The Man Booker Prize Shortlist!


Today!  Today is the day that the Man Booker Prize Shortlist will be announced!

As you might remember, there are many reasons to get all excited about the Man Booker Prize for fiction, an award that celebrates fiction from around the world, an ultimately selecting “the very best book of the year”, according to their website…heady stuff indeed.

If you couldn’t tell by my excessive use of exclamation points in covering this award, the Man Booker Prize holds a place near and dear to my heart.  Not only because it gets people talking about books, their power and their beauty, but because some of the best books I have ever read were Booker nominees.  While these books aren’t necessarily quick- or easy-reads, I can almost guarantee you that each one will be thought-provoking, grippingly emotional and, above surprising.  Sometimes that means there is a killer twist in the book’s final pages; sometimes it means that the character you thought was the baddie was secretly on the side of the angels the whole time; sometimes it’s because this story forced you to recognize pieces and parts of yourself that you didn’t know where there before–and that, ultimately, is the mark of a great piece of fiction.

In addition, the authors who pen these books often have fascinating stories of their own to share–even more so since the geographical parameters of the award were widened in the past few years.  Shortlisted author Sunjeev Sahota didn’t open a novel until he was 18, when he picked up Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children before his flight from India to England to begin university. A mathematician by training and in practice, Sahota has since penned two novels, and reads voraciously.  “I suddenly discovered this whole new world. I realised there was this storytelling language that I hadn’t ever seen or heard before,” he told the Yorkshire Post.  Chigozie Obioma, one of the debut authors to be nominated, began life in Nigeria before living in Cypress, Turkey, and the US, where he teaches at the University of Nebraska.  Hanya Yanagihara, author of A Little Life grew up drawing cadavers at a local morgue, after her physician father decided to blend his love of science with her love of sketching portraits.  As she said in an interview with The Guardian. “…I love discovering how far a body will go to protect itself, at all costs. How hard it fights to live.”

In short, then, if you are looking for a book that will help you see wildly different personal and geographical perspectives, change the way you think about what fiction can do, look no further than the Man Booker nominees, or the many books from years’ past.

So, without further ado, here is the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize 2015.  Stop into the Library and check them out for yourself, and have no fear that we’ll be covering the revelation of the final winner on October 15 with bells on!


A Spool of Blue ThreadAnne Tyler (USA)

A Brief History of Seven KillingsMarlon James (Jamaica)

Satin IslandTom McCarthy (UK)

The Fishermen: Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria)

A Little Life: Hanya Yanagihara (USA)

The Year of the RunawaysSunjeev Sahota (India) Not published in the US until March 2016 (Grrrr…..)


Also, here are a few more exclamation points, just because I’m really excited about this: !!!!!!!!!!!

When books turn on you…finding the good in a bad book relationship


Just like our interpersonal relationships, there are times when our relationships with books can be fulfilling…and sometimes they can be disappointing, unhelpful, or downright unhealthy.  And it’s just as important to be aware of these moments, and have ways to handle them.

I have read a number of books in my time that seduced me with false promises; spectacular descriptions or glowing reviews that convince me that I can’t live another day without getting my hands on it, but which don’t speak to me as they spoke to those other readers.  And that is fine.  Most of the books that have changed my life are ones that friends and fellow readers couldn’t stand.

But the ones that really hurt are the books that lull you into a false sense of security…the ones that promise so much…and then turn on you with an unexpected plot twist, a sudden death, or a shift in perspective or a character, leaving the reader floundering, lost, and desperately trying to recapture the magic they once felt.  There is an enormous sense of loss when this happens, as if a personal relationship has gone bad, because so much time and energy and imagination has been devoted to this book–and it just doesn’t seem willing to conform to the reader’s plans or wishes.

42ce1586f98cd2392f7bd3ebdffda324Perhaps my favorite example of this is a quote from Jason Momoa, the super-terrific star of such shows as Game of Thrones, and The Red Road (and who is heartily invited to visit our library any time he’s around), upon learning of the death of his character, Khal Drogo, in Game of Thrones: “[I] started reading the book… It took me four days. [When] Drogo died, I literally freaked out, set down the book, went to Barnes & Noble, bought the second book and I’m flipping through it because, of course, I’m [convinced I’ll be back] in it and I was so bummed [I wasn’t]”.

So what is there to do?  Other than finding another copy of the same book to ensure that our copy isn’t somehow ‘broken’, and that the same troubling section does indeed exist in all copies, of course.  Can we break-up with books over a difference of opinions?  We will be discussing the issue of ‘book-breakups’ soon, but for now, how do we handle stories that “bum us out”, to use the great Mr. Momoa’s phrase?  What good can we take from these moments?

My sixth-grade self would tell you to fling the book across the room and refuse to speak for three days (yes; this actually happened.  No, please don’t throw your library books across the room).  But my taller, ever-so-slightly-more-grown-up self tries to remember what drew me to a book in the first place, and use those moments to find new books to love.  Perhaps I didn’t feel that spark with the book in my hand, but I can learn from that in order to find a new book on the shelf that might just change my life.

So here are a list of some books with sensational moments.  Maybe they are not my ‘forever’ books, but they led me to great things…and maybe they’ll do the same for you…

2690922The StrainThe opening scenes of this trilogy about a modern-day vampire epidemic is one of the most eerie, disturbing, and thoroughly unforgettable that I can recall.  A plane lands in New York with all its window-blinds drawn, and sits silent and dark on the runway.  After all attempts to communicate with the place fail, agents are sent out to force the doors open–only to reveal that every person inside the plane is dead.  I’ll be honest, I never finished this trilogy, but this well-paced, utterly unsettling scene alone is a reason to recommend to someone looking for a thoroughly modern twist on some very old supernatural themes.   I loved the steady pacing and gradually building sense of dread, and ended up reading (and adoring) ‘Salem’s Lot and The Passage as a result.

3537128The Truth About the Harry Quebert AffairAs I’ve said before, Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, is perhaps my favorite book of all times.  So when I began reading through Joel Dicker’s award-winning mystery/thriller, I was delighted to realize that it was, essentially, a re-telling of Lolita, told from outside the relationship.  Here, a young man discovers the story of his mentor’s relationship with a fifteen-year-old girl when he himself was in his thirties–but only after her body is discovered buried on his property.  The references, allusions, and conscious homage to Nabokov’s book in the pages of this novel made me appreciate both works even more, and I found Dicker’s use of the ever-popular Unreliable Narrator fascinating.  And while I still can’t wrap my head around the plot twists that begin around page 500, this story would definitely appeal to anyone who enjoyed the surprises in Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.  I personally loved the ways in which the various testimonies from the townspeople and friends of the main characters combined to make a story that was heart-wrenching, surprising, and, overall, completely convincing…until the very moment that it wasn’t.

3099383The Sojourn: As someone who studies the First World War, I was thrilled to learn about Andrew Krivak’s book, which focuses on Jozef Vinich, an Austrian-American who becomes a sniper along the Italian Front in the Great War.  The book is at once a close study of an individual caught up in a tidal wave of historic events, and an attempt to capture the war on a grand scale.  It was, by no means my cup of tea, but it did lead me to several non-fiction books about the Italian Front, such as The White War (one of the few book in English published about this particular geographic area during the course of World War One), and the fiction of Stefan Zweig, himself an Austrian who lived through the First World War, and captured not only the opulence of his pre-war Vienna, but the loss of faith and community that resulted from the war.

I hope this helps you deal with some troublesome book relationships in your own life, beloved patrons, and always know that we at the library are here for you, and ready to help you discover a new book to love anytime you need it.

“Tom Cruise isn’t coming to steal your books”: A word about adaptations


So because my birthday was last week, Stephen King made an appearance in Cambridge to moderate a discussion with Lee Child, author of the much-beloved Jack Reacher novels (at least, that’s what my dad told me–not because Lee Child just released a new book).  The event was a wonderful one for fans of Child and King alike, not in the least part because it turns out that Child and King are enormous fans of each other, and spoke together not only as colleagues and fellow wordsmiths, but as delighted readers who ad just met an author who had a profound influence on their literary life.

And, unsurprisingly, in the course of this conversation, the topic turned to issues of film adaptations and the perhaps misguided selection of actors to play certain roles (Cough–Tom Cruise!!–cough, cough!).  It seemed that, by and large, readers still had not yet come to terms with an actor who would never be mistaken for tall, or rugged, playing a character who is defined by his height and rough-hewn survival instincts.  King and Child, however, attempted to assuage the masses, in part by discussing the nature of film-making and casting, but also by offering one of the most fascinating pieces of counsel I have ever had the good fortune to receive.

“I want to assure you,” Child said, with a little British smile on his long British face, “that Tome Cruise is not coming to steal your books.  When it’s all over, the books will still be there.”

And after I overcame the urge to leap out of my chair and cheer, I began thinking…what is it, really, about film adaptations, that so upsets many devoted readers?  Because, truthfully, no one is coming to steal your books.  And when you come home from the cinema, the books, and all the words inside them, will still be waiting for you.

I think, in part, at least, it might have something to do with that sense of ownership we feel over the characters and scenes in books we have loved, which we’ve mentioned previously.  For someone else to tell us what Jack Reacher, or Kurt Barlow, or Edmund Bertram look like seems like heresy; we know what they look like, and sound like, and act like, because, in part, we brought them to life through the act of reading.

On another level, nothing is as scary/romantic/moving/surprising on screen as it is on the page, precisely because your own imagination is fueling those scenes of terror, or love, or reunion, or shock.  When you see the product of someone else’s imagination on screen, there is nothing for your brain to add.  This is precisely why no aliens are ever scary once they walk on-screen.

Actually, there are some superb adaptations out there; works that allow us to explore relationships that the author could not (for example, in the latest Brideshead Revisited film, where we could finally talk about the relationship between Sebastian and Charles with a measure of honesty), or to unpack issues that the book may have rendered obscure (like The Painted Veil did for Kitty’s feelings towards Walter), or show us flashy magic or grand explosions in a way that, perhaps, our imaginations can not (I, for one, can never imagine being as cold as Jon Krakauer was on Everest, so I look forward to the film showing me what a blizzard on the world’s tallest mountain looks like).  Adaptations also, occasionally, give authors the chance to revisit and re-consider previous works.  Douglas Adams stated that whenever he adapted The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for another medium, like film or radio, he always changed things up, not only so readers could see a different story, but also so that he could explore options that he didn’t when writing.  Though this doesn’t really excuse the poor production qualities and general lack-luster feel of the latest Hitchhiker’s film, it does, at least, make us that much more grateful for the book, I suppose.

Which brings me back to Child’s words of wisdom.  Movies aren’t coming to steal our books, or to take that experience of reading away from us–or from anyone else.  What they can do is offer us, at their best, is a new way of looking at characters or events, give us a chance to visually wallow in period details, or, at their worst, a chance to be grateful that we have those books to savor, and the pictures in our imagination to sustain us.

Here are some adaptations for your readerly consideration:

2426609The Painted VeilAs I mentioned above, I personally think this is one of the most successful adaptations I have seen.  It is pretty closely based on W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, in which Dr. Walter drags his adulterous wife, Kitty, to China, where he has been assigned to assist in a cholera hospital during one of the largest epidemics in Asian history.  While the book is a moving and engaging one, the film moves past Maugham’s inherent ambiguity about Kitty and Walter’s relationship, showing us the joys and tragedies of getting to know the person you married, wholly and completely.  It also delves into issues in Chinese history just after the First World War with a sensitivity and insight that Maugham was simply not in a position to do.  All in all, this is a visually stunning, deeply engrossing love story–between people and places–that is definitely worth checking out.

2421451Jane Eyre: Though there are aspects of Charlotte Bronte’s seminal novel that seem generally un-adaptable, this version seems to ‘get’ Jane’s quiet-but-steel-willed personality, and also captures the tension between her and Rochester in pitch-perfect fashion…and even allows us to see a few moments that Bronte couldn’t…this is no ‘bodice-ripper’ by any stretch, but by showing us Jane and Rochester touching and (gasp) kissing (!), it also allows us to realize just how powerful–and dangerous–their relationship was for the time period in which they lived.  I love the fact that the film makers weren’t afraid to allow the two main characters to look plain, ugly, and generally human, as it enhances the power of their performances and relationships immeasurably.

2414590The Prestige: This is a tricky one to discuss for those who haven’t read the book, but suffice it to say, this is one of those films that allows us to see what authors attempt to describe: in this case, magic, both the mystical and the technological kind.  Christopher Priest’s novel is a wildly complicated, deeply complex story of two warring magicians in the late 19th century, and the film embraces not only the heights of the Age of Invention, but also the depths that these two men are willing to go in order to prove their own superiority.  Plus, David Bowie plays Nikola Tesla.

3650525Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell: Oh, I’m sorry, did you think you could get through a post on literary adaptations without this one getting mentioned?  Not going to happen this week, beloved patrons.  This adaptation not only captures the simply breath-taking quality of simple magic with simple tricks and angles, but the grand, awe-inspiring majesty of it, as well.  Truthfully, it was interesting to read reviews of this miniseries in Britain, which generally complained that the adaptation was too close to the book.  Which seems to be a different problem entirely, and one that we shall have to tackle on another day….

Saturdays @ the South: Travel by Book


When I was in college, my grandparents sent me an adorable “thinking of you” card with a cartoon cat in the clouds. Attached with perforation to this card was a bookmark with the same cartoon cat floating on a book, that said: “Travel by book… and never lose your place.” It was so sweet and it’s a bookmark that I still have and use. It’s my go-to bookmark when I’m reading a book that has an enormously strong sense of place or a book that describes traveling and is a sentimental reminder of how transportive books can be.

Traveling by book is not a new phenomenon, nor is it one that is particularly original, but it is a phenomenon that most readers can relate to. Anyone who has picked up a book and been completely transported into that book’s world (whether the places are real or simply a figment of the author’s -and thereby reader’s- imagination) has been able to travel by book. In the pages of a book, entire worlds can open up, whether it’s Wonderland, a hometown, Paris or the far-reaches of the globe. While you may not be able to come home with a camera full of pictures and a suitcase full of souvenirs, armchair traveling with a book does manage to leave you with memories and images of a place that can stay with you for a lifetime. Such is the power of words when combined with our supple imaginations. Plus, you don’t have to worry about navigating security checkpoints or what to pack.

But sometimes, traveling with a book can be far more literal, with much more tangible rewards. My new favorite example of people finding their way with books is the mayor of the Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca, in conjunction with literacy advocate Victor Miron, allowing any person who was reading a book to ride the public buses for free during a certain weekend in June. They called the campaign: Travel by Book. Miron hopes to make this a regular event in Cluj-Napoca, where apparently books can really take you places!

Ride on, ride free you literate Romanians!

Travel writing was particularly popular during the Victorian age when writers like Charles Dickens, D.H. Lawrence, William Dean Howells and Henry James wrote of their adventures abroad, but it has become it’s own genre now (and a personal favorite of mine) with anthologies published annually, edited by leaders in the field. Writers of all types, poets, essayists, memoirists and fiction writers can all take us on a journey without ever leaving the comfort of our bed, chair or whatever other favorite place you have to read.

If you missed out on being able to get away during the Labor Day weekend, or if all of this travel talk has given you a case of wanderlust, here is a tiny sampling of the many books that can take you places:

1259351Bella Tuscany by Frances Mayes

The queen of Tuscany memoirs has created quite the franchise for herself, starting with Under the Tuscan Sun, but the popularity of her books is with good reason. Not only are they beautifully written (she’s also a poet), but the reader is immediately transported not only to Tuscany, but in the midst of Tuscan life, complete with quirky residents and idiosyncracies of living abroad through an American’s eyes. This one book in particular, has one of the strongest senses of place because Mayes had already fixed up the house which took up most of her first memoir, and allows herself to delve into Tuscan life.

2669089The Lost City of Z by David Grann

This book was surprisingly gripping as a middle-aged man goes in search of the Lost City of Z and answers to what happened to the explorer obsessed with finding it, Percy Fawcett. Hardly the first to seek an explanation of Fawcett’s disappearance, Grann gives the reader not only a solid background into the history of the mythical city, he also takes the reader alongside him as he plunges into the depths of one of the least explored areas on earth. I defy you not to be swatting at imagined mosquitoes during this read!

3551126Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

This book was delightful and gives the sense of road-tripping without having to fill up the gas tank of a Winnebago. Author Steinbeck takes his blue standard poodle, Charley with him across the US, visiting places and getting a sense of the locals wherever he goes. While it’s been disputed that much of this book actually happened in Steinbeck’s imagination and not real life (apparently he spent more time with the dog than with any locals), for me it doesn’t detract from the book’s charm. Whether or not the events actually happened isn’t really the point; it’s the journey, even if that journey was mostly in the author’s mind, especially since readers are journeying with him in their minds.

his_illegal_self_lg_0His Illegal Self by Peter Carey

Speaking of fiction, this book has a terrific sense of place even the  as the main character, Che, is thrust from relatively isolated privilege in New York into the depths of tropical Australia, living on the outskirts of the law. Che has to come to terms not only with his location but his place in life. The ending, I have on very good authority, is truly amazing.

2660316Drood by Dan Simmons

I forgot to mention this book in my Book Hangovers post, but I think it fits  into the “transportive fiction” category as well. (Actually, it fits a LOT of categories, including unreliable narrators because it’s just. that. good). Drood has earned its place here, however, because this is an incredibly well-researched account of Victorian London, proving that a good author can not only transport you into a place, but to a time as well. Plowing through this book you will smell the sewers of the seedy London slums, the gardens of Charles Dickens’ house, the fireplace in Wilke Collins’s apartment, the pubs of high-brow society and so much more. This book took me into London so completely that I honestly thought the author was English (he’s not; he’s American). Don’t let the bulk of this tome frighten you off; there’s a lot here to pick you up and take you away without even realizing how much you’ve read.

Till next week, dear readers, I hope whatever you read, regardless of what it is, takes you someplace you enjoy!

Five Book Friday!

Fun facts for your Friday:

1) A duck’s quack doesn’t echo, and no one knows why.

2)Owls are the only birds who can see the color blue.  (It would be far more interesting to learn who administers eye tests to owls)

3) Green Eggs and Ham was written when Dr. Seuss’ editor challenged him to write a book with less than fifty words.

4)  The Q in Q-tips stands for quality.

5) According to the American Library Association, September is Library Card Sign-Up Month.

6) If you have a library card, you can check out these new books, and countless more…and loads of other fun stuff.


3644589Updraft: Fran Wilde’s phenomenally imaginative new series is set in a world above the clouds made of living bone, which in and of itself sounds like a super reason to start reading, but the heroine of this complex fantasy adventure is also being hailed as a wonder herself.  When Kirit inadvertently breaks the law in an attempt to help her family, she finds herself confronted by the Singers, a shadowy, enormously powerful group that demands her allegiance–but at what cost?  Publisher’s Weekly made this one of their top ten Sci/Fi, Fantasy and Horror books for September, saying “Wilde leaves many questions unanswered, this only adds to the mystery and delight, encouraging the reader to suspend disbelief and become immersed in Kirit’s story. This well-written and fascinating exploration of a strange land is an extremely promising start for an exciting new writer.”

3621543The Girl Who Slept With God:  Val Brelinski is another new author whose book is garnering acclaim from all corners, and her book’s title alone, I think, is enough to turn a few heads.  Set in 1970’s Idaho, Brelinski tells the story of three sisters whose world is turned upside down when one of them returns from a missionary trip to Mexico convinced that she is pregnant with the child of God.  Forced to move to the outskirts of their town, the family begins to set up a new life with a community of eccentrics and prepare for the arrival of the baby.  Many reviews have likened this book to The Scarlet Letter and Chekov’s Three Sisters, which seems high praise indeed, and Booklist raves, “Populated with vibrant, three-dimensional characters and filled with lighthearted moments, pitch-perfect dialogue, and evocative descriptions of the Idaho countryside, Brelinski’s debut…is a piercing yet nuanced exploration of toxic parenting, guilt, manipulation, cowardice, and other human frailties, and the claustrophobic grip exerted by the ties that bind.”

3654368The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play, and a City That Would Not Be Broken: It seems incredible that this is the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall on the Louisiana coast.  Wendell Pierce waited out the storm with relatives seventy miles from New Orleans, but returned to find his home and neighborhood of Pontchartrain Park completely destroyed.   This book is the story not only of his efforts to rebuild (with $400 from his insurance company), but the history of his home, family, and community, and about how Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot offered an unexpected moment of hope and revelation.  James MacBride, author of The Good Lord Birdsays of this story, “This is more than a memoir. It’s an adventure in history, encompassing the timeless elements that propelled this fourth-generation grandson of a slave into one of the most important dramatic actors of our age: family, art, truth, religion, and of course a mother’s love. This is a story of sacrifice and blood struggle, of victory and selflessness, told with deep humility and grace by one of the most important American artists in our generation.”

3616238The Skeleton Plot: J.M. Gregson’s much-loved Detective Chief Superintendent Lambert and Detective Sergeant Hook are back in this 28th mystery novel, investigating the discovery of a body on the boundary of a twenty-year-old property development.  As they dive deeper into the shadows of the past, even more secrets are revealed about some prominent local figures who would do anything to keep the secrets of this skeleton from being revealed.  Booklist calls this thoroughly British series “a fine example of the contemporary British procedural, with strong characters, intriguing plots, and the ring of authenticity in its descriptions of modern-day policing”, and while this series has clearly been going strong for some time, there is nothing stopping new readers from jumping right in and enjoying this book first.

3654373Reckless: My Life as a PretenderChrissie Hynde spent nearly four decades as the lead singer/song-writer of the mega-famous Pretenders, and now she has penned a book that Amazon has already named a Best Book of September.  From her upbringing in rural Ohio to her failed–and successful attempts at fame, Hynde remains conscious not only of her own flaws, failings, and strength, but of the world around her.  She discusses the urban decay of Akron with the same verve and wit as she does her meeting Iggy Pop and offers fans some tantalizing secrets about the origins of some of the bands most iconic songs.  From start to finish, it’s quite clear that no one else could fill Chrissie Hynde’s shoes, and, as The Daily Beast notes, Hynde “writes just like she lives, and just like she makes music. She does it her way, which is an inimitable multiplicity of things: impulsive, untamed, ragged, proud, a little sad around the edges.”


Happy weekend, Beloved Patrons, and happy reading!

“I’m sorry to have deceived you so much, but that’s how life is”: A Word on Unreliable Narrators


As part of my first-year undergraduate orientation program, we were assigned Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, a book ostensibly about childhood and growing up, lies and the destruction they can wreak.  Though it wasn’t my particular cup of tea at the time, I could appreciate McEwan’s prose, his ability to capture the tension, fear, and bewilderment of teenagers facing the prospect of growing up, and the hollow despair of an unjust turn of fortune.  I also loved the twist at the end, in which we learnt that the narrator of the book is an unreliable one, and that what we thought was true…wasn’t.

The concept of the Unreliable Narrator is not a new one.  Really, for as long as people have shared stories, they have toyed with the idea of truth and lies.  Aristophanes’ The Frogs, first performed in approximately 405 B.C. is considered the first use of an unreliable narrator, when Dionysus claims to have suck 12 or 13 ships and his slave later states that it happened in a dream.  Numerous tales in the One Thousand and One Nightsalso known as the Arabian Nights, feature lies, fabrications, and exaggeration in order to make their point.  Many of these tales, however, are fairly up-front about their deceptions, showing the lies for what they are in obvious ways throughout the text.  Other examples of this can be found in stories where children are the narrators, misinterpreting the events around them, or when the books are told through the eyes of ‘madmen’, such as Nikolai Gogol’s Diary of a Madman, which freaked me out so much that I have never been able to re-read it completely.

But there are times when things aren’t so clear-cut.  Other pieces use the Unreliable Narrator far more insidiously, guiding the reader into a false sense of comprehension and understanding, they whipping the proverbial rug out from under their feet.  Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger  is a classic example, taking the readers’ fundamental understanding about how mystery novels “work” and using it against them.  Yann Martel’s Life of Pi is one of the more heart-breakingly moving examples that come to mind, playing on the simple human desire to believe in the fantastic, especially if it offers a glimmer of hope, rather than the banalities of reality.

I personally love books with unreliable narrators.  It forced the reader to rethink the entire work, to rethink and re-conceive a narrative that, on the whole, seemed so simple.  I love that it re-emphasizes the beauty of fiction–talking about things that didn’t happen to people who don’t exist.  The unreliable narrator trope forces us to look at the man behind the curtain, so to speak, to see the puppet’s strings, to acknowledge that we are looking at a facade.  And, if it is done well, in realizing the un-reality of what they are reading, readers can often appreciate even more keenly the beauty of what they believed to be true, and to realize the depth of the relationship that can form between reader and author–people who, most likely, will never ever meet.

But, to my surprise, in a campus-wide discussion on Atonement, the president of my college talked about how genuinely angry she was at the revelations in the books’ final pages.  She felt cheated and painfully manipulated.  For her, and, indeed, for many, as I later learned, the idea of an unreliable narrator was seen as a betrayal of a fundamental trust; when they picked up a work of fiction, they trusted the author to tell “the truth”…even in the midst of a fabricated piece of work.  For many people in this discussion, the revelation of the Unreliable Narrator betrayed the basic premise of story-telling, and, on a grander scale, about why we tell stories at all.  It made me realize how powerful the bond between story-teller and audience truly can be; the act of reading a book implies, for many, an almost religious faith in the veracity of the story-teller, a fact which can often obscure the presence of the reader, their emotional or psychological investment in a story.  By exploiting that trust, the Unreliable Narrator forces us to acknowledge our own presence in the narrative, and our ownership of the characters, the events, and our feelings about them.  And while that isn’t always easy or comfortable, it makes us as a real part in the story…and that, I think is a pretty remarkable feat.

So, IF you who want to explore a few more tales from Unreliable Narrators, THEN here are some suggestions–along with those mentioned above:

2200907Lolita: Perhaps the quintessential Unreliable Narrator of modern fiction, Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert is a liar par excellence.  In desperately trying to exonerate himself, Humbert implicates the reader of his tale by sharing with them his love (love?) for the teenaged Dolores Haze.  Strictly speaking, Humbert is a delusional, controlling, homicidal psychopath.  But in the pages of his confession (but for what crime?!), readers find themselves forgiving him, excusing him, and empathizing with him in a way that is difficult for many to accept.  This is also one of my favorite books of all time, ever, ever, ever, so if anyone wants to discuss, you know where to find me.

2223181 (1)Oscar and Lucinda: Another of my all-time forever favorite books (because I am a book masochist, apparently), this story proves once and for all Peter Carey’s sublime genius.  Because he tells you on the first page what is going to happen, and still manages to dupe you into hoping, scheming, dreaming that the ending of the book will be different.  Oscar is the son of British minister, while Lucinda is the unexpected heiress of an enormous glass factory in Australia.  When their mutual love of gambling brings them together during a steamship crossing, the stage is set for one of the most understated and perfect love stories in literature, as well as one of the most awe-inspiring travel narratives you’ll ever read.

2754084The Turn of the ScrewA truly creepy is-she-insane-or-not type of Unreliable Narrator is at the center of Henry James’ seminal short story.  This is also an example of a ‘found manuscript’ story, as the narrator is presenting a text written by someone else, in this case a deceased governess who was hired to care for a young boy and girl at a country estate in Essex.  Though the job at first seems a simple one, the governess becomes haunted by the tales of the houses’ former inhabitants, and ghostly presences that threaten the children in her care…at least, that’s what she says happened….

Yay Stephen Colbert!


Today was a seminal event in the history of television.  A seismic moment in broadcasting….It was the premiere of the new Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

…Ok, it probably wasn’t quite that big a deal, but for Colbert’s legion fans, it has been a long, chilly nine months.  And tonight’s show did not disappoint, for those night owls who were up to watch.

3187413The radical conservative blowhard that he played on his Comedy Central show was somewhat afraid of books (the fictitious Stephen Colbert claimed they had ‘too many facts’ in them), despite the fact that he authored three during his tenure on Comedy Central, two of which were parodies of political memoirs: I Am America (And So Can You!), and America Again: re-becoming the greatness we never weren’t.  Both books are pitch-perfect satires of American political memoirs and commentaries that are rendered even better by Colbert’s performances in the audiobook recordings
of both works.  He also authored a children’s book, entitled I Am a Pole (and so can you!)the result of an interview with the beloved and delightfully curmudgeonly Maurice Sendak, who was one of the few guests capable of keeping up with Colbert, and giving him a run for his intellectual money–and, who stated, unequivocally, that his favorite book was Moby Dickin case you needed another reason to try this classic.

 However, the truth of the matter is that Stephen Colbert is a librarian’s comedian.   His humor is a treasure trove of literary references, allusions, and homages.  Best of all, Colbert wears his bookish-ness on his sleeve.  He took on Amazon when the company tried to wage war against Hachette (Colbert’s publisher), and helped debut author Edan Lepucki’s book California onto the New York Times Bestsellers List when he urged viewers to buy the book via independent bookstores rather than Amazon.  He speaks Elvish, for goodness sake!  If you don’t believe me, check out this clip from 2008 (it’s a bit of a lengthy interview, but worth every single second…fast forward to about 8:18 for the actual High Elvish).  And, as those who have seen this interview will notice, Colbert can knit-pick like a true devotee.  The result was his now-famous cameo in The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug, which Peter Jackson arranged after realizing the truth depth of Colbert’s Tolkein adoration.

17063310b66653f6ee817c0799b510bfBut even apart from the Tolkein-ness of it all, Colbert has worked plenty of other literary references into his work.  His ‘book club’ featured a whole episode on The Great Gatsby (which may possibly have violated some copyright laws, but was brilliant nevertheless); he interviewed an enormous number of authors and literature professors during his time on Comedy Central (you can check out a comprehensive list of them here).  My personal favorite was his analysis of the short story vs. the novel with George Saunders, author of the short story collection Tenth of December, which you can watch here.  When asked why he wrote short stories, Saunders says “Let’s say you were madly in love with somebody, and your mission was to tell the person that you love them.  Here’s two scenarios, you can take a weeklong train trip with the person…that’s a novel….Second scenario: he’s stepping on the train, and you have three minutes…”, to which Colbert begs “Why can’t I get on the train?!…Where is she going? Why can’t I go with her?…Does she love me back?!”, quite possibly summing up every moment of readly angst I have ever known.  The beautiful simplicity of this discussion not only sums up why we read, and how we read, and is definitely worth a watch.

Most recently, in a parody of Donald Trump’s candidacy announcement, Colbert slid a passage from Joyce’s Ulysses into the middle of his speech, which aired on the very day on which Ulysses is set (ten points if you can figure it out on the first try).   He made a very brief reference in tonight’s opening show to W.W. Jacobs’ seminal short story “The Monkey’s Paw”.  And on Thursday, his guest will be celebrated author, and library favorite Stephen King.

imageSo we here at the Free For All wanted to take a brief moment and cheer quietly for Stephen Colbert on his successes (we’re in the library, so while our cheers are quiet, our intention is deafening).  And for those of you who aren’t able to stay up until 11:35pm in order to watch the show, here is a recording of Colbert reading Flannery O’Connor’s “The Enduring Chill”, offering O’Connor’s trademark characters, and themes of racial segregation, life-changing moments, and unsettling atmospheric details, along with a rare chance to hear Colbert’s native South Carolina accent, though only briefly.  Though this recording was made some time ago from a live program sponsored by the National Book Award, it is still a treat to hear, and I hope it brings a smile to your Wednesday.


"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." ~Frederick Douglass