of their lives — boyfriends, husbands, children, friends, and other family. It’s a long book, and one that took a long time to write, and one that took me a long time to read, but I am still stunned at how she managed to make me go from a sort of revulsion to a real love of these people in the course of a few hundred pages.

The History of Love by Nicole Kraus — January’s book discussion book. Meh. Not a bad book in any way, just not one I got very excited about.

[listen] That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo — While I love all of Russo’s books (and I’ve read most of them), I kind of keep hoping that someday he will write Straight Man again. That Old Cape Magic comes closest, as it also deals largely with academics. It’s not as funny (but few things could be), but it’s quite good, and the narrator did a decent, if not inspired, job.

Not My Daughter by Barbara Delinskey — Delinskey’s novel about high school girls who form a pregnancy pact and its effects on them and their mothers (who are all best friends, too!) is just as melodramatic and terrible as you might suspect. Melodrama is my favorite indulgence, though, so it worked for me.

[reread] A House Like a Lotus by Madeleine L’Engle — I had forgotten, or perhaps I never knew, how very preachy L’Engle can sound at times. I was rereading bits of A Wrinkle in Time because I was thinking about using it for a set of booktalks, and I was thinking about how I always think of that book as a sort of touchstone for smart kids who grow up feeling isolated and as though no one understands them. All of her books have a bit of that, and not surprisingly, as a kid and a teenager I gobbled them up and starred pages and copied out passages and generally regarded them as being up there with JD Salinger’s Glass family stories. I feel more comfortable in the world now, which is good, but it oddly makes me feel ever so slightly less at home in some of these books, which is. . . interesting.

Reconsidering Happiness by Sherrie Flick — Just the sort of writerly novel about people figuring out their lives and their relationships that I love.

[listen] Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater by Frank Bruni — I’ve written about this over on my other blog, where I’m doing a little month-long five days a week blogging project, so if you are interested in things I write about other than libraries, please check it out.

I also reread, in part, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, which was February’s book discussion book. It was my favorite book in all the world when I was fourteen, and I read it many times in high school, but in the same way that I can’t quite bear to look at pictures from that time, I also could not quite bear rereading this, because it made me remember not just how I loved the book but also how very unhappy I was, and how the book was a part of my own loneliness, because I loved it so much and I so desperately wished I had someone to talk to about it, and I did not.

fantasyland

I stopped reviewing books regularly on this blog around the same time I got an iPod Touch, and there is a connection, though perhaps not the one you’re thinking. I love the Touch — it is slim! it is stylish! it was free after rebate! — but there are some things it does not do well, or, to be more precise, there are some things that I do not do well with it, and one of those things is keeping track of the books I’ve read. I used to use a dear little notebook for that. When I got the Touch, I thought I would use its dear little notebook application, but I don’t, and hence my reading list for the past year or so is mostly nonexistent. I do, however, still read books, and from time to time I do still want to comment on them.

Roger Sutton asks if readers imagine books taking place in their childhood homes, or in other places familiar to them. I’m intrigued, because I can almost always envision a rich setting for a book, even if the book itself is short on the details, but these places that I see aren’t real places, nor do they bear any resemblance to places I have known in my life. (My dreams are like this too — sometimes they start with a place I know, but they never end up there.)

Some books, though, are set in places I know, or know somewhat. I apologize for this kludgey segue from the world of imagination into the world of Methland, but it’s how my brain is working today.

Nick Reding’s Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town takes place mostly in Oelwein, Iowa. I am from Iowa City, in the People’s Republic of Johnson County, and thus I’m not really qualified to speak about small town Iowa, but I’ve driven through enough of it to recognize the place in Reding’s book, even though I haven’t been there.

It’s a peculiar book which attempts to blend investigative reporting with personal narrative. It succeeds wildly on the investigative reporting front — who knew that Tom Arnold’s sister ran an international meth empire? or that there were so many fascinating parallels between the meth economy and the commodities economy? — but, to my mind, kind of fails on the latter. Reding is from the small-town Midwest, and it’s clear that he was able to use his familiarity and belonging to that world to great advantage when he was interviewing people for the book. He can fit in well whether he’s hunting with town leaders or drinking bad beer with locals at the bar. He gets to know all kinds of players in the town — not just the meth addicts and manufacturers, but also the cops and the district attorney and the mayor, and you get the feeling, when you read the book, that a lot of these guys could easily have ended up in each other’s places, but for a few accidents of fate. One would think that, as a Midwesterner, he’d be a little more on target with his facts, but I’m usually willing to forgive some lapses if there’s an otherwise good story.

What got to me about this book wasn’t that he blended the investigative and the personal — it’s that the personal bits had such a tacked on feel. If you are writing a book about addiction and part of your inspiration came from having a recovering addict in your family, wouldn’t you think you would mention that somewhere before the acknowledgments at the end of the book? If you are someone coming back to small towns after having escaped them, wouldn’t there be tensions related to that crossing back that you would want to explore?

Of course, that may just be what I wanted out of the book, not what the book was meant to be, or what you would want from it. If you happen to read it, let me know what you think.

this is not a post about cats

“As librarians we have to remember to select books whose effects we will never know.” –Roger Sutton [link]

I was sitting at the front desk at the library and trying to catch up on some blog reading during a quiet spell when I ran across Elizabeth Bird’s post on Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag. Head on over to her place to read about the history of the book and to see some gorgeous illustrations from it. I don’t know if it is the best picture book of all time — it has never gone over particularly well when I’ve read it for story time here — but it will always be a book in my canon because of Hazel Westgate.

Hazel Westgate was the children’s librarian at the Iowa City Public Library throughout my youth, and for many years before that. She is the reason the library has a collection of children’s book art (mouse over number 10 on the map to see it), and every year she ran two contests — a Halloween story contest and a cat-drawing contest inspired by her favorite picture book, Millions of Cats.

I was never even an honorable mention in the drawing contest, but being a winner of the story contest two years in a row is still one of my proudest accomplishments. Hazel Westgate spent the summer dreaming up the opening lines for stories. When school started, those lines would be passed out, and you picked one and wrote a story that began with it. Winners got to do a reading and signing of their stories, just like grown up authors, and the event was broadcast on the library’s public access channel, and, in the two years I won, we also got an illustration for our stories, done on gel like a cartoon frame and matted.

But here’s the thing: I never spoke to Hazel Westgate. I knew she was the lady with the frizzy hair who read stories to us at story time, and later I knew she was the person who wrote those opening lines. And she knew who I was — my father took me and my friend to story hour every Saturday for years, and when he died, my mother later told me, Hazel Westgate sent us a condolence note. But I don’t ever remember talking to her.

When classes come in to the library here to choose books, I leave my office and hang out, and sometimes a kid comes up to me with a question, and once in awhile I sense they are looking for some help, and I go offer it. But most of the time I just stand there and watch — watch them picking up books and looking at them and sometimes taking them and sometimes putting them back, and sometimes talking to each other and sometimes off by themselves.

I know that nowadays we are supposed to be all about reaching out to patrons and meeting where they are and building radical trust and all that, and to some degree those are all good things. But my connection to libraries (and Steve Lawson has written before about this same thing) was not about the librarians: it was about the books. I never talked to Hazel Westgate directly, but I communed with her many times. I wandered the stacks, I picked up the books she chose, and I took them home and read them, and many of them I still remember to this day.

On the days when I feel I’m not doing anything interesting or innovative at my dinky little library, the days when I berate myself for not doing more programs or putting out more exhibits or running contests, I try to remember that it wasn’t just the story times and the contests that made Hazel Westgate great. It was also the books. And I am indebted to Hazel Westgate, to Barb Stein and Victoria Walton, the librarians at my grade school, and to many librarians since then whose names I don’t know and whose faces I may never have seen.

As librarians we have to remember to select books whose effects we will never know. That is part of our purpose, too.