“By hook or by crook this peril too shall be something that we remember”

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I hope you remember back in August, when we covered the live reading of The Iliad that took place between the British Library and the Almeida Theatre in London.  It was, as I said at the time, by far and away the greatest-super-colossal-fantastic days I can remember, and proof positive that people telling people stories is still one of the most powerful forces in the world.

Indeed, because the event was live-streamed and covered by Twitter, the reading became a worldwide phenomenon–I even understand some of you lovely patrons were able to watch parts of it!  For those who missed it, here is the link to all 16 hours of readings.  As mentioned, one of the most memorable moments was when and Marco Brondon read his passage out loud on the bus from the British Museum to the Almeida Theatre in order to ensure that the marathon would not flag.

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Well, thanks to the enormous acclaim and overwhelming success of The Iliad, and no doubt because of my near-hysterical promotion of it to anyone who will listen, the good people at the Almeida are upping the proverbial ante….

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Oh, hello Homer.

That’s right, beloved patrons.  In honor of the end of The Greek Season, the Almeida is planning a marathon reading of The Odyssey, another epic poem attributed to the poet/poets known as Homer, and the second oldest extant piece of literature in the ‘Western’ canon.

Now, at 12,110 lines, The Odyssey is noticeably shorter than The Iliad (which is 15,693 lines, for those of you who need to know these things), which should, logistically speaking, make this piece somewhat easier to manage, right?

Scoff, scoff.  The good people at the Almeida are never ones to take the easy route–a statement as factual as it is now literal.  Because this performance is going to be an actual Odyssey, performed at five as-yet-undisclosed locations throughout the city of London.  Listeners in the City will have the opportunity to listen to readers for up to 90 minutes at a single site, and there apparently are plans to read on public transport, and even the Thames.

When will all this wonderfulness take place?  November 12, 2015, 9am BT (4AM EST).

How will it look?  What will happen?  Who knows?  But I know that I’ll be watching on the Almeida’s live stream site and via Twitter (#Odyssey & ).  And I hope you will be, too!

For those of you would like to get into the spirit of things beforehand, here are some ideas to get in you in the mood for a day of high-stakes adventures, startling adventures, and sweet homecomings.  And a Cyclops or two.  It’s just no fun otherwise.

2599829The OdysseyPerhaps a bit of an obvious first choice, but there is no better way to get into the Odyssey than by traveling along with Odysseus and his beleaguered crew who suffer the wrath of Poseidon in their desperate attempt to return home.  It stands to reason that, since the Almeida used Robert Fagles’ translation of The Iliad, it’s a pretty fair bet they’ll be using his translation of The Odyssey as well.  Truth be told, it’s a very accessible translation that sounds simply wonderful when performed aloud–but don’t take my word for it.  Check it out for yourself!

 

2033697The Odyssey: Against all odds, this 3.5 hour adaptation of Homer’s epic (co-produced by the Hallmark Channel, who would have thought?) is actually quite good, overall.  With excellent performances, and special effects that are pretty impressive for turn-of-the-century television broadcast, this is a highly entertaining way to get introduced to Odysseus’ tale for those who don’t have the 12+ hours it is estimated to take to get through the print version.

 

3150458Torn from Troy: Patrick Bowman’s YA spin on The Odyssey stars Alexi, a fifteen-year-old Trojan boy who is made Odyssey’s slave following the conclusion of the Trojan War.  The trilogy of Alexei’s journey may parallel the events of The Odyssey, but this is by no means a simple re-telling.  As an outsider, and a conquered slave, Alexei’s view of Odysseus, and his analysis of his actions, are very different from Homer’s narrative, and Alexei’s personal story adds a very human dimension to this sweeping adventure story.  These books are a fun read no matter what your age, especially because they allow so many most characters in the story to come forward and tell their own stories and journeys.

 

2313233The Penelopiad: And for those of you who are a little tired of all the men unable to find their way home and seemingly unconcerned about their lack of punctuality, Margaret Atwood presents a cycle of stories about Odyssey’s wife Penelope, who appears here as a much more complicated figure than any of us ever expected.  Inspired by the “hanging of the maids” reference in the original text of The Odyssey, Atwood set out to reimagine Penelope’s world, her birth and childhood, as well as the events that took place after her marriage and during the timespan of The Odyssey.  The result is a woman who is strong and enigmatic, proud and secretive and, overall, utterly compelling, as is everything that Margaret Atwood writes.

Be sure to check back for more news regarding this performance, and see you on Thursday for the live-streaming of The Odyssey!

Saturdays @ the South: On Fantasy, or Don’t let magic scare you away from a good story

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Occasionally when someone comes into the South Branch looking for something different to read, I have to catch myself from evangelizing some of my favorite books, remembering that not everyone has the same taste in books as I do and that offering advice to readers means focusing on their preferences instead of my own. All that goes out the window, however, when someone (patron, friend, random stranger) asks me what I’ve ready lately, in which case I start to gush about some of the books that have just been brimming up inside me waiting for this exact question to spill forth. I often find myself recommending these books just by talking about them so excitedly, but when I do, I’ve noticed that some of my suggestions come with caveats. A common one is some version of “don’t let the magic scare you off; it’s so [insert enthusiastic adjective here], you won’t even notice.”

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I’ve often wondered why I feel the need to hedge such a genuine offering. I stand behind every exuberant recommendation I’ve given  (either in person or here on the blog), recognizing that while it may not be everyone’s taste, my excitement for the book is honest and heartfelt. So why should I add a trigger warning for a caveat that might not have been an issue in the first place? I think part of it stems from books with magic in them being classified as “genre” reading. Similar to romance novels (which we’ve learned from the Library’s regular blogger often garner the misnomer of “trashy”), books with “magic” or supernatural element or different worlds in them, commonly referred to as fantasy books, are often looked down upon as not being “literary,” which, in book-snob terms usually means not good enough for people who take their books seriously.

Well, I say hogwash! I’ve already expounded upon the right to read whatever you enjoy, and I don’t think we should discount books just because authors are brave enough to dream up worlds beyond our own. However, I also don’t think that just because an author has dared to think outside our regular laws of physics, logic, or anything else that might ground us in so-called “reality” automatically discounts them from being a talented storyteller. Plenty of “fantasy” or other types of genre writers take pride in their craft and work to hone their skills. Many of these authors have profound things to say about our world, about life and even about writing. They just choose to make the hard topics more palatable by removing them a degree or two (or five) from our version of reality.

amazing-fantasy-book-1920-1080-6884It’s generally accepted that kids’ books can be magical or fantastic. The venerable Dr. Seuss often made up plenty of worlds (Whoville, the Hoober-Bloob Highway, or whatever world the Sneetches lived in) and used them to introduce kids to topics like warenvironmental destruction and stewardship, and the commercialization of Christmas. It seems that because these books and specials were meant for kids, it’s OK that Geisel’s imagination ran wild and so they can be considered classics. Yet, when adult books tackle similar topics through similar means, it somehow becomes less OK and more “mainstream.” Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being mainstream or writing (and reading) books that have a simple, enjoyable plot. Where my bone of contention lies, is when books are dismissed as not having depth simply because they aren’t realistic enough, as though magic somehow detracts from a wonderful story with powerful themes.

So in the spirit of enthusiastic recommendations and embracing both magic AND a good story, here are some books that will take you away and still leave you pondering:

3248464The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

This blog’s much-adored author deserves yet another mention because his books are precisely the blend of magic and depth that I’m talking about today. His most recent novel for adults deals with families, childhood, memories and overcoming fear. The characters are infinitely entertaining, the dialogue is charming and quick-paced and the inner workings of the main character are simultaneously child-like and relatable on an adult level. If previous mentions of Gaiman’s works haven’t enticed you before, this may be a good place to begin his oeuvre.

3690594The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury

I mentioned this book a mere two weeks ago as an ideal Halloween read, but this recommendation goes beyond seasonal appeal. The protagonists in this story are transported into a world of history and exploration, but they also learn about friendship, sacrifice and the impetuousness of youth. While this books isn’t as heavy as Bradbury’s more famous Fahrenheit 451, it still deals with themes that belie a simple story.

2248593Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

The late, great Terry Pratchett was a virtuoso satirist and like so many satirists, he took a view of our world and spun it with a masterful combination of acerbic wit, keen observation and downright silliness. In this book, he examines bureaucracy, the question of whether a person has the ability to fundamentally change himself and how a simple idea can change the world. These themes, however, tend to be overlooked as they’re explored in a made-up world where the planet is shaped like a disc that is carried around the universe on the backs of four elephants which are, in turn carried on the back of a giant turtle. Pratchett insisted that any of his Discworld books can be read in any order, so even though this isn’t the first, it’s a good place to start as it introduces several recurring characters and has a delightful mini-series adaptation that can help you visualize Pratchett’s amazing creations.

2191702The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

It’s difficult to ignore the depth of a book that was so incendiary it incurred a fatwa on the author and many involved in the book’s publishing. While the political ramifications of the book often overshadow the actual text, make no mistake that this is a beautiful work that deals with so much more than faith. When the library’s Classics group discussed it earlier this year, several members found passages life-changing. Many might not recognize how truly funny sections of this book can be while Rushdie deals with the ideas, concerns and challenges of emigration, being different and being an outsider with pin-point accuracy.

3637426After Alice by Gregory Maguire

Maguire is a master of re-imagining fairy tales and finding hidden depths in worlds that have already been created. In his latest work, he brings us into Wonderland on the heels of Alice’s childhood friend Ada and behind the looking-glass through the eyes of Alice’s sister Lydia. In doing so, he discusses themes of discovering one’s independent spirit, plumbing the depths of womanhood and even tackling evolution and imagination. Don’t let the short length of the book or the child’s story base fool you, Maguire packs a big punch into a brief text.

Sometimes in order to help us understand our own world or our inner lives, we need to gain context in the guise of another world. So this weekend, dear readers, don’t let magic scare you away from a good story. You never know what you might be able to uncover!

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Five Book Friday!

“November is the most disagreeable month in the whole year,” said Margaret, standing at the window one dull afternoon, looking out at the frostbitten garden.

“That’s the reason I was born in it,” observed Jo pensively, quite unconscious of the blot on her nose.

“If something very pleasant should happen now, we should think it a delightful month,” said Beth, who took a hopeful view of everything, even November.

(Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, Chapter 15)

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Whether you are one who takes a hopeful view of November, dear Patrons, or one who scoffs at the earlier evenings, there is no denying we are enjoying a stunning beginning to the month–and a perfect weekend in which to come in and pick up a new book!  Here are five that have recently appeared on our shelves for your consideration:

 

3690565The Gold EatersWaman is a young boy living in what we now call Peru, but when he is kidnapped by European explorers and forced to work as  Francisco Pizarro’s translator, he must learn to define himself not by his relationship to his family and those he loves, but by the aggressive, wily men who have taken him prisoner, and demand his loyalty in a political game that means nothing to him–but will inevitably mean the destruction of the very world to which he hopes to return.  Robert Wright based his novel on real historic actors, and carves his love for South America–and his heartbreak over the cultural destruction that is still occurring there–into every line of this book, crafting what Joseph Boyden has hailed “a brilliant and difficult reflection on the breaking of an Indigenous people on the wheel of ‘progress.’”

3651733Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s SuperpowersThe title alone should give you a clue about just how wide-ranging and unique Simon Winchester’s biography of the world’s largest ocean truly is.  At the heart of his work is the idea that the Meditteranean Sea shaped our cultural origins, the Atlantic defined our past–but the Pacific will define our future.  Ranging from the coast of Africa to the ports of Asia, to those tiny little islands in between, this is a book that is mammoth in scope, and yet Winchester finds a way to make the whole work delightfully accessible.

3658365Eating Words : A Norton Anthology of Food WritingThere is as much an art to food writing as there is to any other form of literature, and this book celebrates all the delicious descriptions, sumptuous phrases, and delectable narratives that writers have used to talk about our meals and our menus from time immemorial.  Beginning with the Old Testament and continuing through to Julia Child and Anthony Bourdain, this is a book for the foodie and the word junkie in all of us.  Joyce Carol Oates raves, “Eating Words is a remarkable gathering of commentary on every aspect of food from the ritualistic and ‘symbolic’ to the pragmatic…There is much for carnivores here, not surprisingly, but surprisingly, there is a good deal here for vegetarians as well. Fascinating reading. A feast of a book!”

3637429The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine: Fans of Precious Ramotswe will be overjoyed to hear that the 16th installment of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series has arrived!  In this tale, Mma Ramotswe has reluctantly agreed to take a holiday–but it isn’t long before she finds herself plunged into the middle of a mystery surrounding a troubled young boy, and the reputation of a beloved politician. Booklist gave this novel a starred review, cheering that it “showcases the boundless compassion, humor, and occasional wiliness of the agency’s founder . . . The title comes from Precious’s reflection that she, blessed by the love of her husband…walks in sunshine. Readers of this and the whole series will feel similarly blessed.”

3699331StyxNot only does Bavo Dhooge’s series’ opener feature a high-stakes hunt for a sadistic murderer known as The Stuffer, who positions his victims as public art installations in and around a Belgian beach resort, but it features a crotchety detective…who just happens to be zombie.  Now, Detective Rafael Styx must hunt down the Stuffer, and learn to tame his hunger for human flesh.  I can’t even.  Richard Kadrey, who is among my favorite authors, says, “a taut detective story with dash of Surrealism. Imagine Dashiell Hammett sending Sam Spade into a dark, off-kilter world of artists, zombies, and serial killers”  …and that is good enough for me.

We hope you find something to travel with you this weekend, dear patrons!  Happy adventures, and happy reading!

No-one Puts (zombie) Baby in a Corner…in defense of genre fiction (And some other things)

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Today, we dip into our Bookish News file and pull up an editorial written by author Glen Duncan for The New York Times in October of 2011.  The piece is, from its first sentence, a study in “nerd-baiting”, to borrow a phrase, though we should not ignore the charming threads of misogyny woven throughout the piece, beginning with the very first, sucker-punch of an opening line: “A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star.”

Ahem.

When I first read this article, it took about eight hours for my eyes to stop involuntarily rolling in reaction (this article sums up my thoughts beautifully), but I managed to shake it off.  Because the truth is that no one who loves “genre fiction” is going to stop reading because “the sad man who isn’t making as much money as the guy writing about zombies” said it was lame.  And hopefully, that same sad man isn’t going to stop readers from trying “genre fiction”, either.

…Actually, “Genre Fiction” is actually like a porn star, but not in the way that Duncan meant.  Just like the word “porn star” describes what someone does, and not who someone is fundamentally, “genre fiction” describes where a book is shelved, not what it is, fundamentally.  Neither should be seen as less than their peers, and neither should be discriminated against for the title given to their position.  Instead, we should get to know them, rather than standing back and judging them arbitrarily.

imagesIn the case of genre fiction, this means realizing that the little stickers on the spine doesn’t tell you what the book is truly about–for example, as we’ve noted before, Salem’s Lot might be about vampires, but it’s also about human love, and human fear, and human loss, and about a deep-seated need to find a home.  The Maltese Falcon may be about a private eye and a femme fatale, but it is also about the quest for truth, the vagaries of the human heart, and the need to make wrong things right.  Any of the romance novels we’ve discussed may have handsome men and lovely ladies and kissy-faces in them, but they are also about the search for personal validation, recognition, and self-fulfillment.  These novels do exactly what “literary fiction” claims to do…it just goes about it in a slightly different way.

570729-MAnd different is great; because genre fiction also tends to be more inclusive, and enjoy a more diverse readership–Ursula K. LeGuin, for example, used the science fiction to explore feminism, arguing that writers have a duty  “to spark the imagination of their readers and to help them envision alternatives to how we live.”  In so doing, she opened the whole genre to female readers, as well as female characters. Octavia Butler has used her genre fiction to explore not only feminism, but race, and racial relations, as well, giving perspective to issues that are all too real and present.  Genre Fiction provides the tools not only to evaluate our world, and our place in it, it also provides the tools to imagine a better world.

So here are a few ideas to help you get past the labels and the signs, and explore some genre fiction for yourself.  As you feel your imagination–and your heart–expanding, know that this is why those books are here, and why it is so necessary for us to explore them!

3019938Embassytown: China Miéville was one of the first modern writers to tackle ‘Weird Fiction’–that magical genre that exists somewhere in between science fiction and fantasy.  The world he creates have some of the unsettling oddities of Lovecraft, the strange inventions and scientific possibilities of H.G. Wells, but the way he spins these tales out is something wonderfully unique.  Though it might be difficult to relate to the alien/human hostilities and deep-space travel featured in this book, the heroine’s struggles to speak a language that has developed while she was in space, and her divided loyalties between two cultures that can’t quite accept her feels remarkably, painfully familiar.

1161903Making History: Speaking superficially, this book is a work of speculative history–a ‘what if’ that explores what the world might be like if one man was able to travel back into the past and ensure that Hitler was never born.  But beneath this premise is a shattering commentary on human nature, an against-all-odds love story, and a well-researched bit of historical analysis.  Honestly, there is nothing that Stephen Fry do that he doesn’t do magnificently, but this book…this book.  Funny, gripping, cynical and yet somehow hopeful, this is one book that is just too much to pass up.

1979090A Drink Before the WarDennis Lehane’s series of detective novels featuring PI Patrick Kenzie and his secretary/Girl Friday Angie Gennaro harken back to the pulp novels of the 1950’s, with their focus on the gritty underside of urban areas (in this case, Dorchester and Boston), and the struggle for survival that drives every schemer, con man, and mobster.  But Lehane, a former social worker, uses the genre to bring to light some of the true evils in our society–ignorance, jealousy, and cruelty to the defenseless, and that makes them incredible important.  Somehow, he is also talented enough to make these books utterly addictive and simply unforgettable, and his sense of place is spot on.

2336642Already DeadLike the best noir author, Charlie Huston has the ability to put pages-worth of angst, fear, and emotional impact into a few short words or phrases.  His dialogue is rapid-fire and pitch-perfect, and, like, Lehane, he is able to craft compelling investigations that gradually build to a fundamentally shattering conclusion…the fact that his hero is a vampire, paid by several factions of vampires to carry out their bidding among the Boroughs of New York City only add to the fun of this series.   Things only get weirder from here, trust me, but Huston is so perceptive, and so fiendishly clever in his plotting and characterization that you’ll be only too willing to follow him into the shadows.

2260048Jonathan Strange and Mr. NorrellOh hey, we haven’t mentioned this book in a while!

The Baileys Prize: The Best of the Best!

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We’ve talked before about the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, and what a remarkable award it is, and how critically important it is to recognize women’s writing.  Well, it turns out that the Baileys award people, including the dynamic women on the Fiction Board have given us some new reasons to celebrate this award, and all that it stands for in the publishing and reading word.

For the prize’s tenth anniversary–when it was known as the Orange Prize for Fiction–the Fiction Board presented a “Best of the Best” segment on the BBC’S Woman’s Hour, featuring a round-up of the ten winning books of the past decade.  And on Monday, in honor of the prize’s twentieth birthday, the Fiction Board (headed by co-founder and chair Kate Mosse) named a new “Best of the Best” from amongst the Bessie winners of the past decade.  And yes, the award’s name is Bessie, bless her heart.

The award ceremony itself was preceded by two weeks’ worth of programs on Woman’s Hour, including readings from all the winning books, and interviews with the authors that were insightful in an of themselves, but also offered readers the chance to discover these marvelous works–again, and for the first time.  Finally, today, the ceremony itself featured readings from stars like Stanley Tucci and Sheila Hancock, and a celebration of all the diverse, funny, heartbreaking, mind-blowing and intensely creative art that these women have produced in the past ten years.

Before announcing the winner, here is a list of the ten books considered for the “Best of the Best” of the Baileys Prize’s second decade:

unknown_005002a2300194Zadie Smith: On Beauty (2006)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun (2007)

Rose Tremain: The Road Home (2008)

Marilynne Robinson:  Home (2009)

Barbara Kingsolver: The Lacuna (2010)

Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife (2011)

Madeline Miller: The Song of Achilles (2012)

A.M. Homes:  May We Be Forgiven (2013)

Eimear McBride:  A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing (2014)

Ali Smith: How to Be Both (2015)

And, after lively discussion from the judges, a public vote, and much speculation, the winner is…..

 

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie!!!

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie grew up in Nigeria, where her father was an statistics professor at the University of Nigeria, and her mother was the University’s first female registrar.  Though she initially studied medicine, she switched to creative writing and moved to the United States in 2003.  Since then, she has presented talks at worldwide forums, including a sensational TED Euston talk entitled “We Should All Be Feminists“.

CS1XzzuWcAALNh6Her novel takes place during the Nigerian Civil War (1967-70), and charts the intertwined stories of five characters: the twin daughters of an influential businessman, a professor, a British citizen, and a houseboy who survives conscription into the Biafran army, during and immediately after the war.  By jumping back and forth in time, Adichie is able to tell a uniquely complex, and yet undeniably human story.  On one level, this is a novel of love, betrayal, and empowerment, while at the same time it deals with broad cultural and political themes, such as the scars of imperialism on Nigeria’s history that can never fully heal, the way the media shaped and, ultimately controlled the Nigerian Civil War, and whether there is any academic, rational way to affect positive change in a society that has been so fully corrupted by western influences.  This is both a tremendously wise book, and a very readable one, that touches at the heart of some issues more precisely than most non-fiction works can.

At the time of its publication, The Washington Post stated that it was a “transcendent tale about war, loyalty, brutality, and love in modern Africa. While painting a searing portrait of the tragedy that took place in Biafra during the 1960s, her story finds its true heart in the intimacy of three ordinary lives buffeted by the winds of fate. Her tale is hauntingly evocative and impossible to forget.”

Muriel Gray, who served as the Chair of Judges for the 2007 award said of Adichie’s work: “For an author, so young at the time of writing, to have been able to tell a tale of such enormous scale in terms of human suffering and the consequences of hatred and division, whilst also gripping the reader with wholly convincing characters and spell binding plot, is an astonishing feat.  Chimamanda’s achievement makes Half of a Yellow Sun not just a worthy winner of this most special of prizes, but a benchmark for excellence in fiction writing.”

For the record, Adichie will be receiving a special Bessie, cast in manganese bronze (and if anyone knows quite what that is, we would love to hear).  You can watch her joyful acceptance video here:

And I’m sure you’ll help the Free For All offer sincere congratulations to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and all the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Winners, for changing our ideas about what fiction is, and what is can do for twenty remarkable years!

Publisher’s Weekly Tells You What To Read


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I’ll be honest…I’m always a little uncomfortable about “Lists of Best Books”.  There is no way anyone could ever read all the books published in a year (though I am tempted to try…), and there is also no way to measure how  a book will affect all readers, or if a certain book will arrive at the right time to save you, as so many of the best books do.

Nevertheless, Publisher’s Weekly can give you an idea of what books made headlines, made waves, changed the way people think, or changed the ways in which people saw each other.  And those are some pretty neat accomplishments.  So have a look at this list and then stop by and check them out.  And let us know what you think should be a top-picks list for 2015!

Publisher’s Weekly Top Ten Books of 2015:

3650622Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates: In this book, written as a letter to his teenage son Samori, Atlantic writer Coates reflects on just what it means to be black in America, from a historical, as well as a personal perspective.  “I love America the way I love my family — I was born into it.”  Coates said in an interview with NPR.   “…But no definition of family that I’ve ever encountered or dealt with involves never having cross words with people, never having debate , never speaking directly. On the contrary, that’s the very definition in my house, and the house that I grew up in, of what family is.”

3658391The Invention of Nature : Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World,  by Andrea Wulf: Prussian-born naturalist, explorer, and writer Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) may not be a household name today, but his work was quite a mover and shaker during his time, not only for his diplomatic work, but for his “Humboldtian science”, which held”nature is perfect till man deforms it with care”.  As a result, he has been recognized as the first scientist to consider the possibility of climate change and human influence on the planet.  Andrea Wulf’s biography makes great strides into putting Humboldt’s name back in the books, and making readers realize for just how long humans have been compromising their world.

3644749The Story of the Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante, trans. from the Italian by Ann Goldstein: Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels have grown wildly popular, and this is the second time that PW has listed them amongst their favorite books of the year.  In this installment, the brilliant, bookish Elena uses details from her own life, and friendship with the dazzling Lila in her work, and recalls all the vagaries, fights, reconciliations, and escapades that have brought them to this point in their lives.

3680297Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan: A writer for The New Yorker, and a lifelong surfer, Finnegan recounts his love for–and addiction to–the art of surfing, along with all the friends he’s met and wild adventures that he’s had in pursuit of his love, as well as his struggle to balance all those adventures an encounters alongside a family and successful career.  This book is also being hailed as brilliant travel memoir, as Finnegan recounts the incredible and the mundane places that he’s explored in his drive to find the next big wave.

3606718Delicious Foods, by James Hannaham: This is one of those books that is downright impossible to sum-up briefly, but here goes…Hannaham’s book is a metaphor for addiction (Scotty, one of the narrators, is the actual embodiment of crack), a southern gothic/horror novel (the titular farm that holds the characters captive is simply chilling), and a deeply emotional tale about love, family, and recovery.  To truly get into the complexity of this novel–you’re simply going to have to read it for yourself!

3637441Imperium, by Christian Kracht, trans. from the German by Daniel Bowles: These are the kind of “based on a true story (no seriously, this actually did happen)” books that I love to read: In 1902, a German named August Engelhardt fled his homeland, and founded a sect of sun worshippers that were lived as cocoivores–coconut eaters.  As in, they ate nothing but coconuts.  Kracht envisions this island paradise (located on an island in what was then German New Guinea known as Kabakon, to which Engelhardt brought about 1,200 books), the idealism, and the inevitable disaster that befalls Engelhardt’s attempts to reinvent society in a way that is both haunting and touchingly funny.

3654339Beauty Is a Wound, Eka Kurniawan, trans. from the Indonesian by Annie Tucker: A native Indonesian herself, Kurniawan’s debut novel tells the tale of a prostitute named Dewi Ayu, who rises from her grave after twenty-one years.  Though the tale is bound up in the lives of Dewi and her four daughters, this is also a novel about the destruction, violence, and lasting scars of colonialism in Indonesia’s history, and a love letter to a place, a time, and a culture that is sure to surprise and entrance American readers.

3585739Crow Fairby Thomas McGuane: PW is hailing this McGuane’s newest release the best collection of short stories to come out this year, and it they are not alone.  This compendium of sixteen stories set in the rugged Montana wilderness, and full of characters who are shaped by its terrain, are by turns terrifying, funny, mysterious, and wonderfully realistic.  Best of all, McGuane is a master at redeeming even the most rascally characters, providing readers with plenty of emotion, in addition to his wonderful landscapes and plotlines.

3637116The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson: There are lots of intellectually, jargon words thrown around in regards to Nelson’s memoirs…it is a work of ‘autotheory’, it challenges ‘homonormativity’….but at its heart, Nelson’s story is about finding love, and a language to talk about it.  Her life and love with queer film-maker Harry Dodge is full of far-flung adventures, and also deeply personal moments of self-realization, and wonderfully sympathetic tales of making and raising a family.

3652522Black Earth : The Holocaust as History and Warning, by Timothy Snyder: While Snyder’s book is a story of the Holocaust, it is also about the circumstances that created it, the environmental, the interpersonal, and the political.  And his book is also a warning…that the various climates that we are creating around us today are perilously close to that which existed in the 1920’s and 1930’s, forcing us to confront not only where we have been, but where, precisely, we are headed as a ‘civilization’.

So what do you think, beloved patrons?  Any books you would add to this list?

The Romance Garden!


Welcome again to the Romance Garden, where some romance aficionados from the Library Staff bring you the books that made their hearts skip a beat…and offer your mind a little dirt in which to grow…

Gennaro Befanio (Italian artist, 1866-1911) A Read in the Garden

As the days grow shorter and chillier, it seems even nicer to have even a mental garden around which to wander, and we hope some of these selections will catch your eye and tempt your fancy!

Bridget:

3651393Last Chance Llama Ranch by Hilary Fields

I have come to realize, in the course of writing these monthly posts, that I tend towards darker romances, with angst and emotions that stick to everything, and challenges that the protagonists must overcome.  This book, however, has very little of any of those things, and that precisely one of the reasons that I so enjoyed it.

Hilary Fields’ debut isn’t a romance in the strictest sense of the genre–it’s more about the heroine, Merry, and her coming to terms with her life and what she wants from it.  Merry is over six feet tall, and was an Olympic ski champion…before a collision with a tree ended any dreams she had of athletic competition.  Now, she is a travel writer, which might sound like a nice job, until you consider that she is assigned a blog piece called “Don’t Do What I Did”.  Much to her bewilderment, Merry is sent to a llama ranch in a tiny town, stuck with a cantankerous owner who wants nothing to do with her, and no idea how to escape.  Slowly, though, Merry finds not only the llamas, but the whole of Last Chance Lllama Ranch growing on her…

Fields’ is one of those rare authors who can make even the most mundane of scenarios seem funny, so when she sticks her big, awkward, outspoken heroine in the middle of a pack of llama and alpaca, she is positively hysterical.  This doesn’t obscure, however, the real emotional power of Merry’s journey, thankfully.  This is, ultimately, a woman who has lost everything she once was, and has no where to belong.  Though this llama ranch is the last place she ever thought she’s discover herself, watching Merry find a home–and love–at Last Chance Llama Ranch was a genuinely delightful experience!

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Kelley:

3680942The Stolen Mackenzie Bride by Jennifer Ashley

When Malcolm Mackenzie, better known as Mal, makes a decision to do something, you can be sure that it will happen, so when Mal decides that Lady Mary Lennox is the only woman for him, he is willing to overcome any obstacle to make their dream of a future together a reality. And, in this case, the obstacles are quite significant. First, Lady Mary is English, and her father is fiercely loyal to the Crown. Second, Lady Mary is already betrothed to a powerful Englishman. And, third, this book takes place during the time of the Jacobite uprising and Mal is a Scottish warrior, so war is a constant threat to Mary and Mal’s plans to marry.

With Mal and Mary, Ashley brings together two complex and engaging characters, and the result is a tale that will please any fan of Scottish historical romance. Mal is charismatic and passionate, but driven to dangerous extremes when it comes to the protection of those he loves. Mary also places duty and the people she loves above herself, but as her character develops, she uncovers her bravery and a fire she didn’t know she had inside of her. The couple comes together more than once only to be separated, so the title of the book is apt as Mal does indeed need to steal his bride. More than once.

For those of you familiar with Scottish historicals, expect to see some familiar conventions. For instance, Jacobite uprising books love to cite two battles in particular: Prestonpans and Culloden. There are nods to both in this book, and the chapter where Mary searches for her husband’s body on the field in the aftermath of Culloden made me think of a very similar scene in The Blood of Roses by Marsha Canham. However, Ashley balances history and romance well, and offers a book that is light enough to satisfy those focused on romance and adventure, but dark enough to add weight and depth to the story for those looking for something more. A prequel to Ashley’s Mackenzies Series, The Stolen Mackenzie Bride works well as a stand-alone novel, but I’m certain it will make you want to read more about the clan in the previously published books.

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Bonus Pick!

3168533Firelight by Kristen Callihan

In honor of our gloriously ghoulish month of All Hallows Read, I also wanted to recommend one of my favorite paranormal romances of all time.  The opening of Kristen Callihan’s wonderfully clever and sumptuous Darkest London series is a lushly romantic, and genuinely creative tale full of terrific historic detail and two protagonists who are utterly irresistible.

Miranda Ellis was born with a mysterious power, but up ’til now, it has caused her and her family nothing but disaster.  When she attracts the attention of the reclusive Lord Benjamin Archer, Miranda finds a man who sees beyond her quirks.  But Archer himself is a man of many secrets, not the least of which is the mask that he wears over half his face…and the shadowy villains who begin to track their every moment, and threaten the fragile happiness they have discovered together.

The fact that this story is a direct homage to The Phantom of the Opera endeared it to me almost immediately, but Callihan makes the truth of Archer’s past (and face) so much more twisted and so much more interesting.  In addition, she is a master at building tension between her characters along with an enormous amount of respect, ensuring that her characters are equal partners in nearly every step of their journey together.

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