2008 in books, continued

I’ve been plodding away at keeping up with my reading list for the year and was about to put the finishing touches on this post when I inadvertently deleted the whole thing. So, instead of my insightful commentary and mini-reviews, you’re getting a list with a few notes.

My themes for this batch seem to be YA novels with female protagonists, frequently written by Sarah Dessen; books that take place in whole or in part near Swoope, Virginia (The Omnivore’s Dilemma and See You in a Hundred Years); and books about primitive living (See You in a Hundred Years, Wilderness Mother, and The Other). The Divorce Party was the worst book of the lot, although I think a lot of people would find Why I Came West frustrating. If you want that story, read Winter, which is a wonderful book. The other is good chiefly if you, like Bass and like me, feel that your life got derailed at some point by the need to save the world, or some part of it. Bizarrely enough, I didn’t reread any books during this stretch of the year, but I’m seriously considering reading Iodine again as soon as it comes back. It has gotten me ILLing books it mentions, and I am now a devotee of Haven Kimmel’s blog.

Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen
Sweethearts by Sara Zarr
The Work of Wolves by Kent Meyers
You Know Where to Find Me by Rachel Cohn
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt
The Bishop’s Daughter by Honor Moore
Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen by Susan Gregg Gilmore
The Great Man by Kate Christianson
See You in a Hundred Years by Logan Ward
That Summer by Sarah Dessen
Girls Like Us by Sheila Weller
The Divorce Party by Laura Dave
The Other by David Guterson
Wilderness Mother by Deanna Kawatski
Someone Like You by Sarah Dessen
Friday Nights by Joanna Trollope
Cost by Roxana Robinson
Why I Came West by Rick Bass
The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer — listened to, not read — have I really only ingested one audio book in the past four months?
December by Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop
The Soloist by Steve Lopez
Iodine by Haven Kimmel

And hey, if you’re really, really interested in what I’ve read, I did a little book meme after the jump.

Continue reading 2008 in books, continued

2008 reading so far

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell — I read this on the recommendation of Steve Lawson, who had mentioned it being a good book and a dead-on portrait of being a kid in the early 1980s. I didn’t end up identifying so much with the protagonist, who is about thirteen and lives in a depressed, Thatcher-era village, although I couldn’t decide if that was because of a difference in gender and setting or if it was just that it was a little before my time. But, though the book didn’t give me the pleasure of recognition, it did give me the very great pleasure of watching a writer use language well–almost shockingly well at times.

Good Masters, Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz — The book that won the Newbery Medal this year. It’s essentially just what its subtitle says: voices from a medieval village, speaking in a series of interweaving monologues. It was written by a librarian for school children, and I have pressed it upon several teachers, because it’s pretty rare that you get something of literary quality that also fits so nicely in with classroom activities. That said, though, I wasn’t as blown away by it as many people seem to be, perhaps precisely because the usefulness grates on me.

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson — The Meeteetse Museums are currently hosting an exhibit from the Smithsonian called Between Fences. We are the smallest town ever to host it, so it has been quite exciting, and we’ve had a full year of fence-related activities leading up to the exhibit’s opening last week. Among those is the “Between Fences” book discussion group sponsored by the Wyoming Humanities Council. This was the first book. Most people liked it. I felt more like I was reading a soap opera, albeit one with more diverse characters than one normally finds on daytime television.

Swallow the Ocean by Laura M. Flynn — A memoir about growing up with a mother with schizophrenia. I read almost anything that comes across my radar that deals with mental illness because at one point I was putting together an annontated bibliography of works about mental illness aimed at medical students and psychiatric residents (because, you know, they have so much spare reading time). Flynn’s book is fascinating as a portrait of an ill woman who refused treatment and who still managed to convince enough people that she was well that Flynn’s father had great difficulty getting custody of their daughters.

Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver — I don’t actually really like Barbara Kingsolver, but since moving out here I’ve come to appreciate her books because they have people in them who do things like go to Nicaragua to help people do community agriculture. My world used to be full of that sort of thing, and sometimes I miss that constant background. I read about Animal Dreams in Jenna’s zine, so it seemed like the right one to pick.

The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle — The next book in the Between Fences discussion series. I read this a few years ago for my grandmother’s novel study group, and in rereading it, I noticed all sorts of patterns, since I was no longer concerned chiefly with the plot. My favorite pattern was tracing all the mentions of the words pilgrim and pilgrimage. That in turn led me to the OED, where I discoverd that one meaning was:

N. Amer. regional (chiefly west.) and colloq. (freq. depreciative). A recent immigrant, a tenderfoot; (of cattle) a newly imported or unseasoned animal. Now chiefly in weakened sense: a newcomer, a stranger.

I mentioned this during the discussion, and someone said, “Oh yeah, my dad always refered to people from out of town as pilgrims.” It’s so cool when the dictionary and real life mesh together.

The Alice Stories by Jesse Lee Kercheval — I’ve been reading Jesse Lee Kercheval’s stories and poems in literary journals for many years (although I never realized that she was a she, not a he), so it was a great pleasure to read this novel-in-stories. The main character is a woman who goes to graduate school and then teaches English in a community college in Madison, Wisconsin, and so it was also full of the traces of lives I used to live back when I was a graduate student and lived in a Midwestern college town.

The Senator’s Wife by Sue Miller — I don’t know why I enjoy reading Sue Miller’s books so much, but I always do. She’s kind of the quintessential women’s fiction writer (once, as I recall, referred to as the “doyenne of domesticity”), and I like a lot of things that fall into that genre. In any case, if you like her books, you’ll probably like this one, too. I remember someone complaining to me in high school that all of U2’s songs sound alike. That’s sort of true, but if you like the way they sound, that’s a good thing.

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron — You really can’t beat the title of this YA novel, which comes from Ovid. A lot of books get compared to The Catcher in the Rye (someone ought to do a study of this), and I have read a lot of them and been unmoved by the comparison, but in this case I think it’s valid. It has only the most superficial connections to Salinger’s book, plot-wise–young man in New York City mostly on his own–but the narrator’s quirks feel very Holden Caulfield-like–and that’s not a bad thing, in this case.

His Illegal Self by Peter Carey — I’ve never really thought I would like reading an e-book, but I had such a wish with this novel–particularly if it were an e-book with text that could be fiddled with with a text-editor so that I could put quotation marks around the dialogue.

My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult — When I am sick, I want melodrama, and so it seemed, when I got my yearly sinus infection, that it might be time to read one of these Jodi Picoult books that people are always checking out. It delivered. It even provides melodrama with different fonts for the different characters (again, I was wishing for a text editor). I wouldn’t recommend this as a book to read under normal circumstances, but when I was woozy with low-grade fever and cold medicine, it kept me occupied.

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III — The next in the Between Fences series and the one that I like best so far. It’s also the best example I’ve seen lately of a book described as tragic that actually is tragic in the literary sense–that is, it’s not just that bad things happen, it’s that bad things happen because otherwise good people make mistakes.

Her Last Death by Susanna Sonnenberg — This memoir read so much like an MFA project that I was suprised to learn that, although the author lives in Missoula, Montana, where there is a good nonfiction MFA program, she did not in fact attend it or any other MFA program. In any case, it’s a book about growing up with a mother who, had she not been rich, would, one imagines, be in the projects, or prison, and it’s written in vignettes, mostly chronologically, though it begins with the phone ringing in the author’s Montana home with the news that her mother is on her deathbed.

Trespass: Living on the Edge of the Promised Land by Amy Irvine — Three memoirs by women with difficult childhoods and/or lives are probably a few too many to have gotten in to the library in recent months, but I know they did all sound good. This one, though the least polished, was my favorite, in part because it deals with southern Utah, a place I love, and in part because it’s about how to figure out a way to belong to a place when circumstances conspire to keep you from it. The author was born and raised in Utah, which should have made residing in San Juan County fairly easy, but she was working for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which made her about as popular in the canyon country as a civil rights worker was in Mississippi in 1964. One of the many things people outside the West don’t seem to understand is just how hated environmentalists are here. This book might give you some idea–though it will also lead you through Mormon history and the world of the Anasazi and the cultures that preceded and followed them and a miscarriage and a birth and a whole lot else.

october, november, and december reading

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart — A great puzzle-solving book in which kids have to figure out how to get along in order to save the world.

R Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt — I loved this book when I was a kid, and I got sucked into rereading it while I was doing some prep work for book talks for the 6th grade. It’s fascinating to me how some of these older books bridge the categories we now call “juvenile” and “young adult.” Julie, the heroine of this book, starts out as a kid and finishes high school by the end of the book. As a result, there are both things that you identify strongly with when you’re a kid, and things that you completely miss, at least if you’re me. I don’t think I picked up on what was going on with the girl who dated the bad boy and was sent off to live with a never-heard-of-before aunt in Idaho.

L The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, read by Pullman and a full cast — The movie was disappointing. The audio version rocks.

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah — Listening to The Darling, in which the main character’s sons become soldiers in Liberia’s civil wars made me more curious about child soldiers (again, look–fiction can teach you things!), so since Beah’s account of being a child soldier in Sierra Leone was sitting right there on the shelf, I decided to pick it up. Often when I read books in which people make really bad decisions, I have a hard time understanding their choices. (But why, oh why, Elizabeth Wurzel, did you think becoming a cocaine addict would be a good idea? Okay, I know, addiction isn’t exactly a choice, but. . . .) In this case, though, you can see why Beah became a soldier. It was kill or be killed, and certainly the “don’t you want to avenge your family?” argument could be quite seductive. It’s harder to understand how exactly Beah’s rehabilitation worked, but there is, I suppose, a limit to what writing can do.

Virgin River by Robyn Carr — This is a romance novel in which a recently widowed woman moves to an isolated town in northern California and finds love with a local handyman. I believe that I read another novel with exactly this plot some years ago.

L The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman — The audio version continues to be brilliant. I’ve been listening to audio books as a way to fall asleep, but this one turned out to be kind of bad for that. It’s suspenseful enough that it kept me up, and when I did fall asleep, I kept having nightmares resembling situations in the book. I count that as a point in the book’s favor, though.

Run by Ann Patchett — Whenever I read the book jacket copy on one of Patchett’s novels, I think I don’t really want to read it, but whenever I actually start one, I’m hooked. This was no different.
My Last Best Friend by Julie Bowe — A cute middle grade novel about a girl whose best friend moves away and who swears she’s never going to have another one.

Addicted to Danger by Jim Wickwire and Dorothy Bullitt — I have no desire to scale the world’s 8000 meter peaks, but I love reading about alpine climbing. Even with help from Bullitt, one gets the impression that Wickwire is a better climber than he is a writer. Not reccommended unless, like me, you can’t get enough of this sort of thing.

Not That You Asked by Steve Almond — I read this after seeing it mentioned over on NonAnon. I offer one passage that should pretty much explain just why I loved this book:

I can’t remember the last time I heard an investigative report on NPR. Like about, say, the sitting president launching a war based on bogus intelligence, or the vice president inviting lobbyists to rewrite our environmental laws, or the Speaker of the House turning Capitol Hill into a gold brick factory. Instead, NPR waits until these scandals have become conventional wisdom, then calls in Terry Gross for mop-up.

I used to spend a lot of time at WBUR, the Boston NPR affiliate. The staffers I met there were intelligent and hardworking. They were also tragically demoralized. That’s what happens when your job is to cover the most corrupt, incompetent administration in history, and every day you churn out timid drivel.

Freak by Marcella Pixley — Normaly reading YA literature is not particularly disturbing to me, because the experiences the characters have are enough removed from my own that I can empathize with them without feeling that I’m reliving my own experience. Not so with Pixley’s book. If your high school experience was less about sex and drugs and more about bullying and about not understanding how everyone’s interests suddenly shifted or completely disappeared, this slim book will, I am afraid, take you right back there.

–Or Not by Brian Mandabach — I had high hopes for a book about an anti-war teenager who doesn’t shave her legs, but I was disappointed in Mandabach’s novel. It contains those elements but lacks many of the chief things that make a story work.

I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron — I tried listening to the audio version of this, which is read by Ephron, and found that her voice is not to my taste. Reading her essays, though, is great. “Serial Monogamy: A Memoir” was, if possible, even funnier than when I first read it in the New Yorker. Ephron’s concerns are largely foreign to me (despite my recent hair infatuation, I can’t imagine going to get my hair done twice a week), but her writing is so good it doesn’t seem to matter.

Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley — I feel about Robin McKinley much as I do about Ani Difranco: while I support and encourage their efforts to expand and explore new things, I can’t help but love their earlier work more than I do their current efforts. This was a particularly odd book for McKinley in that the narrator is male–a teenage boy who lives in a fictitious national park somewhere in the west. (Cheyenne is listed as being the nearest city of any size.) Smokehill harbors some of the last of the dragons, which were largely eradicated as civilization–and ranching–moved west. McKinley now lives in England, and I’m not sure she’s ever spent a significant amount of time in the West, but the way that this novel echoes Western land use issues and endangered species controversies is uncanny. Substitute “wolves” for “dragons” in the text and you could easily see people trying to ban the book in Wyoming.

Letters from the Inside by Brian Marsden — A book with a laudatory blurb from Robert Cormier is likely to be a grim affair, and Marsden’s novel doesn’t disappoint. The whole thing is a novel-in-letters between two Australian teenagers, one of whom turns out to be not quite what her penpal thought. The teen’s voices are full of slang, which I suspect makes them authentic, but it’s funny to read slang from another country. You’re never sure whether saying “fair dinkum” makes you sound cool or whether it’s like using the word “awesome” during periods when that term is not in vogue.

R My Ántonia by Willa Cather — Thirteen Wyoming county library systems particpated in The Big Read, which is an NEA-sponsored endeavor to get people reading. I am deeply skeptical about the NEA, their statistics on reading (the 2004 “Reading at Risk” study [PDF], for instance, counted only novels as “reading”–John McPhee? Sorry, that’s not reading. Poetry? Not reading. Plays? Not reading), and their overall agenda (the NEA used to sponsor people like Robert Mapplethorpe; now they do Shakespearean productions and dead writers), but My Ántonia is, I am happy to say, still a good book. (Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with dead writers, but I’d like to see some support for contemporary and emerging arts. Art is something people still make; not something that died in 1930.)

A Match to the Heart by Gretel Ehrlich — Ehrlich’s account of being struck by lightning. Not as good as The Solace of Open Spaces, but then, that’s a hard act to follow. (Incidentally, “Wyoming — Intellectual life — 20th century” is my new favorite subject heading.)

R The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald — Gatsby was another Big Read selection, but we read it for our second book discussion this year outside of the context of the program. I remember being underwhelmed by Gatsby when I first read it, but it seems to grow on me with each reading. “. . . there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away.” Wow.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver — We tend to say that reading broadens the mind, but in some instances, I think, it simply fine-tunes it. At any rate, I do take a certain amount of pleasure in reading books whose premises I already agree with, and Kingsolver’s latest was one of those. I am not generally a fan of Kingsolver’s writing, which I find is often a bit too quaint and clever, and this book didn’t change that, but I did enjoy reading gentle screeds about the environmental impact of food and the importance of being connected to the land. Also, did you know that it’s apparently really easy to make cheese? So says Kingsolver, so I’m going to try it.

Clapton: The Autobiography by Eric Clapton — I lay the blame for my fondness for rock musician biographies squarely at the feet of the Iowa City Public Library, which in my youth shelved the 781s right at the end of one of the stacks on the second floor, where their flashy covers could easily catch my eye. My love of Eric Clapton I lay squarely at the feet of the guys who did “Sunshine of Your Love” as a special act at a swing show my freshman year of high school. One does leave this memoir with the decided sense that there may be a dichotomy between sobriety and guitar-playing prowess, and, as several reviews have mentioned, it’s a little weird to read Eric Clapton going on about the joys of pheasant hunting, but if you like this sort of thing, it’s a pretty good read.

L The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman — Still good!

Deep Economy by Bill McKibben — This is another one of those “it’s so great to read more about things I already think” books, and, like most of McKibben’s work, suffers from a sort of weird balance between personal experience and reportage, but it’s filled with fascinating details of various forms of sustainable local economies around the world, including the community-run Merc in Powell, Wyoming, just about an hour from here.

In all, I read about 80 books in 2007. I say “about” because there were 79 books on my list, but I’m pretty sure I’ve forgotten a few, and I did also start a lot of books I didn’t finish. I’m trying to get better about dropping books that just aren’t doing it for me. This whole full-time job thing already cuts too deeply into my reading time, damn it.

no, but I’ve read the book

I have a confession to make. I like books. I like books more than I like movies. I like books more than I like television, by a long shot. I suspect that I like books more than I like video games, although since I’ve played so few video games in my life, it may be unfair of me to make that judgment, though I suspect it’s true.

I mention all of this by way of a warning. I don’t think that everyone shares my bias, and I don’t think everyone should, but:

I went to see The Golden Compass over the weekend. I am usually deeply reluctant to see movies made from books I love, and particularly movies made from children’s books. Just the notion that someone would attempt to make a film of The Dark is Rising is enough to provoke in me a profound horror (and I’m not alone there). But Philip Pullman’s books weren’t published until I was in college, and so my connection to them is less primal. I read the Narnia books ten times by the time I was twelve: they are an integral part of the geography of my imagination, and I simply could not bear the thought of seeing someone else’s vision of them.

I had heard encouraging words about The Golden Compass movie on Twitter, though, and the reviews I had read from people whose opinions I respect were mostly good. Claire E. Gross at The Horn Book noted that the translation from book to film was done “with fastidious fidelity”. Monica Edinger and Elizabeth Bird (my two new favorite bloggers) were both suitably impressed. My friend said she’d happily see it again. So yes, my hopes were high, and I was. . . disappointed.

What everyone has said about the visual aspect of the movie is true: it is gorgeous, the effects are extremely well done, and though the daemons occasionally reminded me that they were generated by a computer because of a too-human cast to their features, they were on the whole convincing. The exterior of Bolvanger looked exactly as I pictured it. I always pictured Mrs. Coulter as having much longer hair, and I kept worrying because Nicole Kidman looked so skinny she seemed liable to break. Her golden monkey daemon in the book is described as having a black face, not the golden one he has in the movie, but these are minor quibbles, things I would have happily overlooked. But. . ..

It’s true that the movie stuck fairly well to the plot of the novel. Claire E. Gross says that the reductive nature of the movie adaptations robs the story of “some subtlety.” I am inclined to make that a more emphatic “all its subtlety,” and nearly all of its suspense. It takes days for Lyra to discover what goes on at Bolvanger in the book, and more days for her to plot and execute an escape. In the movie she arrives and is leading the other children out not much more than ten minutes later. The movie ignores such time periods, which are so essential to the building of suspense and the development of character, in order to give more time to battle scenes. And that right there may be my biggest problem, and the one to which my bias is most relevant. I don’t like watching battle scenes. In part that may be becasue I’m a bit queasy about violence, but mostly, I think, I just don’t like watching battles because that’s all they are–battles. People getting smited. Battles in movies don’t tell you much about the characters. They don’t pick up on allusions or expand metaphors. They don’t even really advance the plot, at least not until they’re over. But battle scenes, of course, are what movies are all about. Movies exist in order to create spectacle, and spectacle is what you get from bombs bursting in air.

Of course, a lot of people like that sort of thing. Me, I prefer reading.

june, july, august, and september reading

Clearly I’m not managing to do this once a month, or even once every other month. Oh well–those of you uninterested in my reading know how to skip an entry, so I won’t apologize too much for length. As always, an R in front of a book indicates that it’s one I reread; and L indicates an audiobook. Unannotated books are things I liked but don’t have anything in particular to say about.
L Montana, 1948 by Larry Watson–This would be a great book to pair with To Kill a Mockingbird. Both have narrators who are children–or rather grown-ups remembering their childhood–and both deal with scandal and justice and politics in a small town. Good stuff.

R The Dive From Clausen’s Pier by Ann Packer–This is a big hit with book discussion groups because it has one of those polarizing sort of questions (if you’re thinking about breaking up with your fiance but then he breaks his neck and is paralyzed from the neck down, what do you do?). I first read it in my readers advisory class in library school at a time when I felt I was making some similar decisions. Now that I’ve made some of them, I wanted to reread it, and it was just as good.

The Afterlife by Donald Antrim–A memoir that is really a collection of essays, none of which are quite as good as the first one, which I read in the New Yorker or the Best American Essays of some year, or possibly both.

R Tam Lin by Pamela Dean–This is the book that made me want to go to college. College, as it turned out, was not really like the book, but in some ways it was, and it was still goo even when it was different.

About Alice by Calvin Trillin

L The Pleasure of My Company by Steve Martin

R Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

Rethinking Thin by Gina Kolata

At Large and at Small by Anne Fadiman

The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle–A book about horses and girls in Colorado. Good.

Breakable You by Brian Morton–Now and then I like to read a book set in New York City that has a lot of eastern literary establishment type jokes in it, because I get to feel that I actually did learn something in college and grad school round one. This one falls into that category and was an enjoyable read, though it couldn’t seem to decide whether it was satirical or sincere.

LR Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris

Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr

R Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

American Pastoral by Philip Roth–I’ve long felt I ought to read some Philip Roth, and as this book was mentioned in Breakable You, it seemed like a good place to start. I finished the book, but, sadly, I was unimpressed. Why is it that the writers I really like write so little while those that I’m less fond of turn out books by the dozen?

L The Darling by Russell Banks–I am glad that Russell Banks is still alive, beause (I hope) it means he will write more books, and even though I have only read two of them (Rule of the Bone was the other), I find them totally captivating. I listened to parts of this twice and may well read it at some point, too. The “darling” of the title is a woman who grows up as the daughter of a Dr. Spock-type, becomes a radical political activist, goes underground, and eventually ends up in Liberia, where she marries a civil servant, has a couple of kids, and kind of turns into her society-woman mother, with a West African twist. Then a lot of other things happen (military coups, prison breaks, civil war, etc., etc.), and she ends up back in the States, wondering what has become of her sons and the chimpanzees she used to care for. It’s saying quite a lot that this has made me think I might want to read A Long Way Gone.

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo–This is sort of a cross between The Velveteen Rabbit and Paddle-to-the-Sea.

R Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson–I’m not sure what it says about me that I like to read teen angsty books before the start of school, but there you have it.

R Dreamland by Sarah Dessen

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

Among Other Things, I’ve Taken Up Smoking by Aiobheann Sweeney–I got all nostalgic for New York City while reading this book about a young woman raised on an island in Maine who heads to the city after finishing high school in order to help out her father’s old friends at a Classics society he founded. Actually, the whole book is full of the sort of thing I like: Maine, New York, descriptions of food, Latin and Greek, Shakespearean allusion, etc., etc. I don’t know that I’d say “this is a great book you must all read,” but I’ll certainly say it was one I enjoyed.

Money Can Buy Happiness by MP Dunleavy–According to Dunleavy’s calculator, I need to save half a million dollars if I want to retire at age 65. That was about the only new thing I gained from this book, which is full of good advice

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie–Excellent–a book I’m trying to get into the hands of a number of kids.

The Second Summer of the Sisterhood by Ann Brashares–Eh. About as good as the first one, which is to say, eh.

when does a book become too old-fashioned?

As many of you know, I work at a joint school/public library. Although I am not actually a school librarian (though I have taken some education classes, which were enough to convince me I didn’t want to be a teacher), I try my best to balance those two duties. My co-worker, who is paid partly by the school, handles all the school money, but since we’re both there all the time, it’s not as though one of us is all school and the other all public.

This year I’ve been pushing to get into classrooms and to get classes into the library to learn about how to use the library. Since all of Wyoming’s community colleges are a part of the WYLD network, it’s advantageous for students to learn a little about the catalog now, even if it seems beside the point in a library as small as ours. I’ve gone to talk to the 8th grade studies skills class once, and they’ve come to the library for a sort of OPAC scavenger hunt. Next I’m going to talk to them a bit about looking for good information on the web. As soon as their SmartBoard gets fixed, I’m going to go visit the 5th grade. And on Friday, the 6th grade teacher stopped by to ask if there was any possibility I might be interested in doing some book talks. “Would I ever!!!” I said. (After all, I am one of those people who became a librarian in part because I love to read. I did three mini-booktalks during my 15 minute presentation to the faculty this year, and I think that was a good idea.)

And so now I am thinking about what books I want to talk about. I’ll do some new ones, of course, but as the new ones are more prominently displayed, I’d like to look as well at some older books, things that may have gotten lost in the stacks, even in our tiny library, which has about 25,000 items all told. I have therefore been thinking some about the books I read when I was that age. Some seem like shoo-ins for inclusion, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which I haven’t read since I was 12 or 13, but I’m happy to be reacquainted with it) and Ender’s Game, which I didn’t discover until graduate school but would have gobbled up had I run across it earlier–and sticking with the fantasy/SF theme, I do wish we had a copy of Max and Me and the Time Machine–I may just have to go out and acquire one). Others are good possibilities: The Root Cellar is historical fiction, but it part of it is set in the present, so it has some appeal for people who don’t want to be plunged entirely in the past.

But many of the books I read when I was in grade school are a bit more problematic. I was an inveterate reader of old books. Partly that was because my mother and grandmother gave me so many of them, and partly it was because the new books at my school were always checked out, and I was too timid to ask how to get on the waiting list. In fact, there’s a Jill Paton Walsh book that was booktalked at the beginning of one year that I have yet to read.

So I raided the stacks. It became a kind of game with me to find books that hadn’t been checked out in ten or twenty years. My mother found Quest in the Desert for me one day in fourth grade when she was visiting for some parent function. That was 1984 or 1985, and its last checkout had been in 1972. (It’s a great book, but not a good one to read before you eat–it concerns a naturalist’s trip through Mongolia, and includes descriptions of the things he was given to eat, such as sheep’s eyeballs. We had silent reading right before lunch that year, and it’s a wonder I ate as much of the school lunch as I did.)

I read anything by Louisa May Alcott that I could get my hands on, and some–An Old-Fashioned Girl, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom (which surely must be owned by more than two WorldCat libraries, but I’m too lazy to sort through pages of results)–I’ve read more times than I care to admit. At one point I decided I was going to read all of the Newbery award winners, and I found wonders like The Trumpeter of Krakow and real clunkers like Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, which I don’t think I ever finished. My mother read The Wheel on the School to me when I was in first or second grade, and I found more by DeJong later, though sadly none were as good. I found a clutch of early Andre Norton fantasy books one day, and my mother grabbed Have Space Suit, Will Travel from amidst the Heinleins (with firm instructions not to read any more recent Heinlein titles).

We have some of these books in our library, and I may even try to pull a few. Other books that I read then we don’t have, and I must admit a certain sense of relief. I adored the Little Colonel books, which concern the child and young adulthood of a girl growing up on a plantation in the early twentieth century, but I would have some trepidation about them sitting on a shelf. My mother gave the first one to me and said, quite sternly, that while I could read these books, there were certain things I needed to understand. “For one thing,” she said, “we do not call people ‘darkies.'” (I regret that she gave me no similar warnings about the author’s portrayal of romance; the last book in the series is The Little Colonel’s Knight Comes Riding, which should give you some idea.)

Of course, “I absolutely love this book!” is never a good way to begin a booktalk, and I long since resigned myself to the idea that books that I like are not necessarily going to be the ones that other people like, and vice versa. But I wonder also about how long a book can be viable. I started rereading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy this weekend, and while I find it as entertaining as ever (even more so, in some instances, as I get more of it), I wonder if it won’t seem peculiar and antiquated to the “Millennial” generation we’re supposed to view as new and different. I get a little sick of reading about how this generation is unlike any one that has come before, but at the same time, there may be some point to it. Can kids who would find my TI-81 graphic calculator ancient really relate to early Heinlein novels, where people are forever pulling slide rules out of their pockets? Garfield books are as popular as they were when I was in grade school, but I don’t imagine that the Bloom County books we inhaled in sixth grade would have much meaning to people who weren’t even born when Reagan was president.

Backlist is a big what makes libraries valuable: we have books you can’t find anywhere else (or couldn’t before the age of the internet). I’m never going to get ride of all the old books in the library, but I do find myself wondering how I can make them remain vital–make them come to be as real as the Velveteen Rabbit.

Post Script:

Apparently I am not the world’s only fan of the Little Colonel–that shouldn’t be surprising, but I never cease to be amazed by the internet.

the library of the mind

The one area in which I find bookstore classification preferable to library classification is literary nonfiction. A good book store will have a section reserved for essays, and sometimes longer nonfiction narratives. At such a store, you can get one-stop shopping for the works of Annie Dillard, John McPhee, Gretel Ehrlich, et al. In both Dewey and LC, the work of these authors will be split up and shelved by topic. You may read McPhee because you are interested in geology or bark canoes or oranges or cod fishing, but it is more likely that you read McPhee because you love his writing, because you find that, like the best teachers and conversationalists, he can make any topic interesting. You learn from reading him, but you don’t set out to learn.

Several discussions dealing with fiction, nonfiction, reading, and learning have been wending their way around the biblioblogosphere of late, and they’ve gotten me thinking. Nonanon has written recently that she loves nonfiction because it pulls her into the world and teaches her things, whereas fiction tends to pull her away from the world. There’s a lively discussion going on in the comments about what you can learn from each. The NEA, in its Reading At Risk report, has been telling us for some years that there is a crisis in American reading because fewer people are reading–although it should be noted that to the NEA, reading means reading literary fiction. Thrillers and suspense novels don’t count, but apparently reading Refuge or An American Childhood doesn’t count either, which is rather a slap in the face to those of us who spent time and money studying nonfiction writer. And then, as Karen notes, there are people who believe that we shouldn’t be reading fiction because we can’t learn any information from it.

This last statement is so ludicrous that I was considering a blog post consisting just of information I learned from reading fiction: you can test for oxygen by lowering a candle into a well hole — if the flame goes out, you shouldn’t go down, because you won’t be able to breathe (the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder). You ride a horse by gripping with your legs, not by hanging on with your hands (The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis). Medieval Poles feared invasions by the Tartars (The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly) — I even once got to use this information when taking a geography test. The layout of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg). I could go on–as I imagine could most of you–what information have you learned from reading fiction?

I have been using as my e-mail signature of late one of my favorite bits from Samuel Johnson (or to be more precise from Boswell’s Life of Johnson):

Idleness is a disease which must be combated; but I would not advise a rigid adherence to a particular plan of study. I myself have never persisted in any plan for two days together. A man ought to read just as his inclination leads him: for what he reads as a task will do him little good.

Almost everything I believe about reading is summed up in that passage, and it explains why I became a librarian and not a teacher. It also explains my rather peculiar study habits. It is not, of course, a good way to organize a public library (although it serves to some extent as the basis for the Prelinger Library, and it fits well with the everything is miscellaneous nature of the digital world), but it is the way the library of the mind works. Those who wish to proscribe what we should read and why, and what we should take from our reading, would be better advised to stop talking and start wandering in the stacks, trusting in serendipity, that greatest of all library attributes, to lead them in the right direction.

march, april, and may reading

This was going to be March and April only, but then suddenly it was June. I keep meaning to do these summaries more often, but clearly by “more often” I mean “well, once in a great while.” As usual, an L indicates a book I listened to and an R one I reread. My apologies for the length.

The Melting Season by Celeste Conway–I should really learn that when the reviews of a book are not very good, the book itself is also probably not very good, no matter how good it sounds. I had high hopes for this being a Madeleine L’Engle-ish novel about smart, artistic high school students with problems. It is about smart, artistic high school students with problems, and it’s not bad, but it’s not wonderful, either. But if you’re looking for something to read in that vein, you’ll probably like it well enough.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini–This was, by request, our March book discussion book. It’s a great book discussion book, and it’s a good read, but as a work of literature I found it somewhat disappointing.

Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping by Judith Levine–like Walt, I don’t much like to buy things. That’s part of why I live in Meeteetse, Wyoming, where there is very little to buy. It’s often satisfying to look at other people’s buying habits and feel superior because of your greater frugality. Judith Levine, as you might imagine, does a bit of that in this book that documents how she and her companion tried not to buy anything but food and a few other essentials for a whole year. These year-in-the-life books are a popular genre, I think–I’ve read several in the past few years (The Know-it-All, in which the author tries to read all of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in a year; So Many Books, So Little Time, in which the author documents her reading for a year). Levine can get self-righteous with the best of us, but she makes up for it in passages like this one:

During our year without shopping, Paul and I had extra time, energy, and money to act as citizens. We also felt more personally the need to do so. Self-exiled from the shops and eateries, we had no place to hang out by the olde publick square. There we found much that was rich and surprising, but we also discovered that what our nation owns in common is in critically bad shape. Libraries, schools, and bridges are falling down; in 2004, the voting machines broke down again, all over the place.

I suppose you might find that self-righteous, too, but I think it’s right on.

Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick–I read this as a favor to my grandmother, because she was leading a discussion of it for her novel study group. I was expecting not to like it, because I can’t stand Ozick’s essays, but this novel was wonderful. It has very short chapters and a (mostly) first person narrator, an 18 year old orphan named Rose who goes to work for a crazy German family, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for literary fiction that is both complex and easy to read.

Fallout by Trudy Krisher–another so-so YA novel. This one is full of imagery about hurricanes and fallout shelters and the cold war and how these all relate to high school in the early 1950s. Serious librarians will like it because it has a timeline, with, as I recall, source notes at the end.

Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman–I took this book home because I remembered that there was some reason I wanted to read it, but I couldn’t remember what it was. The jacket flap left me unmoved, but I started the book and couldn’t put it down. If you get irked by reading about the psychological problems of wealthy people in New York, I would steer clear.

L Wait Until Midnight by Amanda Quick–I sometimes try to listen to things that are outside my normal reading patterns. I’ll grant you that historical mystery/romance is not very far outside my general reading patterns, but it still felt like a little stretch to me.

Cesar’s Way
by Cesar Millan–Everybody at my library has been reading this. We got the book because the DVD is so popular. Before I became a librarian, I was a dog-walker (and before that I taught college–it’s been an up and down sort of career path–which are the ups and which are the downs I leave for you to decide). Millan’s book both confirmed some things I suspected and taught me a lot of new ones. If you’re at all interested in dogs, check it out.

The Uses of Enchantment by Heidi Julavits–a weird psychological novel about a girl who was either abducted when she was high school or who pretended she had been abducted. A decade or so later, she comes back to her hometown for her mother’s funeral. The story is told in three threads: one is the present day; one is notes from the therapist she was sent to after her abduction (or fake abduction); and one is a series of chapters called “What Might Have Happened,” which sketch out (as you might expect) what might have happened if she had been abducted (or what did happen when she was abducted–if nothing else, talking about this novel will refresh your memory on subjunctives and conditions). The tripartite narrative bogged me down for awhile, but if you stick with it, you get drawn into the complexities and the hints and the details.

The Nature of Jade by Deb Caletti–a YA novel about a girl with anxiety problems who’s a senior in high school and who gets a volunteer job at the zoo working with the elephants. She meets and starts dating a boy a few years older who has a baby (leading to such great lines as “He had a baby. I had a locker.”) Like many YA novels, this one is a bit implausible, but if you’re willing to let that go, there are some wonderful elephant descriptions, and the mystery of the boy with the baby keeps you reading.

Letters from Yellowstone by Diane Smith–This was the last book we discussed at the library this year. I had not read it before, but several people who had wanted to discuss it, so we did. I think six months of book discussion may be about the outer limit (for me, if not for everyone else). The turn out was small, and, possibly because of that and probably because I was unmoved by the book, we didn’t have much of a discussion. The whole book is, as you may imagine, written in letters, and it concerns a character called A.E. Bartram who applies to be part of a botany expedition in Yellowstone at the end of the 19th century. A.E. is accepted, though the rest of the party is somewhat shocked that A. turns out to stand for Amelia–they had not been expecting a woman. The expedition goes forward, with plenty of comic characters, and it’s enjoyable but not a book I loved. I would recommend it to anyone who liked Enchanted April–it has a similar feel, if not a similar topic.

My Latest Grievance by Elinor Lippman–I find Elinor Lippman delightful in perhaps somewhat the same way that those who liked Letters from Yellowstone found it delightful. Her latest novel concerns Fredericka, a faculty brat at a so-so eastern liberal arts college where her parents are both professors and house parents. The story takes place when she’s sixteen, and her father’s first wife arrives on campus to be a housemother at another dorm. Her father is unmoved by her presence, but the college president is not, and the tragi-comedy of manners picks up from there.

R Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris–I read this for the first time several years ago, when I was in graduate school in Iowa, and thought it was good. This time around it was like reading a whole new book. A few years ago, I read Norris’s account of life in Lemmon, South Dakota as an outsider. This time I read it as someone who has been, if not there, then somewhere similar. Meeteetse is smaller than Lemmon but much more connected to the outside world. The nearest town is 32 miles away, but it has an airport. Lemmon is over a hundred miles from one. Much of what Norris says about small towns–the good and the bad–is applicable to almost any small place, particularly those in out of the way corners of the country.

by Laurie Halse Anderson–Since I hated high school, I’m not sure why I’m drawn to reading books about high school, but if the book in question is by Anderson, you can be sure that she will get the horrors of high school exactly right, and perhaps I just appreciate and recognize how dead on she is. She does so again here, although unlike her earlier books, this one is told from the point of view of a male main character. I read it in one sitting. (There’s some rule whereby all the authors I really love write very few books, whereas those I could care less about crank them out like so many pieces of popcorn–if you can crank popcorn–my metaphor is a bit off, I know.)

Without a Map
by Meredith Hall–I read the first part of this memoir when it appeared in an anthology put out by Creative Nonfiction. Hall got pregnant in the mid-1960s, when she was sixteen years old. Her mother sent her away to her father’s house twenty miles away, where he and his wife told her to not to leave the house, at all, ever, lest the neighbors see, and of course she had to give the baby up for adoption. Like NonAnon, I find I don’t want to describe it much more than that, but it’s a fascinating (as well as heart-rending) look at what life was like before legalized abortion and before the kinds of programs designed for teen moms that existed in my town. It would probably be interesting to read this book in conjunction with The Girls Who Went Away (which Rick reviewed), though I haven’t read that book yet. And incidentally, if you just read Rick’s review via RSS, please click through to his site and read the comments. I don’t know how the stories that appear there end, if they have ended, but I hope they do end well.

L Microthrills: True Stories from a Life of Small Highs by Wendy Spero–I started listening to this in February, when I was moving into my house; I finally finished in May. I don’t have a CD player in my car, where I do most of my audiobook listening (largely on trips to and from Cody), but I thought I’d try listening to a CD book at home. It took me a long, long time. (I also tried listening to Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck, some of which I’d read in the New Yorker. I love her writing but not her voice.) Anyway, Spero is being pitched as sort of a female David Sedaris, I guess because she’s a humorous essayist with a quirky and ribald style. If you like Sedaris, you might well like her (and her day (er, night) job is doing stand up comedy, so she reads her work quite well).

by Cynthia Lord–One of this year’s Newbery Honor Books. The main character is a girl, I think about twelve, who has a younger brother with autism. The novel is about how she deals with him, loves him, gets exasperated by him, and is embarrassed by him, often in rapid succession, or simultaneously. Lord does a good job of making kids with developmental disabilities seem like a regular part of life (as they are, or should be) without being didactic about it.

The Best Place to Be
by Leslie Dormen–Another novel-in-stories, which seem to be a popular format these days, at least based on the book reviews I read. These stories revolve around a New York City woman from college to her mid-50s, with occasional flashbacks to her childhood. She was a relationship columnist for a women’s magazine, though she herself married late, and now she does freelance work. Other characters are her mother, her series of stepfathers, her best friend from college, and her husband, though as I recall he only shows up in the first story. This being NYC, she also has a therapist on the Upper East Side, though she is mostly referred to, not present. It is, as something I read the other day noted, a book concerned mostly with “first world problems” (or rather “second world”–Europe is the first, the US is the second, others follow in the order in which they “developed”), but it’s well enough written to inspire more admiration than jealousy, at least for me.

L A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray–a YA novel set at a girls’ boarding school in England late in the Victorian era, and involving magic, although most of the action takes place in this world. It’s sort of your basic Dead Poets Society wherein the cool teacher (English in the movie; art here) introduces students to a larger world and ends up being punished for it. Bray’s novel is more about the girls than the teacher, but the underlying premise is still there. Josephine Bailey, the narrator, was quite good.

january and february reading

I’ve been thinking lately about how I might become a better librarian in the next year. The first thing that popped into my mind–read more books. I know, I know, we’re about more than books. We have CDs! and movies (VHS and DVD!) and databases! and downloadable audiobooks! But seriously, the most frequent question I get at the library, even more frequent than “Where’s the bathroom?” is, “What’s a good book to read?”

So, in the interests of reading more books and, perhaps even more importantly, retaining something about them, I’ve decided to do updates about what I’ve read a little more frequently. It’s halfway through March and I’m just now getting to my January and February reading, but so it goes. Someday maybe I’ll write proper reviews of books like Rick and Maggie and Nonanon and Jessamyn, but for now I’m just trying to get them down with a few notes. Again, an L in front of a book means it’s one I’ve listened to; an R indicates a book I reread. A couple of the pithier notes and reviews below (at least I hope they’re pithy) come from the New Books Newsletter that I recently started for the library, which I am distributing by (gasp!) e-mail and which is also included as (are you sitting down?) part of the Friends of the Library’s new newsletter, which we pring on paper and send through the mail.


Archangel by Sharon Shinn–I used to love fantasy when I was young, but grown up fantasy books very rarely live up to my expectations. My mother told me to read this a long time ago, and a friend said I ought to read it recently, and on the plane home after Christmas I finally did. It’s still not the fantasy experience of my youth, but the notion of a society in which people sing (well), all the time, is a pleasant one, and if you like the kind of romance in which people who hate each other finally fall in love, you should give this a try, even if the fantasy/science fiction angle isn’t something you’d go for normally.

Sick Puppy by Carl Hiassen–I read Team Rodent right after I graduated from college (a great short nonfiction book about how Disney has destroyed central Florida), but I’d never read any of his fiction. I picked this one up based on a review in Jenna’s zine. Her review noted that the main character was “like Eric but with a trust fund and less anger management,” which sounded up the alley of some people I know, too. Good fun.

The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin–I picked this up because Dirty Librarian (who writes the best short reviews I’ve ever read) liked it and it was on the shelf at the library. It’s kind of your basic YA disaster novel in which there are kids living with an abusive mother, but it’s somewhat novel in that it’s written as a letter by the oldest kid to the youngest. It’s a fast read, and I think I saw it listed somewhere as a good one for reluctant readers, which it might well be.

The Ghost at the Table by Suzanne Berne–Even if you love your family, a holiday spent in close proximity to them can be intense. In this novel, two sisters, their families, and their father, from whom they have long been estranged, reunite for Thanksgiving and all kinds of old secrets come out.

L Empire Falls by Ricahrd Russo–I keep hoping for another one of Richard Russo’s books to be as funny as Straight Man. None of them quite are, but they’re all still good. This one starts slowly, but by the end I had to bring the tapes in from the car (where I do most of my audiobook listening) so I could go on with the story. If you’ve read Nobody’s Fool, this is like that (small dying upstate New York/New England town, motley cast of characters, funny but not always laugh-out-loud funny) but richer.

R Coyotes and Towndogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement by Susan Zakin–Some people read thrillers. I read books about activists. This is one of them. And now I live in Wyoming, where some of this takes place.

Alabama Moon by Watt Key–Give this to the kids who like My Side of the Mountain and Hatchet. It’s a darker story, dealing with a father who’s a survivalist-type and what happens to his son after he dies, but it’s full of details on living in the wilderness and making your own food and shelter and so on. And the Alabama setting is fascinating–I think we tend to forget that there are areas of wilderness east of the 100th meridian.

The Ninemile Wolves by Rick Bass–Have I mentioned that I love Rick Bass? Hint: if you come to Wyoming, do not mention wolves–although you can get this book at our library. It was written in 1991, before the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, when that was still jsut a pipedream, but the fights are still being fought, and several people whose names I read in the paper every week or so are characters in this book.

I also reread much of A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, which was our book discussion book for January. So far as I could tell, everyone loved it. The problem with reading funny books for book discussions is that the discussion tends to go like this: “Oh, remember the part where ___ happened?” “Oh, that was so funny!” “Oh, and the part where ___!” “Oh, that just made me laugh and laugh!”

Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood–Ten semi-autobiographical stories that read like a slightly disjointed novel. Here’s Atwood’s official and rather peculiar website, and an older but still interesting interview from January magazine.

Him Her Him Again the End of Him by Patricia Marx–You can now read an excerpt online at WorldCat.org! I myself was drawn in by the opening:

I was in high school when I read The Bell Jar and thought it was about a lucky girl who wins a contest and gets to go to Europe. But what about Sylvia Plath’s trying to drown herself? After she strings herself up and before she swallows pills? To tell you the truth, I don’t think I looked at that part.

The narrator of this book by former Saturday Night Live/current New Yorker writer Marx, is answering questions at the marginally bloggish site himherhimagain.com.

Miniatures by Norah Labiner–If you do not care for passages like this

Lord grant me the cloak of disguise that Athena loaned to Odysseus so that I may meander through the ruins taking stock of chattel and charnel before the spell breaks and my all-encompassing swath of darkness is transformed into black wool. Lord grant me but a secure hour, a sand-bagged story, a nimble pen, a wandering eye, a leper’s lassitude, a loner’s intemperence, a fetishist’s foot, a poet’s prudence, a pen pal’s prurience, a playmate’s provocation, a pornographer’s persistance. Grant me a sensitive syntax, weak-roped gallows, safe Southern passage, and a face impossible to remember.

–you will probably not like this book, which involves a young American who goes to Europe to avert various catastrophes at home and ends up working for a couple of expatriate American writers and discovering letters and long-lost secrets and so on. The male half of the couple was once married to a woman whose life bears a remarkable similarity to that of Sylvia Plath, but the story goes all over the place from there.

R Road Song by Natalie Kusz–our February book discussion book. Kusz’s mother and father and their children, who were all quite small, left California in 1969 to move to Alaska, where they made a life for themselves despite varied and numerous hardships. Most people liked this book, and we had an interesting discussion about why people feel sympathy toward Kusz’s family, which went unprepared into the wilderness, and rather less sympathetic toward Chris McCandless, from Into the Wild, who did likewise.

L The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton–I saw the TV movie of this several years ago and have been meaning to read the book ever since. Angela Jayne Rogers does a fine job with the narration. If you like the young women from poor backgrounds overcome obstacles but not in a Horatio Algerish way, you’ll probably like this book too.