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Three Great American Novels for Your Fourth of July

July 1, 2015

Book cover for Freedom by Jonathan FranzenThe label “Great American Novel” is often applied to a book that captures something essential about American culture and its people, a story grounded in and informed by the American experience. Others use the term to identify a work as the best representative of the kind of literature being written in America during a particular time period. And of course, a great many other readers and critics dismiss the idea of any book being able to capture the diverse experiences and realities of all Americans. Whatever your opinion, this July 4th you can celebrate our nation’s independence with these books that – if the honorific were actually to be awarded – could be contenders for the title of Great American Novel.

Freedom” by Johnathan Franzen
The Berglunds, the suburban family at the center of this book, appear perfect on the outside, but looks are deceiving. The story follows them through the last decades of the twentieth century and concludes near the beginning of the Obama administration. Their lives begin to unravel when their son moves in with aggressive Republican neighbors, green lawyer Walter takes a job in the coal industry and go-getter Patty becomes increasingly unstable and enraged. Desire, entitlement, marriage, family – Franzen plumbs these and many other weighty topics in this study of middle class American life.

Book cover for Gilead by Marilynne RobinsonGilead” by Marilyn Robinson
This lyrical and thoughtful novel takes the form of a letter from the dying Reverend John Ames to his son, revealing Ames’ deep reverence for his life, his work and this country. He chronicles three previous generations of his family, including a fiery abolitionist grandfather and pacifist father, both also men of faith. The story stretches back to the Civil War, reveals uncomfortable family secrets and examines the bond between fathers and sons.

To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
First published in 1960, the racial injustice described in this novel unfortunately has strong echoes in today’s America. Scout Finch, daughter of the town lawyer, likes to spend her summers building tree houses, swimming and catching lightning bugs with her big brother Jem. But one summer, when a black man is accused of raping a white woman and her father defends the man in the courtroom, Scout’s carefree days come to an end. She joins her father in a desperate battle against ignorance and prejudice in their small Alabama town.

What books do you recommend as stories that uniquely capture the American experience? Toni Morrison’s “Beloved“? F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby“? Let us know in the comments.

The post Three Great American Novels for Your Fourth of July appeared first on DBRL Next.

Categories: Book Buzz

Heroic Women of Historical Fiction

June 29, 2015

book cover for The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie NewtonThis summer we’re exploring heroes, from crime-fighting superheroes to everyday folks just making a difference in their communities. Heroes can also be found within the pages of great literature. Historical fiction, which often chronicles the imagined experiences of real-life events, is a genre that is especially filled with heroes. I will admit I’m partial to stories of women in these historical settings. I know my own life is very different than those of the women who came before me. In fact, the life I lead has been very much shaped by those brave women from earlier centuries. The heroic women of historical fiction provide a glimpse into the challenges women of the past faced and how their bravery shaped today’s world. Here are a few of my favorite historical novels featuring strong women.

The years before the Civil War were tumultuous, especially in the Kansas Territory where abolitionists struggled to gain a stronghold and help the state enter the Union as a free state. Jane Smiley’s “The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton,” features a Midwestern young woman who finds herself thrust into the upheaval of “Bleeding Kansas.” Lidie heads out to the territory with her abolitionist husband and (to be frank) completely unrealistic expectations of what the Kansas prairie will be like.  The story, filled with Lidie’s dry wit, is at times laugh-out-loud funny, and at others is quite sobering in its portrayal of the horror of slavery and violence of those years. I think Missouri residents will find this read especially interesting given all the Missouri locales that Lidie visits during her travels.

Book cover for Shanghai Girls by Lisa SeeThe experience of Chinese immigrants in WWII-era Los Angeles features in Lisa See’s “Shanghai Girls.” Pearl and May are sisters living exciting lives as models in glamorous Shanghai. When WWII breaks out, they find themselves in arranged marriages to sons of a Chinese-American merchant. Pearl and May are forced to leave China for the United States, landing first in the Angel Island Chinese immigration station and then in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. The sisters, bearing the weight of their own painful secrets, struggle to adjust to life under a domineering father-in-law and a society that is highly prejudicial against Asian-Americans. See’s novel, based in part on her own family’s experiences, provides a captivating look at the immigrant experience in this country.

Book cover for Year of WondersA small town’s struggle to survive during the Plague is chronicled in Geraldine Brooks’ “Year of Wonders.” The story is based on actual events — a small Derbyshire town called the village of Eyam quarantined itself in 1666 in order to prevent the plague from spreading further. Anna, a young maid, finds herself tasked with learning herbal remedies and midwifery when her village is overcome by the devastating disease. She becomes an important healer but faces many challenges, including the superstitions of the very people she is working to save. The novel is a beautifully written journey of self-discovery as Anna realizes strength and determination she did not know she possessed.

Happy reading!

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Categories: Book Buzz


June 22, 2015

Book cover for The Dark Knight ReturnsThe superhero. The origin story, the nemesis, the team up, the world-saving, etc. Oh, and the reboot. Never forget the reboot. We’ve seen it before, and we’ll see it again. The superhero is an enduring trope that has permeated pop-culture. Inevitably, writers and artists started creating comics that critique, satirize and subvert the idea of the superhero. What might have started as efforts to tell a new story in a well-worn genre morphed into creative examinations of the concept of the superhero. Despite any high-minded genre dissections, the basic thrill of superhero stories is in these titles. These creators work in the genre because they ultimately love it, warts and all.

In 1986 two series premiered which are now touchstones for the re-imagining of the superhero story: Watchmen, and The Dark Knight Returns. The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller tells the story of a 55-year-old Bruce Wayne who must return from retirement (spoiler alert!) as Batman. Gotham has turned into a bit of a dystopian nightmare in the 10 years since Batman retired. Batman is not so nice and not very stable. His reemergence brings some of his arch rivals out of retirement as well, which adds to the chaos in Gotham. In addition to being a different take on an iconic character, “The Dark Knight Returns” satirizes the media and political atmosphere of the 1980s.

Cover for The Watchmen graphic novelWatchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons also offers a critique of the 1980s, specifically the Cold War hysteria of the time. It examines political themes buried in comics, such as the line between vigilantism and fascism, and what a government might really do with superpowered beings. Moore’s original idea started as a murder mystery involving characters from Charlton Comics, which DC Comics had just purchased. Although Moore was persuaded to create original characters for the story, it maintained it’s very meta take on comics, what Gibbons referred to as “a comic about comics.”

An unfortunate trend followed the success of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Many comics appeared that tried to replicate their success with darker, more violent superhero stories, but they lacked the substance that made those comics lasting works. However, some darker comics followed whose quality is comparable.

The series Marshal Law by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill first appeared in October 1987, when the final issue of Watchmen was published. It’s a darkly satirical story where the superheros are misguided government experiments and shell-shocked war vets wreaking havoc in a crumbling San Francisco, now called “San Futuro.” Marshal Law is a legally sanctioned superhero hunter (“I’m a hero hunter. I hunt heroes. Haven’t found any yet,” is his tag line). He’s trying to round up all the rogue heroes to make the city safer. From superheros.

Cover for the graphic novel The BoysThe Boys by Garth Ennis also deals with out-of-control superheros with a dark, satirical tone. In this case the superheros are an amoral and entitled variety that play a public role as “heroes” while in reality show a complete disregard for others. The Boys are a CIA-backed group who have lost loved ones, or otherwise had their lives ruined, by the negligence and misbehavior of superheroes. They are given injections of the same compound that creates superheroes and tasked with holding the “‘supes” accountable. They do so with a vengeance.

The series Irredeemable and Incorruptible by Mark Waid tell two sides to the same story. Irredeemable is the story of Plutonian, a god-like superhero from another world (like Superman) who loses it. He lays waste to much of the world, and the survivors live in terror of him. The story traces the cause of his meltdown, while also following the uphill battle surviving superheros have in their attempt to stop the most powerful being on Earth.

Incorruptible follows super villain Max Damage after Plutonian’s meltdown. The horror inflicted by Plutonian and the state the world is in give Max a crisis of conscience. The series follows him as he tries to change his ways and do right in this broken world.

Cover of the graphic novel Death RayDaniel ClowesThe Death Ray examines the “with great power comes great responsibility” line from Spider-Man, asking “what might a misfit teenager really do if he had superpowers?” Andy is growing up in 1970s Chicago and suffering at the hands of bullies. He discovers that smoking cigarettes gives him super strength. Naturally, he arms himself with a ray gun and looks for revenge. Andy is neither good nor evil but a realistic portrait of a mixed-up kid given some unrealistic abilities. The story is told with the mix of melancholy, humor and cynicism that has made Clowes one of the most critically acclaimed cartoonists of our time.

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Categories: Book Buzz

Top Ten Books Librarians Love: The July 2015 List

June 19, 2015

Library Reads LogoCan we all just agree to take the month of July off to sit around in our hammocks sipping iced tea and reading until our eyeballs break? The LibraryReads list highlighting books publishing next month (and inspiring librarians across the country to entertain similar fantasies) includes not only the expected breezy romances but also a new historical fiction from Paula McClain (“The Paris Wife“) and a confident debut that will delight foodies with an appetite for character-driven novels. Bon appétit!

Book cover for Kitchens of the Great MidwestKitchens of the Great Midwest” by J. Ryan Stradal
“This novel is quirky and colorful. The story revolves around chef Eva Thorvald and the people who influence her life and her cooking. With well-drawn characters and mouthwatering descriptions of meals, ‘Kitchens of the Great Midwest’ will appeal to readers who like vivid storytelling. Foodies will also enjoy this delicious tale.” – Anbolyn Potter, Chandler Public Library, Chandler, AZ

Book cover for Circling the SunCircling the Sun” by Paula McLain
“I couldn’t stop reading this fascinating portrayal of Beryl Markham, a complex and strong-willed woman who fought to make her way in the world on her terms. McLain paints a captivating portrait of Africa in the 1920s and the life of expats making their home there. Highly, highly recommended.” – Halle Eisenman, Beaufort County Library, Hilton Head, SC

Book cover for Kiss MeKiss Me” by Susan Mallery
“As always, Ms. Mallery has given us a fantastic read. As soon as I pick up her titles, I can’t put them down until I have finished them. They are feel-good, heartwarming — I need more synonyms. I love seeing all the previous characters, the friendships and families that have formed since ‘Chasing Perfect’ came out five years ago. Thanks, Ms. Mallery, for another amazing read.” – Jenelle Klavenga, Marshalltown Public Library, Marshalltown, IA

Here is the rest of the July list with links to the library’s catalog. Place your holds now!

Second Chance Summer” by Jill Shalvis
Speaking in Bones” by Kathy Reichs
Those Girls” by Chevy Stevens
Maybe in Another Life” by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Crooked Heart” by Lissa Evans
Love Lies Beneath” by Ellen Hopkins
Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day” by Leanne Brown

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

Categories: Book Buzz
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