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All About Dance

April 24, 2015

Book cover for Mambo in Chinatown by Jean KwokA little while back three people recommended the same book to me over the span of about a month. These folks thought I’d enjoy the latest book by Jean Kwok, author of the previous bestseller “Girl in Translation.” In fact, I had picked up “Mambo in Chinatown” earlier and put it down as ‘not my type’ and so, after the first recommendation, I just said thanks, without comment. After the second recommendation, I had to share a laugh and explain what was going on, but after the third recommendation, which came via e-mail from a casual acquaintance, I decided I was supposed to read this book, my ‘type’ or not! The novel proved to be an entertaining look at ballroom dance, as well as the conflicts inherent in growing up the child of recent American immigrants.

Book cover for Astonish Me by Maggie ShipsteadEver since I took up ballroom dance as a pastime, I have been on the lookout for good books about dance. I recently found one that fit the bill for me. “Astonish Me” by Maggie Shipstead brings to life the story of Joan, an American woman who, in 1977, falls in love with a Soviet ballet dancer, Arslan Rusakov—who is a clearly a fictional version of Mikhail Baryshnikov. Told in time jumps and multiple points of view, this is a story of unrequited love played out in the highly political, passionate world of professional ballet. Written with complexity of character and an intriguing plot and an ending twist that may or may not come as a surprise, the book is highly readable for dancers and non-dancers alike.

Book cover for Dancer by Colum McCannThe world of ballet apparently offers a lot of fictional fodder. “Dancer” by Colum McCann is a colossal literary work that brings to life the extravagant world of Rudolf Nureyev, the Russian peasant whose genius propelled him to become an international ballet legend. Inspired by biographical facts, the story is told through a wide variety of voices, including Nureyev and his contemporaries, from the celebrated to the unknown. Beginning with Nureyev’s youth in Stalin-era Soviet Union and ending with his days of wild abandon in eighties’ New York, “Dancer” encapsulates the legendary artist in a way that captures his true essence, as well as his dazzling façade.

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Categories: Book Buzz

The Gentleman Recommends: Tom Rachman

April 20, 2015

Book cover for The Imperfectionists by Tom RachmanExtra! Extra! Given the size of space, the abundance of ocean and the for-now fictional technology that allows us to shrink humans and put them in a shrunken blood-submarine and send them into a full-size human for reasons of medicine or espionage, there are practically infinite settings for a novel. A great book could be set anywhere: a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a circus, even a pre-apocalyptic wasteland. But a newspaper may be the ultimate setting for a funny and sad novel. The pathos is built in: a building full of people passionate about their work but whose jobs are endangered because their industry is dying, what with the Internet and the world’s growing distaste for paper cuts and things that can’t take pictures of their food. (Proof: while this blog is a runaway success, the copies I write in magic marker on old newspapers and leave scattered about the local reading emporiums along with a note to mail me fifty cents and make a tally mark on a piece of paper and also mail that to me so I can count my readers, have reached, apparently, zero people.)

The international newspaper in “The Imperfectionists” is reaching more readers than my “Gentleman Recommends” circular, but, given its expenses, it is in much greater danger of closing up shop than I am of running out of old newspapers or magic markers (though those things do only have so much ink; please mail me fifty cents). Each chapter gives voice to a new character, and the book is spliced with interludes from the paper’s early days. This framework gives us a story as old as time: rich old man starts a newspaper in order to give a job to and reestablish contact with an old flame. A young journalist has his taste for the work destroyed by a manipulative industry veteran who commandeers his hotel room, laptop and opportunity to cozy up to a lady he fancies. An elderly reader’s home is mostly occupied by newspapers because she reads every word of each issue and is a slow reader and therefore decades behind in the news. There’s a man that inherits a newspaper he knows little about, preferring to spend his time conversing with his tiny dog and feeding it the sort of extravagant meals that had this gentleman scrambling to his mailbox to check for a pile of cents that might allow me to dine in similar opulence. And many, many more!

Tom Rachman also uses the bounce-around-in-time trick to keep the mystery and intrigue thick in his second outstanding novel, “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers.” You’ll want to have a taste for quirky characters, the sort that wear mismatched shoes intentionally, own bookshops and engage in some half-hearted scamming. Tooly Zylberberg’s past is mysterious, to the reader and herself, and it’s tremendous fun to unravel it via a structure that jumps chapter by chapter from her adulthood, to her young adulthood, to her childhood. Read all about it!

The post The Gentleman Recommends: Tom Rachman appeared first on DBRL Next.

Categories: Book Buzz

Read Your Way to Earth Day

April 17, 2015

Photo of Earth by NASA, used via a Creative Commons licenseI’ve read that “every day is Earth Day.” I believe I read it off a bumper sticker on a vehicle burning fossil fuels in its engine and releasing CO2 through its exhaust. Love the Earth, man. Don’t worry — in reality Earth Day is just one day a year. The other 364 days a year we aren’t required to acknowledge that we live on Earth. We can pretend this is all a magnificent dream (or terrible dream, depending on how your day is going), claim we’re on Mars or try to start snowball fights on the Senate floor. I see that Columbia’s Earth Day celebration is on April 19. In Jefferson City, the Missouri Department of Conservation sponsored celebration will be on April 24. So maybe we have to maintain awareness of our home planet for approximately a week. That’s doable.

Perhaps you’d like to pass the time reading a book or two during that week? Environmental issues have proven inspiring subject matter for excellent works of both fiction and nonfiction. If all this Earth hugging talk is a little too crunchy for you, you can take solace in the fact that these books have been printed on the flesh of dead trees.

OK, strap into your strappiest sandals and check out these books:

Book cover for Oryx and Crake by Margaret AtwoodThe possibility of the world as we know it being dramatically upended or gradually changed to something unrecognizable to us is a common trope in speculative fiction. The threat of environmental catastrophe has provided new possible worlds and cautionary tales for writers. Margaret Atwood, a longtime fan of science fiction, wrote the classic work of speculative fiction, “The Handmaid’s Tale.” She went back to that genre for her Maddaddam Trilogy, which the New York Times called “an epic not only of an imagined future but of our own past.” The story unfolds both forwards and backwards in the first book, “Oryx And Crake.” The disoriented narrator wanders through a bizarre wasteland populated by bioengineered animals while sorting through his memories of how the world got this way. While the subject matter is dire, Atwood handles it with wit, dark humor and love for the genre in which she’s writing.

Book cover for The MassiveBrian Wood’s comic book series “The Massive,” now up to volume four in the collected editions, asks “What does it mean to be an environmentalist after the world has already ended?” The story follows crew members of The Kapital, half of the fleet for Ninth Wave, an activist group that seems to be modeled after the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. They are searching for their sister ship, The Massive, with which they lost contact after the world fell into chaos. An environmental disaster and the wars that have followed draw into question the mission of Ninth Wave. It’s part seafaring adventure, part post apocalyptic survival story, and an examination of the world we live in.

Book cover for A Friend of the Earth by T.C. BoyleT.C. Boyle’s novel “A Friend of the Earth” similarly follows a hard-line environmentalist coping after the disaster he fought to avoid has come to pass. The biosphere has collapsed. Overpopulation and deforestation have taken their toll. Yet the human race continues on, if in a highly degraded state. Tyrone O’Shaughnessy Tierwater, former member of Earth Forever! and convicted ecoterrorist, now manages a sad collection of endangered animals owned by a rock star. Tyrone unintentionally endangered his family through his Earth Forever! activities and lost them. Now, as he is just trying to survive in a dying world, his ex-wife contacts him after 20 years.

Book cover for The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward AbbeyEarth Forever! is T.C. Boyle’s fictional creation based on the radical environmental group Earth First! One of the Inspirations for their formation was “The Monkey Wrench Gang” by Edward Abbey. An ex-Green Beret returns to the United States and is outraged to find his native southwest overrun by developers. He eventually teams up with an eclectic group of activists that becomes known as The Monkey Wrench Gang. They engage in exploits that are anarchic, righteous and at times misguided. The result is a book that acts as a call to arms, cautionary tale and raucous comedy.

Book cover for Encounters With the Archdruid by John McPheeFor “Encounters With the Archdruid,” master of narrative nonfiction John McPhee followed environmentalist David Brower as he engaged in fights over conservation in three areas of the country. The title comes from real estate developer Charles Fraser who refers to environmentalists as druids. He and Brower come into conflict over development on Cumberland Island in Georgia. Brower also battles with a mineral engineer over Glacier Peak Wilderness in Washington, and with the commissioner of the United States Bureau of Reclamation over flooding of Glen Canyon by the Glen Canyon Dam (a great source of anger for the aforementioned Monkey Wrench Gang). McPhee’s style puts you there as the events unfold, and the description of each participant is clear-eyed and nuanced.

Book cover for Wilderness Warrior by Douglas BrinkleyJust the size of “Wilderness Warrior” is a testament to the importance the natural world played for President Theodore Roosevelt. That a biography focused on that aspect of Roosevelt’s life and career could add up to such a doorstopper says something about the man’s priorities. Roosevelt preserved approximately 230,000,000 acres of public land during his presidency. In this book, Pulitzer Prize-winner Douglas Brinkley doesn’t just describe Roosevelt’s well known hobbies in nature. He describes his serious dedication as a naturalist (he trained in Darwinian biology at Harvard) and the political efforts he made to preserve so much land.

Book cover for Silent Spring by Rachel CarsonSilent Spring” by Rachel Carson became a runaway bestseller in 1962, and its publication was a watershed moment in the history of environmentalism in this country. The book alerted the public to the dangers of the indiscriminate use of pesticides for both human beings and the environment at large. It provoked a ruthless assault from the chemical industry and spurred changes in laws regulating our air, land, and water. It is a true classic and testament to the potential influence a book can have.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Field Notes From A Catastrophe” manages to take the complicated system of our climate and describe the changes happening to it Book cover for Field Notes From a Catastrophein just over 200 pages.  The concise nature of the book doesn’t come at the expense of the subject but is due to Kolbert’s skill as a writer. Through a series of reports around the globe from the “frontlines of global warming,” she gathers up evidence of climate change and creates a vivid picture of the dangers in clear language. This often abstract subject and the potential human costs are made palpable.

photo credit: NASA Blue Marble 2007 East via photopin (license)

The post Read Your Way to Earth Day appeared first on DBRL Next.

Categories: Book Buzz

What to Read While You Wait for A Spool of Blue Thread

April 13, 2015

Book cover for A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne TylerOne highly sought-after title this spring is Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread.” This realistic tale chronicles three generations of the Whitshank family of Baltimore.

Things have changed in the Whitshank household. Abby and Red are getting older. Abby is getting forgetful, Red’s health is declining and the adult children have returned to the estate with all their long festering resentments, drama and family secrets to help their aging parents make decisions about their care, as well as the fate of the home Red’s father built decades ago. If you are currently on the list for this book or are looking for something similar to read about families, relationships and aging, you might try one of these titles to get you by.

Book cover for After This by Alic McDermottAfter This” by Alice McDermott

It is the end of World War II in New York. Mary, an Irish Catholic girl leaving church, takes shelter in a diner away from the gusting winds. Little does she realize that the fellow she sits down beside at the counter will someday be her husband. This tale is about Mary and John who live and raise four children during the 1960s. They experience the social changes and events of the decade, from the sexual revolution and abortion to racial segregation and the Vietnam War.

Book cover for Tapestry of Fortunes by Elizabeth BergTapestry of Fortunes” by Elizabeth Berg

Cecilia Ross is a burned out, procrastinating national motivational speaker who won’t follow her own advice “to live your own truth.”  She receives a postcard from an old love she never got over, which gets her thinking about her future. So, she consults several fortune telling devices and decides to sell her house and take a break from her career. She moves into a Victorian home with three other restless women at loose ends themselves. The ladies and their dog go on a road trip, each searching for something: Cecilia seeks her lost lover; Renie, the advice columnist, is looking for the daughter she gave up for adoption; Lisa, a family physician, is hunting  for her ex-husband; and chef Joni is in search of culinary inspiration.

Book cover for Deaf Sentence by David LodgeDeaf Sentence” by David Lodge

Desmond Bates is going deaf. His hearing aids are helpful yet cause him frustration and embarrassment. Recently retired from the university as a linguistics professor, he finds himself bored, just when his wife’s career is beginning to take off. To top things off he is trying to convince his aging father that assisted living might be a worthy option for him, and his daughter is about to give birth. Out of habit and to keep things somewhat normal, he continues to use the university’s library and his former department’s common room. Soon, his routine is upset by an attractive PhD candidate named Alex who uses flattery to draw Desmond closer to her. Alex turns out to be a liar and a plagiarist who tries to use suggestive acts on Desmond to persuade him to help her with her dissertation!

The post What to Read While You Wait for A Spool of Blue Thread appeared first on DBRL Next.

Categories: Book Buzz

Classics for Everyone: Spoon River Anthology

April 6, 2015

Book cover for Spoon River AnthologyLet’s play literary Jeopardy. The clue is: Making its first appearance in April 1915, this book of poems spoke of life in a fictional Midwestern town and has been the inspiration for numerous theatrical productions, musical compositions in multiple genres and at least one computer game. If you said “What is ‘Spoon River Anthology’ by Edgar Lee Masters?” you won this round.

Masters was a practicing attorney who dabbled in literature on the side. He’d published a few pieces previous to 1915, but “Spoon River Anthology” brought him a level of success that allowed him to quit his law practice and follow his dream of writing full-time.

The fictional village of Spoon River was based on Masters’ hometown of Lewiston, Illinois. Each poem in the book, with the exception of the introductory one, is narrated from the grave by a different deceased town resident. Since there are no consequences to be suffered, the characters can speak with honesty, showing realities of small town life not often acknowledged at the time. People discuss extra-marital affairs, domestic violence, greed, swindling and all manner of pettiness with surprising frankness.

Just as in life, some speak with bitterness and others with contentment. This is true not only of their lives, but also their deaths and graves. A couple of cemetery dwellers quarrel with what’s written on their tombstones. But the town drunk is happy enough with his lot in death, enjoying the prestige of finding himself — through sheer happenstance — the next-door neighbor of a prominent citizen.

Some names come up again and again. The bank president, for instance, affected many lives. By allowing the characters to tell not only their own stories, but also share their memories of family and neighbors, Masters gives readers a more complete view of the life of the town. For instance, the village pharmacist muses on a married couple who have each already had a say about their relationship:

There were Benjamin Pantier and his wife,
Good in themselves, but evil toward each other:
He oxygen, she hydrogen,
Their son, a devastating fire.

Read the book and get to know the late residents of Spoon River. Your life will be richer for it. 100 years later, their voices still resonate.

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Categories: Book Buzz

Ask the Author: An Interview With Keija Parssinen

March 31, 2015

Book cover for The Unraveling of Mercy Louis by Keija ParssinenKeija Parssinen, director of the local Quarry Heights Writers’ Workshop and author of the 2013 One Read book, “The Ruins of Us,” just published her second novel, “The Unraveling of Mercy Louis.” Kirkus Reviews described the book as “a modern Southern gothic with a feminist edge and the tense pacing of a thriller.” In anticipation of her talk at the Columbia Public Library this Thursday, Parssinen kindly agreed to be interviewed as part of DBRL Next’s Ask the Author series.

DBRL: Many of our patrons are familiar with your last novel, “The Ruins of Us,” which was the library’s One Read selection in 2013. That book told the story of a wealthy American-Saudi Arabian family living in Saudi Arabia. “The Unraveling of Mercy Louis” focuses on the stories of younger women and is set in a fictional oil refinery town in southern Texas. Can you discuss some of the differences between these books?

KP: While “The Ruins of Us” unfolds slowly, culminating in a violent act that undoes the Baylani family, “The Unraveling of Mercy Louis” opens with a bang — the discovery of a deceased fetus in a dumpster — and hurtles the reader forward, headlong, into the story. It is also narrated by two teenage girls, so it has a slightly narrower scope than Ruins, though I think both the narrators of Mercy are wise and astute in their own way. The books share more in common than appears at surface level, though — both novels are character-driven, with plot used as a device through which to examine individuals and their broader community. Character psychology, or what makes people act the way they do, is the most interesting thing about fiction, to me, so developing complex, fully dimensional characters in both books was important to me.

DBRL: What were some books or events that inspired “The Unraveling of Mercy Louis”?

KP: The spark of the idea came from an article by Susan Dominus in the New York Times Magazine, titled “What Happened to the Girls in LeRoy,” about a curious case of uncontrollable physical and verbal tics among a group of high school girls in upstate New York. The article immediately made me think of the Salem Witch Trials and Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” which is one of my favorite plays. Many of the characters’ names in Mercy Louis are borrowed from Salem, including Mercy’s. Some reviewers have also compared Mercy to “The Scarlet Letter,” which I had in mind, peripherally, while I was writing.

DBRL: The story is told partially from the protagonist, Mercy’s, point of view, and partially from Illa’s, an acquaintance at her school. Why did you choose to tell the story this way?

KP: Mercy is in some ways the classic Gothic heroine, naive to a fault. While she’s tough and strong and smart, she’s not very worldly. Illa is far more shrewd and can give the reader insight into Mercy’s world, and the town of Port Sabine, which Mercy herself can’t give. Plus I’m always drawn to narratives of obsession, and wallflower Illa’s obsession with superstar Mercy is a big plot driver in the novel.

DBRL: This book has been described as a coming-of-age story. Do you think that there is a lack of these types of books, at least ones that are told from the female perspective? Are there some particularly good ones that you’ve read?

KP: One reviewer very kindly compared Mercy to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” that classic Southern bildungsroman. I was very flattered by that comparison. Harper Lee aside, there does seem to be a dearth of classic coming-of-age stories from the female perspective, perhaps because until recently, society hasn’t been able to look honestly at what happens as a girl transitions into womanhood — it’s perhaps too messy, or too sexual, or too ugly. Only boys can make mistakes and then afford to write about them; girls had to hide them away like blemishes, I suppose. Lately, I’ve been devouring Elena Ferrante‘s Neapolitan novels, which offer a blazingly brave tale of coming of age in 1960s/70s Naples. In fact, they present the most astonishing, raw, sincere portrait of girlhood, sex, motherhood, marriage and friendship that I’ve ever read! I can’t say enough good things about these books. They have meant so much to me, as a woman and a writer.

DBRL: Have you read any other good books lately that you would like to recommend to our readers?

KP: See above! But also: I recently loved “Migratory Animals” by Mary Helen Specht, “Limestone Wall” by Marlene Lee, Alice Munro’s “Dear Life” and “Telex From Cuba” by Rachel Kushner.

Don’t miss Keija Parssinen’s author talk this Thursday, April 2nd at 7 p.m. in the Friend’s Room of the Columbia Public Library! Copies of the book will be available for purchase or signing. Also, check out her website to find more events or to learn more about the book.

The post Ask the Author: An Interview With Keija Parssinen appeared first on DBRL Next.

Categories: Book Buzz

What to Read While You Wait for All the Light We Cannot See

March 30, 2015

Book cover for All the Light We Cannot SeeBestseller “All the Light We cannot See” by Anthony Doerr has a long waiting list at the library. This is a tale of two young people – blind Marie-Laure, living with her father in France, and Werner, a teenage orphan who as a child in Germany had great tenacity to learn all he could about radios and transmitting. Their paths cross when he, now a soldier in the the Nazi army, intercepts Marie-Laure’s innocent (but forbidden) reading of Jules Verne over the radio. If you find yourself on the waiting list for this work of historical fiction, here are a few other choices you might find enjoyable.

Book cover for Jacob's Oath by Martin FletcherJacob’s Oath” by Martin Fletcher

World War II has come to an end. Europe’s roads are clogged with homeless holocaust survivors. One survivor, Jacob, is consumed with hatred for the concentration camp guard nicknamed “The Rat” for killing his brother as well as many others. He meets Sarah on his journey home and falls in love. Now, he must choose to avenge the past or let it go and build a new life with Sarah.

Book cover for In the Wolf's Mouth by Adam FouldsIn the Wolf’s Mouth” by Adam Foulds

In this work of literary fiction set in Sicily at the end of World War II, as the allies chase the Nazis out into the Italian mainland, two parallel stories unfold. One focuses on two service men – Will Walker, English field security officer, and Ray Marifione, an Italian-American infantry man. The second story explores the presence of the mafia through the eyes of a young shepherd named Angilu and Ciro Albanese, a local Mafioso. The war is portrayed as just a temporary distraction from what is really going on in Sicily.

The Invisible Bridge” by Julie Orringer

In 1937 Budapest three brothers leave home to find their calling. Andras-Levi, architectural student, heads to Paris with a letter he promised to deliver to C. Morgenstern, with whom he ends up having a complicated relationship. His older brother heads to Modena to medical school as his younger brother leaves school for the stage. At the end of Andras’ second year in Paris, the Germans occupy the city, thrusting the brothers into the erupting war.

The post What to Read While You Wait for All the Light We Cannot See appeared first on DBRL Next.

Categories: Book Buzz

Top Ten Books Librarians Love: The April 2015 List

March 27, 2015

Library Reads LogoSpring has sprung! And with spring arrives a new crop of LibraryReads books, the top ten titles publishing in April and recommended by librarians across the country. With new books from old favorites like Sara Gruen and Elizabeth Berg, this month’s list contains nothing but novels and is heavy on the historical fiction. A little romance and some twisty thrillers round out the list. Enjoy!

Book cover for At the Water's EdgeAt the Water’s Edge” by Sara Gruen
“Set in Loch Ness, right in the middle of WWII, a foolish group of rich Americans arrive in search of the famous monster. Narrator Maddie must make sense of the circumstances that have brought her to this wild locale. Only then can she discover the strength she needs to make her own decisions. Enjoy a delightfully intriguing cast of characters and the engaging style of storytelling that has made Gruen so popular.” – Paulette Brooks, Elm Grove Public Library, Elm Grove, WI

Book cover for A Desperate FortuneA Desperate Fortune” by Susanna Kearsley
“While transcribing an old manuscript of a young girl’s diary, Sara decodes an account of Jacobite spies. Long before, Mary Dundas gets involved in a mission which makes her confidante to the King of Scotland in exile. And along the way, both women fall for men they know little about. Kearsley is a master at seamlessly blending stories from two time periods. Readers who enjoy a little puzzle solving with their historical fiction will be rewarded.” – Kimberly McGee, Lake Travis Community Library, Austin, TX

Book cover for The Dream Lover by Elizabeth BergThe Dream Lover” by Elizabeth Berg
“George Sand leaves her estranged husband and children to embark on a life of art in bohemian Paris. A talented writer who finds monetary and critical success, Sand adopts a man’s name, often dresses as a gentleman and smokes cigars. Through her writing, politics, sexual complexities and views on feminism, Sand is always seeking love. This novel has spurred me to learn more about George Sand, a woman truly ahead of her time.” – Catherine Coyne, Mansfield Public Library, Mansfield, MA

And here is the rest of the list with links to our catalog so you can place holds on these forthcoming books.

The post Top Ten Books Librarians Love: The April 2015 List appeared first on DBRL Next.

Categories: Book Buzz

Let the Library Contribute to Your (March) Madness

March 20, 2015

If you’re like me, basketball is your favorite sport. You like the way they dribble up and down the court. Perhaps unlike me, you actually have skills on this court. My basketball career ended when I tried out for the team in the seventh grade and didn’t make the cut. What’s that? Oh, no, no — I just have something in my eye. . .

 The LifeYet I still play, and display mad skills, on the basketball courts of my mind! I’m the Michael Jordan of these imaginary courts. (Actually more of a Dr. J/Pistol Pete hybrid, but with the dominance of Jordan — I’ve put some thought into this.) See, long ago I was consumed by the madness — March Madness. I grew up in a relatively sports-free household, except for this strange time of year when my father, not much of a TV watcher, camped out in front of the TV for hours at a time. He was watching college basketball. Would a weekend of early spring weather get my father, a fan of the outdoors, to stop watching? No. He just opened one of the windows and propped the TV on the sill so he could watch from our back patio. Curious, I watched too. Inevitably the madness consumed my young mind. The transformation was complete in 1981 when I won a bet with my father that Indiana would beat North Carolina for the championship. It was a gentleman’s bet, bragging rights only. In your face, Dad!

Book cover for Players First by John CalipariSince then, every March has been a blur of clutch three-pointers, tragicomic brackets, Cinderellas and John Calipari. He’s inescapable. Sadly, the tournament games are only Thursday through Sunday for the first two weeks. The Final Four play on a Saturday, and the Championship is on a Monday. That leaves a lot of basketball-less days when all your fevered mind will be thinking is, “swish, swish, swish!” (What are you going to do with that time? Bathe? Go to work?)

Never fear, the library has the fix to soothe you until the next round starts. You can feed your insatiable hunger with books and DVDs on the great sport of basketball. Here are some suggestions to get you started.

Fittingly, we shall start on the playground.

Book cover for Heaven is a PlaygroundHeaven Is a Playground” was the first book on Urban Basketball. Photojournalist Rick Telander spent the summers of 1973 and 1974 with his subjects in Brooklyn, even sleeping on the apartment floor belonging to one of them. It’s about their lives and the hopes for better ones that they attach to the sport.

The DVD “Fathers of the Sport” follows the lineage of playground basketball to stars like Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain.

Gunnin for That #1 Spot” was filmed by the late, great Adam Yauch (MCA of The Beastie Boys). It covers the first annual Elite 24 Hoops Classic in Rucker Park where the top 24 high school basketball players in the nation compete.

Some people actually get picked for a team, unlike me (but I’m not bitter!), and end up playing in High School.

DVD Nimrod NationNimrod Nation” follows The Nimrods, a high school basketball team in a rural, basketball-obsessed town in Michigan.

One of the classic sports documentaries, “Hoop Dreams” followed two high school kids from inner-city Chicago for five years as they pursued their aspirations to make it into the NBA.

Of course the participants in March Madness are collegiate athletes. They have worked hard to graduate from high school basketball to college basketball.

Compared the huge sporting event it is today, the first NCAA tournament was considered a risky experiment. “March 1939” tells the story of the first tournament and the first champions against the backdrop of a looming world war.

 The Story of the NCAA Men's Basketball TournamentThere are so many good books about “The Big Dance.” You could go behind the scenes of the Final Four in “Last Dance,” learn about “How March Became Madness,” or “When March Went Mad.” That last book is written by Seth Davis, whom you will see a lot of on TV if you’re watching the tournament. It tells the story of the 1979 championship where Larry Bird and Magic Johnson played against each other, raising the profile of the tournament to a whole new level and starting a rivalry that continued into the NBA.

The Fab 5” is about the five freshmen who started for Michigan in the early ‘90s. They were considered one of the greatest classes ever recruited and made it to the championship two years in a row, but controversy followed the team. The scene where Chris Webber talks about trying to collect enough change to buy a pizza and seeing his jersey for sale in a shop window speaks to the current controversy about the status of collegiate athletes today.

The Last Amateurs” is about John Feinstein’s search for basketball played away from the influence of the vast sums of money associated with “big conference” college basketball and the temptations of the NBA.

Sports and social issues often intersect, and basketball in no exception.

The Game of Change” is about a game in the 1963 NCAA tournament when the all-white Mississippi State Bulldogs played the Loyola Ramblers, who had four African-Americans starting for the team. The Bulldogs had been kept out of the tournament due to an unwritten Mississippi law prohibiting competition between white and non-white players. The book tells the story of the players in this game and puts it in context with the broader struggle for equality.

And The Walls Came Tumbling Down” is about the 1966 NCAA championship when the all-white starting five of the Kentucky Wildcats, coached by the overtly racist Adolph Rupp, lost to Texas Western’s all African-American starting five. This game has been credited for having a profound social effect and delivered a major blow to segregated college sports.

The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central” is about a high school basketball team that made history and drew unwanted attention from segregationist George Wallace with their all African-American starting lineup.

Full Court Press” uses a close look at the University of Oregon women’s basketball team as a way to explore what it means to be a female athlete in America.

The memoir “She’s Got Next” is about how Arkansas transplant Melissa King finds herself playing pickup basketball in inner-city Chicago.

Training Rules” follows Penn State basketball champ Jennifer Harris as she challenges the homophobia of coach Rene Portland and takes a look at how homophobia has hurt the careers of other athletes.

In 1904 the most prominent women’s basketball team was from an Indian boarding school in Montana. The girls from Fort Shaw played at the St. Louis World’s Fair to introduce the world to the sport and returned with a trophy declaring them world champions. “Full-court Quest” tells the story of this team and offers a look at American Indian life and the early days of women’s basketball.

If you’ve read Sherman Alexie’s great short story collection, “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” you have an idea the passion for basketball that can be found on Indian Reservations. In “Counting Coup,” Larry Colton travels into the world of Montana’s Crow Indians. He follows a talented young basketball player who is a descendant of one of Custer’s Indian scouts. Colton uses basketball as a window into a part of our society long excluded from the American Dream.

If you’ve ever wondered about basketball above the Arctic Circle (who hasn’t?) “Eagle Blue” is the book for you. The population of basketball-crazed Fort Yukon is almost entirely composed of Athabascan Gwich’in Natives. It’s home to the Fort Yukon Eagles, winner of six regional championships in a row. This book follows the team through another Winter of near round-the-clock darkness and fifty-below-zero temperatures.

Going Pro?

When March Madness ends do you feel an emptiness that can’t be filled? Did this very long list of books just leave you hungry for more? Then let me point out that the NBA Finals will start April 18th. Perhaps “The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History” or Bill Simmons’ “The Book of Basketball” will help you prepare for that.

The post Let the Library Contribute to Your (March) Madness appeared first on DBRL Next.

Categories: Book Buzz

Reading on the Road: Recommended Audiobooks

March 18, 2015

I’m not actually recommending that you read while driving. Keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road. However, you can keep your ears occupied and make the time fly with an audiobook. If the approaching spring break (hooray!) means that a road trip is in your future, here are some audiobooks to keep you and your fellow passengers entertained.

Family friendly
These books are for a younger audience, but they are plenty entertaining for adults as well.

Book cover for The Mysterious Benedict SocietyThe Mysterious Benedict Society” by Trenton Lee Stewart. Brainy orphans, an eccentric benefactor and a puzzle to solve – what’s not to love?

The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy” by Jeanne Birdsall. While vacationing with their widowed father in the Berkshire Mountains, four lovable sisters share adventures with a local boy, much to the dismay of his snobbish mother, in this smart and funny story.

Book cover for Peter and the StarcatchersPeter and the Starcatchers” by Dave Barry. Young adventurers will love this Peter Pan prequel, and I can’t make an audiobook list without including something narrated by the fantastic Jim Dale, the voice artist who also read the Harry Potter series.

A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle. The grown-ups in the car will enjoy revisiting this story from their childhoods, and young listeners will be transported by the tale of Meg and Charles Wallace travelling through space and time to find their father, a physicist working for the government in secret, who has disappeared.

Book cover for Wonder by R.J. PalacioWonder” by R.J. Palacio. Listeners will fall in love with Auggie, a 5th grader entering school for the first time.  Born with extreme facial abnormalities, he has been home-schooled his entire life, making starting middle school an even more daunting prospect. At its conclusion, don’t be surprised if you and your car-mates end up having a discussion about kindness, overcoming obstacles and the acceptance of difference.

Adult (but not too adult)
These books are written for adults, but they have elements older children will enjoy and little in the way of language/themes you don’t want little ears to hear.

Book cover for Boys in the BoatThe Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics” by Daniel James Brown. This 2014 One Read selection is a Cinderella story of sorts that describes the journey of nine working class young men from the University of Washington as they row their way out of obscurity and into the gold-medal race at the 1936 Olympic Games in Hitler’s Berlin.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams. This off-beat (and very British) work of science fiction follows Arthur Dent, the last surviving person from Earth, and tour-guide writer Ford Prefect on their intergalactic journeys and extraterrestrial encounters. This most recent audiobook version is narrated by the very talented, very funny Stephen Fry.

Grownups only
These are crowd-pleasing audiobooks because of good writing, engaging storytelling and – most of all – terrific narration.

Book cover for Yes PleaseYes Please” by Amy Poehler. The “Parks and Rec” star dispenses life advice, cautionary tales, and plenty of behind-the-scenes looks at her life on the improv stage and as a member of the cast of “Saturday Night Live.” Guest appearances from Seth Meyers, Carol Burnett and even Poehler’s parents make listening to this book even more fun than reading it (which is already pretty fun). If our copies are all checked out, Tina Fey’s hilarious”Bossypants,” read by Fey herself, is a great second choice.

The Rosie Project” by Graeme Simsion. Narrator Dan O’Grady nails the voice of Australian Don Tillman, a socially challenged, possibly autistic, definitely brilliant geneticist as he uses logic to pursue love. A funny and smart romantic comedy.

Book cover for The End of the AffairThe End of the Affair” by Graham Greene. One online review said something like, “This is actor Colin Firth talking in your ear about love. Enough said.”

Any audiobooks you’ve enjoyed to make the miles fly? Let us know in the comments.

The post Reading on the Road: Recommended Audiobooks appeared first on DBRL Next.

Categories: Book Buzz

The Gentleman Recommends: Sir Terry Pratchett

March 16, 2015

Sir Terry Pratchett with two birds on his head - ImgurSir Terry Pratchett died on March 12, 2015. Prior to that he lived for 66 years. I’m not proud that it took his death to motivate me to recommend him. (It seems there is a clear formula to getting this gentleman’s recommendation: either author a book or three that I’ve read and loved in the last few months, or write dozens of books that I’ve loved at some point in my life and die.) Forgive me if I seem crass or irreverent, but the combination of grief and the tears it’s causing to ooze past my monocles and into my now watered-down brandy leave me shy of my customary humours. I think Sir Pratchett would have appreciated irreverence in the face of death.

I’ve been reading a lot of Sir Pratchett’s obituaries and tributes today, and I’m astounded each time at the reminder that he wrote over 70 books, both because that’s an astonishing amount of work from anyone that isn’t several centuries old (and even in that scenario involving some sort of immortal writing machine (or maybe a bookish vampire?) it would still be impressive) and because no one has specified the exact number. So, I scampered off to the Internet and counted, and if my counting hasn’t gotten too rusty, Sir Pratchett wrote 78 books. Only at snacking and lounging and referencing my fondness for snacking and lounging can I manage to be more prolific.

This era of constantly increasing celebrities brings about constantly increasing celebrity death, which causes the awkward situation of periodically grieving for someone you’ve never met. And while I can’t grieve Sir Pratchett the person, I can grieve the author and the absence of the 40 plus books he’d have written given a few more decades on earth, the man who combined hilarious/cutting/insightful satire, wordplay, remarkably imaginative world-building and immense compassion to create a stunning combo of quantity and quality fiction the likes of which I doubt the world, going forward, will ever see matched. Also, Sir Terry Pratchett was a knight, and while I’m sure there are others, I worry they won’t have the imagination needed to slay the more vicious dragons or keep the queen safe.

Sir Terry Pratchett taught me that you could write about wizards, dwarves, vampires, Igors, witches, zombies, politics, the grim reaper, war and the post office and be hilarious while having a great deal to say about ye old human condition. I wish I could apply the lesson half as well as it was taught.

I will close this post the way most of the articles about his death have closed: with a reprinting of the three tweets that came from his twitter account shortly after his death. It is helpful to know that among the hundreds of his characters was Death, who spoke in all caps and sometimes sarcastically, appears in nearly every book, is the star of a few, and occasionally takes a holiday from his grim duties.

“AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER”

“Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.”

“The End.”

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Categories: Book Buzz

A Smart-aleck Sleuth in Ancient Rome

March 9, 2015

Book cover for The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis(Review of the Marcus Didius Falco Mysteries, by Lindsey Davis)

If you grieve (as I do) at the end of a good mystery series, when the last mesmerizing page of the last book is turned, do I have a series for you! The Marcus Didius Falco Mysteries—a total of 20 novels, each a hefty 350-or-so pages—will delay that sad moment and keep you vastly entertained, possibly for the next decade.

Author Lindsey Davis has set her epic in first century AD Rome, where Falco, an informer (read “private detective”), plies his dangerous and not-very-lucrative trade. Falco is an enlightened rogue, occasionally employed by the Emperor Vespasian for cases no one else will take. One of the appeals of this series is Falco’s dry wit as he narrates his many adventures, both professional and personal (he also has an active love life and a large, drama-prone family.)

Book cover for Shadows in Bronze by Lindsey DavisAnother treat is the astounding amount of historically accurate detail crammed into every paragraph. You’ll read about Roman street vendor food (awful), the view from Falco’s seventh-floor Avantine tenement room (spectacular), first century urban firefighting (with fiber mats and brute strength), Roman bathing (with steam and olive oil) and countless other realities of daily Roman life. The effect is like time travel, or the most entertaining history course ever.

I’m not interested in the Roman Empire, and I rarely read historical fiction. Which makes it all the more remarkable that I have read and thoroughly enjoyed every single Falco novel. If you would like to do the same, here are the 15 titles available from DBRL. The five remaining titles* (which are not currently published in the US) are available through our interlibrary loan service.

Marcus Didius Falco Mysteries (in series order)

  1. The Silver Pigs
  2. Shadows in Bronze
  3. Venus in Copper
  4. The Iron Hand of Mars
  5. “Poseidon’s Gold”*
  6. “Last Act in Palmyra”*
  7. Time to Depart
  8. A Dying Light in Corduba
  9. Three Hands in the Fountain
  10. “Two for the Lions”*
  11. “One Virgin too Many”*
  12. “Ode to a Banker”*
  13. A Body in the Bathhouse
  14. The Jupiter Myth
  15. The Accusers
  16. Scandal Takes a Holiday
  17. See Delphi and Die
  18. Saturnalia
  19. Alexandria
  20. Nemesis

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Categories: Book Buzz

Better Know a Genre: Cozy Mysteries

March 4, 2015

Stack of books by Thomas Galvez via Flickr

It has been a while since I have helped readers to Better Know a Genre. What have I been doing instead of writing? Hibernating. But I’m back, and there are still a few weeks left until spring, so let us take these last days of winter to focus on the genre known as “cozy mysteries.”

Imagine the television show “Murder She Wrote” as a book. (Wait! You don’t have to imagine it.) Cozy mysteries, like all whodunits, begin with a crime. The crime usually takes place in a small town. Although the stories can contain murders or sexual activity, these are not explicitly described. There are not graphic depictions of violent crime. It is not usually the examination of forensic evidence from the crime scene that leads to the arrest of the perpetrator. Instead, there is a focus on solving the puzzle using knowledge of the town and its inhabitants.

The crime is often solved by a female amateur detective. The women tend to have a job that puts them into contact with the community, such as a teacher, author, librarian (hi!) or caterer. She might also have a hobby that serves as one of the themes of the book or series. Cooking and crafting are popular examples, and sometimes the books even contain recipes or patterns. She herself does not often work in law enforcement but will likely have unofficial help from someone on the police force. She is likable and engaging, not like the unfriendly Sherlock Holmes or the hard-drinking Philip Marlowe.

Also, cats. Lots of cats.

Check out some of these popular cozy mystery series from our collection!

Book cover for Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder by Joanne FlukeCulinary cozies:

Tea Shop Mystery series, by Laura Child
Goldy Bear Mystery series, by Diane Mott Davidson
Hannah Swenson Mystery series, by Joanne Fluke
Faith Fairchild Mystery series, by Katherine Hall Page

Book cover for Crewel World by Monica FerrisCrafting cozies:

Needlecraft Mystery series, by Monica Ferris
Seaside Knitters Mystery series, by Sally Goldenbaum
Quilting Mystery series, by Terri Thayer

These are just two of many many many cozy mystery themes. What is your favorite series?

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Categories: Book Buzz

Top Ten Books Librarians Love: The March 2015 List

March 2, 2015

Library Reads LogoThe list of books publishing this month that librarians across the country love is nearly all fiction. And the one work of nonfiction — by the accomplished Erik Larson, author of the bestsellers “The Devil in the White City” and “In the Garden of Beasts” — is narrative nonfiction, its propulsive storytelling making it read much like a novel. Still, the selections are wide-ranging in terms of topic and appeal, with everything from the character-driven follow-up to the extremely popular “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” to a new steampunk fantasy spin-off from the writer of the Parasol Protectorate series. Here’s this month’s LibraryReads list.

Book cover for The Love Song of Miss Queenie HennessyThe Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy” by Rachel Joyce

“Miss Queenie Hennessy, who we met in Joyce’s first book, is in a hospice ruminating over her abundant life experiences. I loved the poignant passages and wise words peppered throughout. Readers of ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ will enjoy this book. There’s no fast-paced plot or exciting twists — it’s just a simple, sweet story of a life well-lived.” - Andrienne Cruz, Azusa City Library, Azusa, CA

Book cover for Dead Wake by Erik LarsonDead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania” by Erik Larson

“In cinematic terms, this dramatic page-turner is Das Boot meets Titanic. Larson has a wonderful way of creating a very readable, accessible story of a time, place and event. We get three sides of the global story — the U-boat commander, British Admiralty and President Wilson — but what really elevates this book are the affecting stories of individual crew and passengers.” - Robert Schnell, Queens Library, Jamaica, NY 

Book cover for Prudence by Gail CarrigerPrudence” by Gail Carriger

“I was hoping we’d be seeing Prudence in her own series. Baby P — Rue to you — is all grown up and absolutely delightful. First-time readers will think it’s a wonderful book on its own merits. However, it becomes spectacular when we get to revisit some of the beloved characters from the Parasol Protectorate. Gail Carriger is always a delight!” - Lisa Sprague, Enfield Public Library, Enfield, CT

And here’s the rest of the list with links to the library’s catalog so you can place holds on these forthcoming titles!

The Witch of Painted Sorrows” by M. J. Rose
Cat Out of Hell” by Lynne Truss
Vanishing Girls” by Lauren Oliver
Delicious Foods” by James Hannaham
The Fifth Gospel” by Ian Caldwell
The Pocket Wife” by Susan Crawford
Where All Light Tends to Go” by David Joy

The post Top Ten Books Librarians Love: The March 2015 List appeared first on DBRL Next.

Categories: Book Buzz

Classics for Everyone: Cry, the Beloved Country

February 23, 2015

Book cover for Cry the Beloved Country“Cry the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply.”

Alan Paton’s South African novel is full of lyrical phrasing like that. It’s one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read. The action takes place in the late 1940s, amid apartheid practices and attitudes. There’s another sentence in the book I believe could be the title, as far as it describes the story: “All roads lead to Johannesburg.”

When Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo hears that his sister needs him, he leaves the small village of Ndotsheni for Johannesburg.  Since he’s going anyway, he decides to try to find his only son, Absalom, who moved to the city and stopped writing home. Also, Stephen’s brother who went there several years ago. Oh, and one of the pastor’s friends has a relative there. Would he possibly be able to check on her as well? Kumalo finds his family members, one by one, but the reunions are not joyful occasions. People move to Johannesburg because it’s where the jobs are, but it is an overcrowded city full of corruption, vice and crime. Everyone lives in fear.

The wealthy white farmer who lives near the pastor’s village also has a son in Johannesburg, a son who has been working for racial justice, until he is shot dead by burglars who expected to find nobody home. Kumalo remembers him as “a small bright boy.” Paton’s wording is everything when it comes to capturing the emotion of a scene: “…he was silent again, for who is not silent when someone is dead, who was a small bright boy?”  An even more tragic turn comes when Absalom Kumalo confesses to the crime, explaining how he fired the shot in panic.

The realities of apartheid are consistently woven into the fabric of the story. When a black man falls, a white man would like to help, but he finds himself at a loss, because “it is not the tradition” that people of different races should touch each other. The white churches are magnificent. The Ndotsheni church has multiple leaks when it rains. The children in the village have no milk.

But this book is not all pathos and tragedy. Though it is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of suffering.* As the two fathers cross paths and attempt to resume their lives, they both draw deep from the well of compassion to create meaning from their losses, to give the world a continuation of whatever positive they saw in the spirits of their respective sons.
 

*Refers to a well-known quote by Helen Keller

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Categories: Book Buzz

The Gentleman Recommends: Emily St. John Mandel

February 16, 2015

Station_ElevenPost-apocalyptic fiction is as popular and ubiquitous as this simile is confusing and ineffective. For some it is a gloomy respite from the constant barrage of good news, utopian grocers and complementary snacks. For others it is a chilling vision of events horrifyingly near at hand. For others still it is a genre of stories that they read for pleasure.

Unlike the supplies in these stories, there is a massive selection of such books to peruse. Readers know that one of the following, in order of likelihood, will be what brings civilization to its knees: zombies, super flu, war, aliens, weather or vampires. We know roughly how things will play out and that the most important people left will be attractive and/or magical. We know it will be nearly as excruciating to experience as it is fun to read about. But what we don’t know, and what has long been one of my chief concerns about life in a hellscape, is whether or not there will be traveling bands of actors and musicians, and if there are, whether or not they will eventually run into trouble. Emily St. John Mandel’s gnarly novel, “Station Eleven,” answers my questions while being really fun to read.

One of this novel’s nifty tricks is to jump around in time and among characters. It opens, just prior to the “Georgian Flu” outbreak it uses to decimate the population, with one of its main characters dying on stage, and then proceeds forward and backward in time to check on characters connected to the dead thespian. One connected character is the child actress that helped provide a twist to his production of “King Lear,” and twenty years later was one of the world’s foremost traveling actors. Another is a paparazzo that hounded the actor until switching careers to be a paramedic and attending the actor’s fateful play. Another, the dead actor’s agent, starts a “Museum of Civilization” (its most popular exhibits include stilettos and cell phones) in an airport where several people take refuge after the outbreak. (The airport is home to one of the novel’s best and most distressing images: a plane, landed safely on the runway but with its doors sealed to forever contain infected passengers.)

This novel quickly introduces a plethora of questions (like why is the nefarious prophet’s dog’s name taken from an extremely limited edition comic that happens to be another character’s most prized possession?), and as the answers start to come the book becomes extra-impossible to put down. “Station Eleven” bounces between post-apocalyptic suspense and pre-apocalyptic drama, but its characters and language are always well-crafted and immersive. It is doubtful the looming Armageddon will be anywhere near as enjoyable.

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Categories: Book Buzz

What to Read While You Wait for The Girl on the Train

February 9, 2015

Book cover for The Girl on the Train by Paula HawkinsThe Girl on the Train”  by Paula Hawkins  follows the mundane life of down-and-out Rachel who commutes daily into London by train. Before long she realizes she has been observing a couple every morning as they enjoy breakfast up on their roof top. Rachel begins to fantasize about their life, creating names for the couple while wishing their life was all hers. Then one day she notices a stranger in the garden, and the woman she fondly named Jess is no longer there! Written in the same vein as “Rear Window,” you will soon find yourself entangled in this psychological thriller. Place a hold on this popular best-seller, then pick up one of these similar books that draw in the curious observer.

Book cover for A Pleasure and a Calling by Phil HoganA Pleasure and a Calling” by Phil Hogan

Mr. Hemming, such a nice man. He is a real estate agent for a small community and likes to spy on his clients. He does this by keeping keys to the homes he has sold — all of them.  Then his creepy little secret life gets put on hold when they find a dead body in one of his homes.

 Book cover for Death Match by Lincoln ChildDeath Match” by Lincoln Child

Eden Incorporated — surveillance, artificial intelligence, state of the art matchmaking. It’s a perfect company. They create the perfect couple, the perfect match. Young, attractive, they have everything — it’s perfect. Now, a double suicide on their perfect living room floor. How is it that if everything was so perfect, they are dead? Isn’t Eden perfect?

Book cover for The Other Woman's House by Sophie HannahThe Other Woman’s House by Sophia Hannah

Unable to sleep, Connie Bowskill uses her husband’s laptop to log on to an Internet real estate site to view a home she has become obsessed with. While taking the virtual tour, she is witness to a woman lying face down in a pool of blood! Flustered by what she sees, she awakens her husband to show him, but when they return to site the photo is no longer there!

Have other similar titles to recommend to your fellow readers? Let us know in the comments!

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Categories: Book Buzz

The Work of Denis Johnson

February 6, 2015

Book cover for Train Dreams by Denis JohnsonIf you’re a Denis Johnson fan, part of the excitement about a forthcoming book is anticipating where he will take you this time. He is not an author to be pigeonholed. His wonderful novella, “Train Dreams,” was originally serialized in “The Paris Review” and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2012. (Nobody won that year — the Pulitzer Committee couldn’t come to a final decision.) The story follows a day laborer’s travels in the American West during the early 20th century. Before that Johnson published another novella, “Nobody Move,” this time serialized in Playboy. It tells an archetypal noir story about a group of shady characters in pursuit of a bag of cash. You can get an idea of the diverse subjects he is interested in through his nonfiction collection, “Seek.” There he writes about hippies, militia groups, gold mining in Alaska, Christian biker gangs and war-ravaged Liberia.

Book cover for The Laughing Monsters by Denis JohnsonSome of his experiences in Liberia were inspiration for his newest book, “The Laughing Monsters.” This book treads some similar territory to a previous one, “Tree of Smoke.” That was Johnson’s “Big Novel,” which won the 2007 National Book Award. It focuses on a spy-in-training during the Vietnam War engaged in psychological operations against the Vietcong, but its scope is broad. Covering a span of 20 years, it is as much about the character of America as the war in Vietnam. “The Laughing Monsters,” on the other hand, is a novella with a small cast of characters, set in the present day, and covers a short period of time. Like “Tree of Smoke,” it concerns intelligence operatives who have represented western governments, although their original countries of origin are convoluted, and their loyalties/allegiances are dubious. These operatives are also traveling through damaged and war-torn countries on missions, and maybe counter-missions, while opportunistically pursuing personal profit. It might be the closest thing to a comedy Johnson has written, although there aren’t many belly laughs to be had. The New York Times picked the book as one of it’s 100 notable books for 2014 and described it as “cheerfully nihilistic.”

Book cover for Tree of Smoke by Denis JohnsonTwo of the main characters in “Tree of Smoke” are soldiers in the Vietnam War, the brothers Bill and James Houston. Bill Houston is also one of the central characters in Johnson’s first novel, “Angels.” Bill meets a wife running away with her two kids on a Greyhound bus. Together they bounce around the fringes of America through bus stations, bars and cheap motels. They encounter lots of dispossessed, strange and dangerous people. They inevitably get into trouble and make bad decisions, which get them into even more trouble. The book’s bleak subject matter could come off as exploitative in another author’s hands, but Johnson’s deft characterization and artful sentences make this story of marginal characters about something bigger than them. While it isn’t necessary to read “Angels” before reading “Tree of Smoke,” there is an added poignancy to reading about Bill Houston’s past when you already know his future.

The setting, time period and character types of Johnson’s stories can vary greatly from book to book, but there are shared characteristics within his body of work. Like most writers, he returns to certain themes and fascinations. You can see his interest in the spy genre in “The Laughing Monsters,” and “Tree of Smoke.” They are more like the spy stories of Graham Greene or John LeCarre than Ian Fleming, but the trappings of spycraft are there, as is the thrill of reading about it. He’s also a fan of crime, noir and hard-boiled fiction. (He adapted the Jim Thompson novel, “A Swell Looking Dame” for the screen.) His novel “Already Dead” is a complex noir about a descendant of a wealthy family who’s at risk of losing what remains of his fortune. After crossing a member of a drug syndicate, he’s on the run from two of his goons, including one who likes to punctuate punches to the face with quotes from Nietzsche.

While the protagonist in “Already Dead” might already be dead, the protagonist in “The Name of The World” is living a “posthumous life,” or so he has felt since his wife and child were killed in a car crash. An excellent addition to the genre I’m going to call “University Novels,” “The Name of The World” is about an academic in a small college town who finds himself forced to “act like somebody who cares what happens to him” despite his tentativeness about re-engaging with life. It is another short, poignant and beautifully written novel by Johnson.

Denis Johnson started his writing career as a poet. His first book of poetry was published when he was 19. I think this is the reason so many of his novels are short, but they never suffer for it. The books are as long as they need to be and crafted as precisely as his sentences. Sometimes he illuminates the emotional weight of his stories with language and images that are borderline hallucinogenic. There are always elements that surprise in his work and a consistency of quality, whether it’s short stories or plays, fiction or nonfiction. Despite some of his awards and critical acclaim, he remains an underappreciated writer in many ways. Just as he deserves the accolades he has received, he deserves to be read widely.

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Categories: Book Buzz

Top Ten Books Librarians Love: The February 2015 List

February 2, 2015

Library Reads LogoThis month’s LibraryReads list definitely has something for every reading taste (just like the library itself)! The list of books publishing in February that librarians across the country recommend includes an entertaining historical fiction set in Hollywood during filming of “Gone With the Wind,” as well as a Regency romance, fantasy and plenty of mysteries to keep you and your cup of tea company. Top of the list is the latest penetrating look at a family’s inner life from Anne Tyler. Enjoy this month’s selections!

Book cover for A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne TylerA Spool of Blue Thread” by Anne Tyler
“In this book, we come to know three generations of Whitshanks — a family with secrets and memories that are sometimes different than what others observe. The book’s timeline moves back and forth with overlapping stories, just like thread on a spool. Most readers will find themselves in the story. Once again, Tyler has written an enchanting tale.”
- Catherine Coyne, Mansfield Public Library, Mansfield, MA

Book cover for A Touch of Stardust by Kate AlcottA Touch of Stardust” by Kate Alcott
“With the background of the making of ‘Gone with the Wind,’ this is a delightful read that combines historical events with the fictional career of an aspiring screenwriter. Julie is a wide-eyed Indiana girl who, through a series of lucky breaks, advances from studio go-fer and assistant to Carole Lombard to contract writer at MGM. A fun, engaging page-turner!”
- Lois Gross, Hoboken Public Library, Hoboken, NJ

Book cover for My Sunshine AwayMy Sunshine Away” by M.O. Walsh
“A crime against a 15-year-old girl is examined through the eyes of one of her friends — a friend who admits to being a possible suspect in the crime. This is a wonderful debut novel full of suspense, angst, loyalty, deceit and, most of all, love.”
- Alison Nadvornik, Worthington Libraries, Columbus, OH

And here is the rest of the list with links to these on-order books in our catalog.

Happy reading!

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Categories: Book Buzz

Exploring the Strange World of Lewis Carroll

January 26, 2015

Book cover for Alice in WonderlandLewis Carroll introduced the world to Alice, a young girl who stumbles out of her dull reality into Wonderland, an absurd world of talking cats, mad hatters and a croquet-playing queen. Carroll was also an accomplished poet, turning the art of poetry on its head (check out his “Jabberwocky,” a personal favorite of mine that manages to make sense out of gibberish — “O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”). His sense of humor and tales of the absurd have engaged readers of all ages for over a century.

Lewis Carroll, born Charles L. Dodgson on January 27, 1832, was the third of 11 children born to a country parson. As an adult, he taught and published material on math and logic in Oxford. His vivid imagination was visible even in his teaching. “Lewis Carroll in Numberland: His Fantastical Mathematical Logical Life” explores Carroll’s body of mathematical publications, with a special focus on the fascinating (and fun!) puzzles, riddles and ciphers he created to use in his teaching.

Photo of Alice Liddell

Carroll spent his time outside of the classroom engaged in photography, and he was particularly interested in portrait photography. This hobby introduced him to Alice Liddell, the girl many believe inspired his most famous character (although he denied that Alice was based on any one person). “The Alice Behind Wonderland” explains the technology and techniques involved in Carroll’s photography and offers a glimpse at the life of the “true” Alice.

Book cover for The Mystery of Lewis CarrollDue to his private nature, Carroll remains a bit of a mystery. Many of his private diaries have been lost. Fortunately, he was a prolific writer of letters to friends and family and much of that correspondence remains. Both “Very Truly Yours, Charles L. Dodgson, Alias Lewis Carroll: A Biography” and “The Letters of Lewis Carroll” draw on Carroll’s letters, photos and writings to construct engaging and insightful biographies. Carroll was considered a bit odd and that certainly inspires many questions about him that cannot be answered due to lack of access to his private writings. “The Mystery of Lewis Carroll: Discovering the Whimsical, Thoughtful, and Sometimes Lonely Man Who Created ‘Alice in Wonderland’” draws on Carroll’s personal bank records and correspondence from his family and the Liddell family in an attempt to explain just who he was and whether he was as odd as he seemed.

At his death in 1898, Carroll was a beloved, best-selling children’s author. His stories remain popular to this day. People are still drawn to him and his work because they are fun stories, but also because of the questions they raise. For example, “Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy: Curiouser and Curiouser” looks at Carroll’s stories from a philosophical point of view and ponders the deeper meanings behind them, relating them back to different philosophical ideas. Lewis Carroll was a fascinating man, both in his writing and in his life. Understanding him is certainly not an easy task, but there are many wonderful books in the library that offer insight into who he was and how he created those imaginative tales.

Source of Carroll’s photo of Alice Liddell: serenity_now via photopin cc

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