Book Buzz

Three Books (and One Film) to Mark World AIDS Day

Next Book Buzz - 6 hours 7 min ago

Book cover for And the Band Played OnWorld AIDS Day is held on December 1 each year and is an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV, show their support for people living with HIV and to commemorate people who have died.

This annual event also raises awareness about HIV/AIDS and promotes prevention and the search for a cure. Much misinformation still exists about who has the disease and how it is spread.

The following brief list of books (and one film) is an effort to provide good information about the history and impact of HIV/AIDS on both a personal and a global level.

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the Aids Epidemic” by Randy Schilts
Published in 1987, this riveting and important work of investigative journalism details how AIDS was allowed to spread unchecked in the early ’80s, virtually ignored by government institutions. Widely lauded as a “modern classic,” Schilts’ account reads like a medical thriller.

Book cover for The Invisible CureThe Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the fight against AIDS” by Helen Epstein
The majority of HIV-positive people worldwide live in Africa. “The Invisible Cure” is a provocative analysis of the AIDS epidemic that looks at the social, economic and political factors that have caused and exacerbated the situation, its impact on gender relations and the spread of HIV. In addition to presenting the devastating effects of the disease on entire countries on that continent, Epstein offers possible solutions to the crisis.

Visions and Revisions: Coming of Age in the Age of Aids” by Dale Peck
Part memoir, part extended essay, this book is a foray into what the author calls “the second half of the first half of the AIDS epidemic,” i.e., the period between 1987, when the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) was founded, and 1996, when the advent of combination therapy transformed AIDS from a virtual death sentence into a chronic manageable illness. Gritty, powerful and raw.

How to Survive a Plague,” directed by David France
This documentary, shown at the 2012 True/False Film Festival, tells the story of the brave young men and women who successfully reversed the tide of an epidemic, demanded the attention of a fearful nation and stopped AIDS from becoming a death sentence. This improbable group of activists infiltrated government agencies and the pharmaceutical industry, helping to identify promising new medication and treatments and move them through trials and into drugstores in record time.

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Categories: Book Buzz

The Gift of Inspiration: Books for the Readers on Your List

Next Book Buzz - November 27, 2015

Book cover for Big Magic by Elizabeth GilbertWhatever your feelings about Black Friday, today kicks off the holiday shopping season. Personally, I like to spend the day after Thanksgiving in my pajamas, reading and recovering from a hefty pie hangover. However, I realize others enjoy that bargain-hunting buzz. Here are some books that can help us all.

For the readers on your list, give them the gift of inspiration and pick up one of these uplifting titles. Or, if you are staying home the Friday after Thanksgiving (or visiting the library – we’re open), check out one of these books for yourself. These moving and motivating books provide stories of perseverance and advice for living – both serious and humorous – and may just inspire you to write that play or start that business. Or at least get up off of the couch. (Book descriptions provided by their publishers.)

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear” by Elizabeth Gilbert
Gilbert offers potent insights into the mysterious nature of inspiration. She asks us to embrace our curiosity and let go of needless suffering. She shows us how to tackle what we most love, and how to face down what we most fear. She discusses the attitudes, approaches and habits we need in order to live our most creative lives. Balancing between soulful spirituality and cheerful pragmatism, Gilbert encourages us to uncover the “strange jewels” that are hidden within each of us.

Book cover for Find a Way by Diana NyadFind a Way” by Diana Nyad
On September 2, 2013, at the age of 64, Diana Nyad emerged onto the shores of Key West after completing a 110 mile, 53 hour, record-breaking swim through shark-infested waters from Cuba to Florida. Her memoir shows why, at 64, she was able to achieve what she couldn’t at 30 and how her repeated failures contributed to her success.

Little Victories: Perfect Rules for Imperfect Living” by Jason Gay
Little Victories is a life guide for people who hate life guides. Whether the subject is rules for raising the perfect child without infuriating all of your friends, rules for how to be cool (related: Why do you want to be cool?) or rules of thumb to tell the difference between real depression and just eating five cupcakes in a row, Gay’s essays – whimsical, practical and occasionally poignant – will make you laugh and then think, “You know, he’s kind of right.”

Rising Strong” by Brené Brown
The physics of vulnerability is simple: If we are brave enough often enough, we will fall. The author of the bestsellers “Daring Greatly” and “The Gifts of Imperfection” tells us what it takes to get back up and how owning our stories of disappointment, failure, and heartbreak gives us the power to write a daring new ending. Struggle, Brown writes, can be our greatest call to courage, and rising strong our clearest path to a wholehearted life.

Year of Yes” by Shonda Rhimes
In this poignant, hilarious and deeply intimate call to arms, Hollywood’s most powerful woman, the mega-talented creator of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal” and executive producer of “How to Get Away with Murder” reveals how saying “yes” changed her life – and how it can change yours too.

Have inspirational books of your own to recommend? Let us know in the comments.

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Categories: Book Buzz

Comedy Club: Memoirs by Female Comedians

Next Book Buzz - November 23, 2015

Book cover for Tina Fey's BossypantsLike many readers, I was charmed by Tina Fey’s “Bossypants.” Though it’s already a cliché, I’ll admit that my favorite part of the memoir was “The Rules of Improvisation that Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat.” Sadly, I have not experienced a reduction in belly fat, but the falsity of that claim was disclosed in the footnote, so the period of jubilant hope was a short one. Fey exhorts us not only to say yes but also to say “Yes, and.” I know that I can always use a reminder to contribute, whether to an improv set, a project at the office or dinner plans.

On that note, yes, “Bossypants” was a delightful read, and here are a few other memoirs by female comedians that I found delightful as well.

Book cover for Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy KalingI am never one to skip a “Mindy Project” episode or a book by Mindy Kaling. “Why Not Me?” is her latest, but I’ll admit to being fonder of “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns),” which is a more straightforward memoir (with all the kookiness you’d expect). “Why Not Me?” overall feels less substantial, more joke than the kind of meaty substance I want in a memoir. But it’s a quick, fun read, and Mindy fans would be remiss in skipping it.

The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee” isn’t for all readers. (Note that the book contains both explicit language and images.) But if you find Sarah Silverman’s provocative variety of funny . . . well, funny, then check out her memoir. Silverman allows readers a glimpse into her childhood, including (as you may have guessed) a propensity to wet the bed far beyond the typical bed-wetting years. She also talks about her struggle with depression during her teen years and her journey to becoming a comedian.

Book cover for Kelly Oxford's Everything is Perfect When You're a LiarTwitter sensation Kelly Oxford proves her writing skills extend past the 140-character limit in “Everything is Perfect When You’re a Liar.” Be warned that this isn’t a book about Twitter — go there instead for one-liners. If you’re interested in her backstory and a more traditional narrative, you’ll enjoy her tales of the struggles of adolescence and the trials of parenthood.

Last but never least, no list about female comedians would be complete without the incorrigible Joan Rivers. This isn’t a memoir — or even a book — but I can’t recommend the funny and heartfelt documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” highly enough. Rivers’ swank New York City apartment has to be seen to be believed, but her tireless drive to work is the most remarkable reveal.

On My To-Read List:

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Categories: Book Buzz

Film Adaptation of “Room” by Emma Donoghue

Next Book Buzz - November 18, 2015

Ragtag CinemaRoom by Emma Donoghue will be debuting the film adaptation of “Room” by Emma Donoghue this Friday, November 20. This movie has been generating a lot of Oscar buzz, so now’s a good time to grab a copy from the library before film awards season begins in earnest.

“Room” is the story of five-year-old Jack who has lived his entire life in a tiny fortified garden shed with his kidnapped mother. I’m not gonna lie; it’s a tough read. It echos the gruesome experiences of real-life abduction victims Jaycee Lee Dugard and Amanda Berry.

However, since the story is told entirely from the child’s perspective, the reader focuses more on the relationship between Jack and his mother and less on their abuser, Old Nick. For some people, Jack’s voice presents an opportunity for some unique and creative storytelling. For others, though, having such a dark tale told from a child’s perspective is a deal-breaker, and they feel compelled to put the book down.

Since Donoghue also wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation, I’m hopeful that it will remain faithful the major themes of the book. Ultimately, this story is a testament to the bond shared between parent and child.

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Categories: Book Buzz

The Gentleman Recommends: Patrick deWitt (again)

Next Book Buzz - November 16, 2015

Book cover for Undermajordomo MinorKeen readers might notice this is the second time I’ve recommended Patrick deWitt’s work. Some will exclaim, “Sir, are there not a practically infinite number of worthy writers to recommend? Why recommend an author twice?” I will respond, “Indeed, there is a seemingly endless sea of writers deserving of my endorsement, but several factors conspire to cause a repeat recommendation of his work. I’m particularly enamored with Mr. deWitt’s writing. His newest novel was published subsequent to my previous recommendation and it is amazing. And while some quick and dubious math tells me I read upwards of 8,000 books a year, I cannot read everything, but I did recently read “Undermajordomo Minor.” Furthermore, as I saunter around town twirling my cane and mustache, my query of, ‘Have you yet mined the depths of Patrick deWitt’s talents?’ is nearly always met with either confusion, averted eyes or a non-sequiturial admonishment to ‘be careful with that cane, you nearly hit my baby.’ (I’ve said this countless times, but I will reiterate here: I never twirl my cane with anything less than utmost precision, and your baby could stand to toughen up.) Clearly, I have not been sufficiently persuasive. So until passersby respond to my deWitt-centric interrogations with a tip of their headgear and an enthusiastic, ‘Yes. And by the way, you are rather precise in the manner with which you twirl both your mustache and your cane,’ I must continue to espouse the virtues of Mr. deWitt’s work.”

So, to espouse, “Undermajordomo Minor” is a dryly hilarious novel containing brilliant sentences, memorable characters, an uncanny setting and a captivating plot. The word choices alone were enough for decorum to dictate that I employ my trusted chuckle hankie to mitigate the unseemly act of laughing. The novel’s other assets mandated that I draw my chuckle curtains.

This sort of fairy tale concerns a young man named Lucien (Lucy) Minor. Lucy isn’t sure what to make of his life, and so when that time comes, as it does in every young man’s life I assume, when a man draped in burlap asks, “What do you want from life?” Lucy responds, “Something to happen.” And so something does. The man in burlap seemingly transfers Lucy’s life-threatening illness to Lucy’s cruel father. Lucy secures work in a majordomo’s castle and buys a pipe. The pipe makes him cough. On the train ride to the castle seeds are planted for a relationship with a father and son pickpocket team. Lucy’s new pipe is pickpocketted. Once arriving at the castle grounds, Lucy finds himself in the midst of a very small war. A handful of men fire rifles at each other and ask for Lucy’s nonexistent valuables. Once he manages to secure entry to the castle, he is entreated to always lock his door at night. He is made aware of the “Very Large Hole.” Eventually, having disregarded his curfew, he comes across a ghastly sight in the castle halls — rarely does a scene manage to be so horrifying and hilarious. Also, he falls in love.

If this blog post and my street-side hectoring are not enough to convince you to read “Undermajordomo Minor,” then perhaps Daniel (Lemony Snicket) Handler’s unprecedented act of writing an amusing book review will convince you. I warn you, more informative and insightful though he may be, I doubt Handler capable of twirling a cane with even a modicum of the grace and majesty I employ.

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Categories: Book Buzz

Best Books of 2015: Early Bird Edition

Next Book Buzz - November 4, 2015

I know, I know. We just turned the calendar page to November, and bookish types are already making pronouncements about the best books of 2015. We can’t help it. As a book person and a list-maker, this time of year makes me positively giddy.

Before sharing some of the year’s best titles, we want to hear what you think was the best book of 2015. Specifically, what book did you read this past year that you think would make an excellent selection for next year’s One READ program? Our reading panel is looking for books that will appeal to adults of different ages and backgrounds and that have numerous topics for discussion. Pop on over to, nominate a book, and then come on back to this list. I’ll wait.

Back? Okay. Here we go.

 A Surfing LifePublisher’s Weekly is one of the first out of the gate with its best books of 2015 list. The lyrical and important “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coats, previously reviewed here on the blog, tops their list. Other stand-outs (and their publishers’ descriptions):

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life” by William Finnegan
This memoir describes the author’s experiences as a lifelong surfer, from his early years in Honolulu through his culturally sophisticated pursuits of perfect waves in some of the world’s most exotic locales.

Book cover for Black Earth by Timothy SnyderBlack Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning” by Timothy Snyder
It comforts us to believe that the Holocaust was a unique event. But, as Timothy Snyder shows, we have missed basic lessons of the history of the Holocaust, and some of our beliefs are frighteningly close to the ecological panic that Hitler expressed in the 1920s. As ideological and environmental challenges to the world order mount, our societies might be more vulnerable than we would like to think.

Delicious Foods” by James Hannaham
Hannaham tells the gripping story of three unforgettable characters: a mother, her son and the drug that threatens to destroy them. Through Darlene’s haunted struggle to reunite with Eddie, through the efforts of both to triumph over those who would enslave them, and through the irreverent and mischievous voice of the drug that narrates Darlene’s travails, Hannaham’s daring and shape-shifting prose infuses this harrowing experience with grace and humor. The desperate circumstances that test the unshakable bond between this mother and son unfold into myth, and Hannaham’s treatment of their ordeal spills over with compassion.

Book cover for A little LifeA Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara
When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome — but that will define his life forever.

Happy list season!

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Categories: Book Buzz

Chilling Tales of Terror!

Next Book Buzz - October 30, 2015

Good evening.

Before we begin, I would like to set the mood with some music. Here is the first verse of a song called “Black Sabbath” by the band Black Sabbath from their album titled . . . “Black Sabbath“:

Zombie book display at the Columbia Public Library“What is this that stands before me?
Figure in black which points at me.
Turn around quick, and start to run.
Find out I’m the chosen one.
Oh no!”

Oh no, indeed.

This is a spooky time of year. It gets dark earlier, trees look like they’re dying, and people stand outside in the cold with crazed looks saying it’s “good football weather.” Then there’s that eerie orange hue to their eyes from starting the day with pumpkin lattes and ending it with pumpkin beers. Also, Halloween is coming!

Twilight Zone DVD cover artAs a kid, the scariest TV shows were “Tales From The Darkside” (just the opening credits are terrifying), “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Twilight Zone.” Many of the episodes of those shows were based on short stories. I think there is something claustrophobic about short stories, which makes them such a good medium for tales of horror and suspense. You’re always expecting something to happen, something to be around the corner, because you know the end is near. So here are some collections of suspenseful stories and a short novel to make sure you spend this season properly terrified.

Charles Beaumont is credited with writing several classic “Twilight Zone” episodes. “The Howling Man,” “Miniature,” “Printer’s Devil” and “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You” are a few of the episodes he gets credit for. “Perchance to Dream” is a collection of his short stories that play with the same variety of genres that appeared in “The Twilight Zone.” Vampires, magicians, monsters, aliens and more populate these well-crafted stories.

Book cover for Haunted Castles by Ray RussellHaunted Castles,” a collection of Ray Russel stories, contains the story “Sardonicus,” which Stephen King has called “perhaps the finest example of the modern Gothic ever written.” Do you need to know more than that? This book is also part of the Penguin Horror series, which is curated by director, writer and all around fan of horrors and monsters, Guillermo del Toro. Also, the book is titled “Haunted Castles” and contains creepy castles, monsters and grotesques.

The Haunting of Hill House” is another book in the Penguin Horror series by master of the Gothic, Shirley Jackson. The setup is classic: four people staying in an old house looking for proof it’s haunted. But this ain’t Scooby-Doo, and neither is it Amityville.  Something weirder – and deeply psychological – might be going on in Hill House.

One more from Penguin Horror is “Book cover for The Thing on the DoorstepThe Thing on The Doorstep,” a collection of a dozen tales spanning the career of H.P. Lovecraft. Besides skillfully creating a weird mythos combined with classic horror tropes, Lovecraft was a master of dread. You can feel it descend on you a little more page by page. This book contains one of my favorite Lovecraft stories, “At The Mountains of Madness.” If the story’s awesome title isn’t enough of a hook, it contains giant penguins.

Speaking of dread, how about some influenced by the works of Lovecraft, philosophical pessimism and existential nihilism? Sounds like a recipe for fun! Thomas Ligotti is a writer of experimental works of “cosmic horror.” “Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe” is a collection of his first two books of short stories. Relatively free of gore, these stories are meant to frighten readers on a deeper level.

McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories” is the second pulp-inspired collection from McSweeney’s and Michael Chabon. Although not all the stories strictly fall into the horror category, they are intended to keep you on the edge of your seat with contributions from Stephen King, David MitchellChina Miéville and Mike Mignola.

Happy Halloween!

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Categories: Book Buzz

Top Ten Books Librarians Love: The November 2015 List

Next Book Buzz - October 26, 2015

In November the nights get longer and colder, which makes this the perfect month to snuggle up with a good novel. The latest LibraryReads list – the top 10 books publishing in November that librarians across the country recommend – is heavy on the historical fiction but still includes a few thrills, mystery and even some fairy tales to keep you warm on cold nights. Happy reading!

Book cover for The Japanese LoverThe Japanese Lover” by Isabel Allende
“Irina is a young Moldavian immigrant with a troubled past. She works at an assisted living home where she meets Alma, a Holocaust survivor. Alma falls in love with Ichi, a young Japanese gardener, who survived Topaz, the Japanese internment camp. Despite man’s inhumanity to man, love, art and beauty can exist, as evidenced in their beautiful love story.” – Ellen Firer, Merrick Library, Merrick, NY

Book cover for The Improbability of LoveThe Improbability of Love” by Hannah Rothschild
“The engaging, totally unexpected story of Annie, a lonely young woman who wanders into a junk shop and buys a painting. The painting turns out to have a long and storied past, with powerful people searching high and low for it. Unpredictable and fascinating; I loved the peek into the cutthroat art world and watching Annie blossom as she discovers her true calling.” – Heather Bistyga, Anderson County Library, Anderson, SC

Book cover for Little VictoriesLittle Victories: Perfect Rules for Imperfect Living” by Jason Gay
“This was a quick, enjoyable read that offers a refreshing perspective on some of the trivialities we all find ourselves caught up in. I enjoyed the tone and humor throughout. A standout for me was Gay’s list of recommendations for his child’s future baseball team. His open letter to this imagined future team envisions a team that can just let kids be kids. My only disappointment with this book was that there wasn’t more of it – it seemed to end all too soon.” – Lindley Homol, Chesterfield County Public Library, Chesterfield, VA

Here is the rest of the list for your holds-placing pleasure – enjoy!

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Categories: Book Buzz

Staff Book Review: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

Next Book Buzz - October 23, 2015

Book cover for An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United StatesI love reading about history, especially histories with unique perspectives! Traditional histories omit so much, and what we know has been carefully shaped by what schools usually teach and promote. The myths these texts create often overshadow the realities.

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States” is a book that dispels many of the myths surrounding indigenous people, such as the myth that the “New World” was sparsely populated at the time of first contact by Europeans or that their cultures were unsophisticated.  The indigenous populations were actually much denser than European societies at the time, and they were “supportable because the people had created a relatively disease-free paradise. There certainly were diseases and health problems, but the practice of herbal medicine and even surgery and dentistry, and most importantly both hygienic and ritual bathing, kept diseases at bay. “

We tend to ignore the centuries-long genocidal campaign of the indigenous peoples by US settlers even while we deliberate on genocides perpetrated by others. Here, the author shows that many famous authors, such as Walt Whitman and James Fenimore Cooper, helped champion and advocate for drastic policies and helped shape the national narrative related to native populations. Even thinking of indigenous people as a monolithic culture is a myth, as there were hundreds of distinct nations.

I was particularly fascinated by this book because my own family has an oral history of Cherokee ancestors who tried to hide their heritage by claiming to be “Black Dutch.” They fled the Carolinas for Texas during Andrew Jackson’s campaign after the Civil War.  They hid so well in fact that part of our heritage is all but lost.

“An Indigenous Peoples’ History” is a very thought-provoking and well-documented book that connects Europeans’ first contact with native populations to modern conflicts of “settler colonialism” by, as the author puts it, “a thin red line.” She asks us to face the reality of the past, “…not to make an accusation but rather to face historical reality, without which consideration not much in US history makes sense, unless indigenous peoples are erased.”

For other recent books that offer history with a unique perspective, you can try some of these titles.

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Categories: Book Buzz

NaNoWriMo Inspiration: Favorite Short Novels

Next Book Buzz - October 19, 2015

photo of the words story boardNovember will be year 17 of National Novel Writing Month. (I promise “NaNoWriMo” has a certain ring to it after you say it enough times!) Those who finish the challenge write rough drafts of at least 50,000 words during the month of November. Whether you’re NaNoWriMo-curious or a seasoned finisher, be sure to check the calendar for events at both the Columbia and the Callaway County Public Libraries, including starter sessions later this month and write-ins in November.

The thought of writers across the nation sharpening their pencils (okay, double-clicking on the shortcut for their word-processing program of choice) makes me want to read short novels. Here are a few I have loved.

Book cover for The Great GatsbyA longstanding high school assignment, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s  “The Great Gatsby,” deserves a read post-adolescence.  Forget Gatsby and Daisy — this tale of the excesses of the 1920s and the enduring truths of human nature owes its charm to the stunning narration of Midwestern outsider Nick Carraway.

Recounting the events of only a few days in the 1940s-era South, Carson McCullers’ “The Member of the Wedding” is a masterful portrait of the ignoble experiences of adolescence. At 12, Frankie’s only companions are Berenice, the maid, and John Henry, her 6-year-old cousin, but her brother’s upcoming nuptials bring a desperate agitation to an otherwise tedious summer.

Book cover for Play it as it LaysPublished in 1970, “Play It As It Lays” by Joan Didion is a quintessential Los Angeles novel. Separated from her husband and her institutionalized daughter, Maria Wyeth drives the freeways methodically and yet without hope of arriving anywhere or escaping the void that is her life. Maria’s journey is told in extremely short chapters, the white space on the page mirroring her emotional landscape.

Remember the first Mrs. Rochester in “Jane Eyre“? Jean Rhys reimagines her story in “Wide Sargasso Sea.” With language as lush as the Caribbean setting, Rhys gives a voice not only to Antoinette (Bertha’s birth name) but also to Mr. Rochester. This alternate literary history proffers the blossoming — and withering — romance that inevitably led to the tragedy at the Rochester mansion.

Book cover for Ask the DustIt seems appropriate to include an autobiographical novel about a young writer. Set against 1930s Los Angeles, John Fante’s “Ask the Dust” is the story of Arturo Bandini’s struggles to write, to find love and, frankly, to be able to afford enough to eat. (Charles Bukowski considered Fante his principal literary influence; his short introduction to “Ask the Dust” is not be skipped.)

What are your favorite short novels? Leave a comment below if you’d like to share a recommendation or two!

photo credit: PICT1441.JPG via photopin (license)

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Categories: Book Buzz

The Gentleman Recommends: Jess Walter

Next Book Buzz - October 12, 2015

Book cover for Does this gentleman’s influence know no bounds? First there’s the Gentleman’s Quarterly periodical that I presumably inspired and thus have no need to read, then there’s the fact that one of my recommendations was so convincing that an entire city banded together to read the same book. What’s next? A discount at the local deli? A trend of tattooing my face upon one’s own? No one knows (but at minimum I will surely be spared the glares and grimaces directed my way by fellow delicatessen patrons during my sampling hour). One thing is certain: I have tremendous clout and a duty to wield it wisely. So, friendly reader, I’m going wield it with incomparable wisdom and recommend Jess Walter.

Jess Walter is a genius, in part because he can tell a variety of different types of stories. First, I’ll type about “Citizen Vince,” another novel the Coen Brothers should adapt. It concerns a former low level criminal currently in witness protection; but – oh dang – his past is coming back to hunt him. Vince is a clever guy, and it’s tremendous fun to read his witticisms and follow his twisty tale. The story begins shortly before the 1980 presidential election and ends shortly thereafter. Like most people whose felonious past has been erased, Vince is giddy to take part in the selection of the nation’s next president. He reads the beginnings of a lot of books in order to always have a new one to talk about with a young lady who frequents the donut shop where he works. You should read this particular book to the end though, because “Citizen Vince” picks up steam as it goes.

Beautiful Ruins” is not the sort of book you’d expect the Coen Brothers to adapt (though I’m sure they could handle it), but it is easily imagined as an epic film. Some brilliant movie-makers will adapt it one day, and if they do it right,  they will probably win trophies, livestock and the other assorted plaudits Hollywood loves to dispense. The novel opens in a small Italian town with the proprietor of the “Hotel Adequate View” removing rocks from the port by hand in hopes of one day turning it into a proper beach. A young and purportedly dying actress arrives. The proprietor is smitten. But, before we learn their fates, we are spirited forward fifty years to Hollywood where a disillusioned production assistant is hoping to be convinced to stick with her movie making dreams. She decides if she doesn’t get a great pitch today,  she’s going to be the reluctant director of a cult’s museum.  A writer is ready to pitch his epic film about the Donner Party. (His pitch gets its own amazing, horrifying chapter.) A 72-year-old Hollywood big shot (with the surgically modified face best described as that of  a “nine year old Filipino girl”) is looking for a way out of his contract. The alcoholic war veteran that visited the Hotel Adequate View for a week every summer to drink and pretend to work on his novel turns back up. (We read his only completed chapter, which succeeds mightily as a short story and further proves Walter’s mastery.) Eventually, everyone’s paths intersect, and spectacularly so.

The novel closes with a firecracker of a montage that ties up the various loose ends; you will alternately and simultaneously cry and chuckle. Indeed, that sad fog condensed on more than one pair of monocles, and my chuckle hankie was often used to demurely conceal the happy bounce of my mustache. I was amazed by this book. My hunch is that you will be too.

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Categories: Book Buzz

Staff Review: The Night Sister

Next Book Buzz - October 9, 2015

Book cover for The Night Sister by Jennifer McMahonYou know those writers whose work is so captivating that you’d read their grocery lists? Jennifer McMahon is definitely one of those writers for me. As one half of a pair of sisters, I’m also sucker for a book where sisters play a prominent role, so it’s likely “The Night Sister” would’ve ended up on my bedside table one way or another. If you enjoy mysteries that feature multiple timelines, numerous points of view and the setting of a deliciously creepy house (or in this case, hotel-as-castle), then this book might be for you as well.

“The Night Sister” begins in the present with sisters Piper and Margot receiving the shocking news that childhood friend Amy has brutally slain almost her entire family and herself, with only her daughter escaping. Then the novel turns back half a century to the childhood of Amy’s mother and aunt. Rose and Sylvie live in the Tower Motel, built like a castle complete with tower. Sylvie dreams of escaping to Hollywood and becoming an actress, while Rose is caught up in the stories their grandmother told them of mares, shape-shifting monsters hidden inside regular-seeming people.

The bridge between these two story lines is the summer of 1989, where Piper and Amy test their fledgling adolescence against the backdrop of the disused Tower Motel. Despite little-sister Margot tagging along behind Piper and future-police-officer Jason keeping watch over his crush Amy, the two enjoy sufficient freedom to learn enough about themselves — and the mysteries of the Tower Hotel — to change their friendship forever. But can Piper’s knowledge of the past help her piece together what really happened in the recent tragedy?

The Night Sister” has the fast pace and plot twists I expect in psychological thrillers, as well as clean, vivid writing. Though there are more than a couple of characters, the straightforward delineation of dates and points of view make it easy to keep track of who’s who.

And luckily for me, there are still a couple Jennifer McMahon novels I haven’t read yet, so she won’t be hearing from me asking for her grocery list just yet.

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Categories: Book Buzz

Race in America

Next Book Buzz - October 5, 2015

Book cover for Just Mercy by Bryan StevensonThe library recently added a copy of “The Ferguson Report” to the collection, and it is very much worth reading. The report covers an in-depth investigation into both the police department and the judicial system in Ferguson, Missouri where black teenager Michael Brown was killed by a white police officer. The report shows a systemic and “implicit bias” in these institutions. For those who have had to live as the targets of this system, this is not news and not isolated to this one municipality. The report is very critical, but it also offers specific recommendations, such as a publicly accessible database to track use of force.

For a broader understanding of race in America, pick up one of these excellent, recently published books.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Bryan Stevenson

“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

This book was recently the winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Of all the books on our justice system that I have read lately, this is one of the very best. It definitely puts a human face on it, case after heartbreaking case.

Book cover for Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi CoatesBetween the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

“But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”

“Between the World and Me” is such a beautifully written and lyrical book. Just read it. And then read it again; it’s not that long. And when you think you understand Coates’ perspective, read it again. We have a lot to learn.

Book cover for Citizen by Claudia RankineCitizen: An American Lyric” by Claudia Rankine

“Yes, and the body has a memory. The physical carriage hauls more than its weight. The body is the threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness—all the intimidated, unblinking, and unflappable resilience does not erase the moments lived through, even as we are eternally stupid or everlastingly optimistic, so ready to be inside, among, a part of the games.”

This powerful and visually striking book of poems, essays and images won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the NAACP Image Award, PEN Open Book Award and the LA Times Book Prize.

For more on Race in America, see the wonderful books in this catalog book list.

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Categories: Book Buzz

Top Ten Books Librarians Love: The October 2015 List

Next Book Buzz - September 28, 2015

Halloween is around the corner, but the list of books publishing in October that librarians across the country love isn’t scary. Well, unless you fear your to-read pile growing too tall. This month’s LibraryReads list includes novels from big names in literary fiction, like Geraldine Brooks (“March,” “Caleb’s Crossing“), David Mitchell (“Cloud Atlas,” “Bone Clocks“) and Margaret Atwood (“The Handmaid’s Tale,” MaddAddam Trilogy) – perfect for longer nights and cooler days. Enjoy!

Book cover for City of FireCity on Fire” by Garth Risk Hallberg
“WOW! An excellently executed work with intricate plot lines and fascinating characters. It’s a story of how the stories of many different people of New York City in the late seventies crash into each other like waves on rocks. This work may encapsulate the whole of New York City, as it has wealth, love, filth, passion, aimless angst and a myriad of other aspects of humanity swirling in that amazing city.” – Racine Zackula, Wichita Public Library, Wichita, KS

Book cover for After You by Jojo MoyesAfter You” by Jojo Moyes
“I loved ‘Me Before You‘ and thought it ended in the perfect place, but any doubts I had about continuing the story were quickly erased when I started this sequel. Jojo Moyes is a master at tugging on your heartstrings. I laughed, I cried and I nearly threw my Kindle against the wall at one point. Give this to anyone in your life who has experienced a tragic loss. With a box of tissues.” – Joseph Jones, Cuyahoga County Public Library, Cleveland, OH

Book cover for A Banquet of ConsequencesA Banquet of Consequences” by Elizabeth George
“Still reeling from a previous fall from grace, police detective Barbara Havers has a chance to redeem her standing–if she can unravel the very twisted threads that led to the murder of a prominent English feminist. Meanwhile, her superior officer Thomas Lynley pursues a love interest even as he keeps a sharp lookout for any slip-ups by Havers. This is the strongest addition to the series in years.” – Starr Smith, Fairfax County Public Library, Falls Church, VA

Here are the remaining October titles for your holds-placing pleasure!

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Categories: Book Buzz

Staff Review: The Aeronaut’s Windlass

Next Book Buzz - September 25, 2015

Book cover for Aeronaut's WindlassThe Aeronaut’s Windlass” by Jim Butcher

Why I Read It: Jim Butcher + Steampunk = Gimme. Now.

What It’s About:  Humanity lives in huge, stone Spires that rise above the surface and the monster-filled mists that cover it. Society is ruled by aristocratic houses that develop scientific marvels and build fleets of airships to keep the peace.

Captain Grimm commands the merchant ship, Predator. Loyal to Spire Albion, he has taken their side in the cold war with Spire Aurora, disrupting the enemy’s shipping lines by attacking their cargo vessels. But when the Predator is severely damaged in combat, Grimm is offered a proposition from the leader of Albion – to join a team of young, untried agents, an imperious cat and an utterly insane etherealist on a vital mission in exchange for fully restoring Predator to its fighting glory.

Why I Recommend It:  Jim Butcher is a wonderful storyteller. This is the first book of a series, and he has laid some excellent groundwork for this new world. He doesn’t explain everything all at once. You slowly learn about the history, landscape and politics of the Spires as Butcher builds to intense action scenes.

Rowl. If you took away the incredibly imagined world, the riveting battles and the promise of future intrigues, you would be left with several interesting and well-drawn characters, not the least of which is Rowl. He is a warrior and heir to Clan Silent Paws, and he’s a cat. He is ridiculously smug and demanding, but I don’t think anyone who has ever interacted with a cat would be surprised. When a cat is one of the heroes of the story…I mean, come on. You’ve got to be interested.

What To Read While You Wait:
Furies of Calderon” by Jim Butcher
Storm Front” by Jim Butcher
Boneshaker” by Cherie Priest
Retribution Falls” by Chris Wooding

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Categories: Book Buzz

Classics for Everyone: Fahrenheit 451

Next Book Buzz - September 21, 2015

Book cover for Fahrenheit 451As I read this year’s One Read selection, “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel, I repeatedly thought of the Ray Bradbury classic, “Fahrenheit 451.” In my mind, the two books convey many of the same ideas, yet in much different ways.

In “Station Eleven,” a plague has decimated the population. Those who remain are left with a world where infrastructure and social systems have collapsed. The characters in “Fahrenheit 451” have everything Mandel’s lack: health, ample food, material comforts, advanced technology. But I believe Bradbury’s characters suffer more.

The motto for the Traveling Symphony in Mandel’s book is “Survival is insufficient.” The members have lost almost everything, except what keeps them human. Through music, art and literature they forge bonds and find meaning.

“Fahrenheit 451” gives us a world where books are forbidden, where the only music is that which numbs emotions rather than stirring them, a world devoid of meaningful connection. The book’s title refers to the temperature at which paper burns. The main character, Guy Montag, is a fireman. His job is to burn houses and buildings where books are found.

At the beginning of the story, Montag loves his job. The adrenaline rush he experiences at a fire makes him feel alive. But several events shake his world view. His wife attempts suicide and later acts as if nothing happened. An old woman chooses to stay in her home and burn with her books. Montag meets an elderly former professor who remembers the days before books were outlawed. A 17-year-old free spirit shares her joy in defying convention. Soon, Montag is consumed with the desire to see for himself what is inside the books he’s burning, and he begins to pocket one or two at each call.

First published in 1953, “Fahrenheit 451” contains many surprisingly accurate predictions about future developments. There’s a televised police chase, filmed from a helicopter. People own wall-sized flat-screen televisions and use a version of earbuds. Robots sniff out contraband. One area where Bradbury missed the mark was that of gender roles. All of his men have paying jobs while the women are homemakers.

If ever anyone has doubts about the value of literature and the arts, said skeptic should read “Fahrenheit 451” to get some idea of what life would be like without them.

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Categories: Book Buzz

The Gentleman Recommends: Laurent Binet

Next Book Buzz - September 14, 2015

Book cover for HHhH by Laurent BinetAs I perch at my word processor stroking my mustache, adjusting my top hat and considering how to write a blog post recommending a historical meta-fictional novel that is nearly as concerned with how to tell the story of the plot to assassinate monstrous Nazi Reinhard Heydrich as it is with telling the story, I have a eureka moment: I simply needed to stop massaging my elegant mouth parka and making minute adjustments to my headgear and start typing words.

I wonder how to convey that, though time is spent with the author during his research and his periods of doubt, and that we hear quite a bit about the problems inherent in writing historical novels, the story never loses its considerable propulsion. A good recommender would give some sort of proof, but for some reason my head is in tremendous pain and also my top hat is way too tight, so I’m just going to muscle on and assume that my audience knows that they should always trust a gentleman, and that I am one, which is obvious because I am wearing a top hat, and I say I’m a gentleman, and a gentleman never lies, unless it is a white lie and meant to spare someone’s feelings.

So, “HHhH” (the abomination known as Heydrich had a nickname: “Himmlers Hirn heist Heydrich,” which translates to “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”) by Laurent Binet is the gripping true story of Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis working to assassinate the horrifyingly evil Reinhard Heydrich. The momentum is sustained through the many asides wherein the author worries about how to approach his subject matter and how much to fictionalize the story when the true details are not available. (What color was Heydrich’s car? Which side of the train did he sit on?) As Binet says in the novel, “I just hope that, however bright and blinding the veneer of fiction that covers this fabulous story, you will still be able to see through it to the historical reality that lies behind.”

And a fabulous story it is. Fascinating throughout, the novel culminates with a sequence as riveting as that in any thriller. It is fascinating because we are given a thorough look at the monstrosity known as Heydrich and the horror he propagated, at the brave men commissioned to end his life, and at the process of writing the meticulously researched story of these men.

I debate how to end this recommendation and decide to do so with one further sentence of encouragement to read this book if you have any interest in the atrocities in Europe circa World War II, and the story of two heroes helping to end them. Then I remember it would be a shame not to give a tip of the top hat to the translator. Read this book if you have any interest in the atrocities in Europe circa World War II and the story of two heroes helping to end them. Also, I’d like to give a tip of the top hat to novelist Sam Taylor, who, as far as I can tell given that I don’t read French and didn’t read the French version of this novel, did a tremendous job translating it.

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Categories: Book Buzz

Author Brian Katcher Visits October 14

Teen Book Buzz - September 7, 2015

Teen Read Week Banner

Teen Read Week: Author Brian Katcher
Columbia Public Library
Wednesday, October 14 • 7-8 p.m.

Come meet award-winning author Brian Katcher  and hear about his writing process as well as his latest project. Brian’s debut novel, “Playing With Matches,” was nominated for the Gateway Readers Award in 2011. Seventeen-year-old Leon Sanders has a face that only a mother could love. Fortunately, he has a good sense of humor to help him make friends. When he befriends Melody Hennon, a classmate who was seriously burned in a childhood accident, he begins to worry what others will think of their relationship.

In “Almost Perfect,” Brian’s second young adult novel, Logan Witherspoon falls for his friend Sage Hendricks. After kissing her, he learns a secret that forever changes the nature of their relationship. This book won the American Library Association’s prestigious Stonewall Award. This honor is given annually to a book relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered experience.

Brian will wrap up his author visit with a discussion of his most recent book, “The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak,” a hilarious he said/she said romance about two teens recovering from heartbreak and discovering themselves on an out-of-this-world accidental first date at a science fiction convention.

Books will be for sale from Barnes & Noble before and after the program and Brian will do a book-signing session. For more about Brian’s books, check out this interview he shared with us not long after winning the Stonewall Award.

Originally published at Author Brian Katcher Visits October 14.

Categories: Book Buzz

Celebrating the Life and Works of Oliver Sacks

Next Book Buzz - September 2, 2015

Book cover for The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a HatThere are some writers you wish you could befriend, they seem so warm and endlessly fascinating. You want them at the table during dinner parties. You want to meet up with them for long walks or coffee. Oliver Sacks is one of those writers.

The neurologist and author passed away this weekend of cancer at the age of 82. Sacks was curious – always investigating – and a wonderful storyteller. Even after learning his time on this earth was nearing its end, he continued to write. He became introspective, focusing “on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life – achieving a sense of peace within oneself,” as he states in his final piece for the New York Times.

Sacks’ books about the workings of the brain are full of vivid writing and detailed portraits of his subjects. His delight in scientific discovery runs through all of his books. His enthusiasm is palpable.

If you are new to Sacks, try “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales,” one of his earlier books (and the one with my favorite title). Sacks presents a series of stories about men and women who, representing both medical and literary oddities, raise fundamental questions about the nature of reality.

Book cover for The Mind's Eye by Oliver SacksOther Sacks’ works center on a single theme, like “Musicophilia,” which explores the complex human response to music and how music can affect those suffering from a variety of ailments. Sacks investigated sight in “The Mind’s Eye,” telling the stories of six people whose lives have been profoundly altered by changes to essential senses and abilities, including a pianist who lost the ability to read scores and a novelist whose ability to read was destroyed by a stroke. “Hallucinations” investigates the types, causes and cultural significance of hallucinations generated by everything from intoxication to injury and illness.

Sacks’ most recently published book is an autobiography titled “On the Move,” and he certainly was. Always studying and researching, his mental energy and curiosity defined him until the end. In the February 15, 2015 New York Times piece in which Sacks announced his terminal diagnosis, he ended with the following words. I cannot think of better words to remember him by.

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

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Categories: Book Buzz

Labor Days

Next Book Buzz - August 31, 2015

Book cover for Working by Studs TerkelThe death throes of summer will soon be marked by Labor Day weekend. Many of us will spend that time barbecuing or taking advantage of Great Labor Day Savings! This was not the original purpose of Labor Day. The intended meaning of the day was to honor “the social and economic achievements of American workers.” This purpose has mostly been lost, except most American workers do get a free day off. Unless they are one of the over 4,500,000 employed in retail.  Then they are probably helping people take advantage of those Labor Day sales.

We spend so much time working that it’s surprising there aren’t more more books on the subject. There’s a constant stream books about job interviews, changing careers or finding fulfilling work, but books that evocatively capture this experience that composes so much of our lives are rare. There are some good ones, and even some classics, but the number days we spend laboring isn’t really matched by the books out there.

Book cover for The Jungle by Upton SinclairThe Jungle” is a classic many of us probably had to read in high school. The book tells the story of a poor immigrant family that tries to make a living working in the Chicago stockyards. The  descriptions of the unsafe and unsanitary conditions became a catalyst for the passing of the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food Act.

I’m not sure if Studs Terkel’s “Working” is technically considered a classic (who makes these decisions?), but it should be. Terkel conducted interviews with people from all walks of life about their jobs. You don’t just get insight into what the routine tasks of their jobs are, but you also learn how their time spent at work makes them feel.

Harvey Pekar adapted “Working” into a graphic novel. Pekar was a perfect fit for the job. In his long-running series “American Splendor,” Pekar wrote about the mundane details of his life in Cleveland in an unexpectedly compelling way. Many of those stories involve his job as a file clerk at the Cleveland’s Veterans Administration Hospital.

When Philip Levine died earlier this year, exhausted workers looking for breakfast after the late shift lost representation in American poetry. Many of his poems described the prosaic details of the lives of working people. Levine grew up in Detroit, and while working in the auto plants there he decided to give voice to the people with whom he worked.

Book cover for Blue Collar, White Collar, No CollarBlue Collar, White Collar, No Collar” is a collection of short stories about work.  It’s edited by Richard Ford, who also contributes a story. It’s fitting that a writer who won a Pulitzer Prize for a book about a real estate agent should edit such a collection.

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” details a man’s struggle with his inane PR job as he tries to provide for his family. It is often cited as an inspiration for the television show “Mad Men” because of their shared themes of a restless veteran trying to adapt to his working world and find his identity.

Then We Came To The End” tells the story of a Chicago advertising firm as a dysfunctional family that is gradually shrinking to nothing due to layoffs. It is a funny, insightful and empathetic examination of workplace culture.

In “Looking for A Ship,” John McPhee accompanies a merchant marine on a 42-day trip to South America. The book describes the difficulties of making a living as a merchant marine and is filled with seafaring stories that illustrate the dangers of this job. Might make a nice accompaniment to “Deadliest Catch.”

If you’ve ever been asked to do something at your job and wanted to respond, “I prefer not to,” then I suggest you take a look at Herman Melville’s enigmatic short story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener, A Story of Wall Street.” A man who is essentially employed as a human copy machine gets a sort of paper jam in his brain and keeps repeating that phrase.

Finally, whether you’re barbecuing, shopping or (sadly) working this Labor Day weekend, the Smithsonian has some sweet Labor Day jams for you.

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Categories: Book Buzz
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