Must Reads for Summer 2014

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There are good and bad things about working in a library. The good: all of the great books that you discover and get to read. The bad: all of the great books that you don’t have time to read. We all have excuses and these are mine: full-time work and a toddler who just turned two years old and a baby who is ten months old. Oh yeah, and a house and garden and that guy I married 33 years ago. So, I often feel like that funny old bird the pelican whose beak holds more than his belly can. I have a beak full of great reads these days which may interest you if you’re participating in the summer reading program at the Everett Public Library or if you’re lucky enough to be planning a vacation and need a good book to take along. This list has a little bit of everything so there may be just the right book for you. Let’s start with non-fiction.

indexCA1ADCTLFlash Boys: a Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis is on my list since I read Boomerang and I thought that it was the bomb. This guy also wrote Moneyball and The Blind Side and other excellent books. It reads like a John Grisham novel, but it’s a true story about stock exchanges, high frequency traders, and dark pools. The author is great at explaining complicated technical subjects and telling a good story around them. I want to read it!

indexCA63IMS4Leonardo and the Last Supper has been by my bedside for a few weeks now. It’s excellent! I was an art history major in college and I’ve learned so much more from this book about the creation of this Renaissance masterpiece. Mr. King has managed to focus on a particular theme and give the reader as much information as needed to really understand it. Another of his earlier books accomplished the same thing, Brunelleschi’s Dome, which I can also recommend.

indexCAAEEVC8The President and the Assassin: McKinley, terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century is a great book (obvious from the first chapter) by Seattle author, Scott Miller. He creates a portrait of turn of the century America going back and forth between an under-appreciated president, William McKinley and his anarchist assassin, Leon Czolgosz. This was a time when the powerful were growing more powerful and desperate men turned to terrorism. Sound familiar?

And now for some fiction:

index (16)I have to read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie because my daughter heard her give a talk recently in Copenhagen and apparently it’s wonderful. The author takes on immigration, race, and what it means to leave home and to return, all wrapped up in a love story. Adichie has also written Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus. The first chapter alone is marvelous. Let’s all get with it and read this one.

indexCAZNZBA7The Care of Wooden Floors by Will WIles was recommended to me by two co-workers so I checked it out and my husband read it while we were on vacation. Even though I couldn’t read it, he confirmed that it is funny and interesting and a good book.  It’s an odd couple story of a fellow who house sits for a composer friend. He accidentally spills wine on the apartment’s priceless wooden floor and endures a disastrous week of perfectionist repair and maintenance.

index (1)Delicious! is by Ruth Reichl. I’ve read all of her memoirs from Garlic and Sapphires to Tender at the Bone. This is her first attempt at fiction and she certainly writes about what she knows: the heroine is a woman who works for a venerable food magazine that suddenly ceases publication. It looks like a pretty fun and fast read, and if you’re looking for a souffle-type novel, you could do worse! Plus, the cover is lovely.

indexBroken Harbor is Tana French’s new ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ crime novel and it’s supposed to be every bit as brilliant as her three earlier books featuring that tough cop, Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy. This is a murder story which seems easy to solve at first until the details don’t add up. Read this one to get the atmosphere of an Ireland hit hard by the recession, an idea of police procedure and to become engrossed in a well written who dunnit.

index (1)The Possibilities is written by Kaui Hart Hemmings who also wrote The Descendants. You’ll remember that movie with George Clooney. This new book follows a similar theme of family and loss and is set in the paradise of Breckenridge, Colorado. A single mom is grieving the loss of her son, Cully, in an avalanche when a strange girl shows up with a secret from Cully’s past.

indexThe Vacationers by Emma Straub  will take you all the way to the beaches of Spain, where a family’s dramas are set against the beautiful background of a lush vacation. It will leave you feeling like you were just on a family trip — laughing, exhausted and filled with love.

So, check out one of these books to take on your next vacation or simply read one for a great ‘staycation’. Either way, enjoy!

Best of 2013: Fiction

It’s hard to believe, but 2013 is about to enter into our collective memory. Before we boldly go into the new year, it is important to take a moment to remember the significant events of the past year. For us here at the library that means remembering the many books, films and albums that we encountered int 2013. To that end, we are publishing a series of posts highlighting some of our favorites from the past year. Today we start with the ever popular fiction category. Prepare for your “to read” list to get much longer.

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The Circle  |  Dave Eggers
When Mae Holland is hired to work for the Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company, she feels she’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime.  What begins as the captivating story of one woman’s ambition and idealism soon becomes a heart-racing novel of suspense, raising questions about memory, history, privacy, democracy, and the limits of human knowledge.

This is a frightening modern 1984 where privacy is theft and the corporation becomes our pseudo-family.  – Esta

Dreams and Shadows  |  C. Robert Cargill
A brilliantly crafted modern tale from acclaimed film critic and screenwriter C. Robert Cargill — part Neil Gaiman, part Guillermo Del Toro, part William S. Burroughs — that charts the lives of two boys from their star-crossed childhood in the realm of magic and mystery to their anguished adulthoods

Cargill’s style of writing blends folklore, mythology, fantasy, and a wonderfully sarcastic sense of humor. – Lisa

The Golem and the Jinni: A Novel  |  Helene Wecker
Chava, a golem brought to life by a disgraced rabbi, and Ahmad, a jinni made of fire, form an unlikely friendship on the streets of New York until a fateful choice changes everything.

Wecker’s descriptions of turn-of-the-century New York are just magical. –Lisa

Insane City  |  Dave Barry
Astonished by his imminent marriage to a woman he believed out of his league, Seth flies to their destination wedding in Florida only to be swept up in a maelstrom of violence involving rioters, Russian gangsters, angry strippers, and a desperate python.

The story cannot possibly get any more complex or ridiculous and then it does.  And then again. – Ron

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Seiobo There Below  |  László Krasznahorkai
A torrent of hypnotic, lyrical prose, Krasznahorkai’s novel explores the process of seeing and representation, tackling notions of the sublime and the holy as they exist in art.

The tone of the writing is refreshingly original. Seiobo There Below puts you in the presence of a keen intelligence and sensibility. – Scott

The Infatuations  |   Javier Marías
From the award-winning Spanish writer Javier Maras comes an extraordinary new book that has been a literary sensation around the world: an immersive, provocative novel propelled by a seemingly random murder that we come to understand — or do we? — through one woman’s ever-unfurling imagination and infatuations.

This is a thought-provoking look at the inscrutability of desire, motivation, and what Kant has termed ‘radical evil.’  It also includes some tremendous writing about a grief observed. – Scott

Tenth of December  |  George Saunders
A collection of stories which includes “Home,” a wryly whimsical account of a soldier’s return from war; “Victory lap,” a tale about an inventive abduction attempt; and the title story, in which a suicidal cancer patient saves the life of a young misfit.

Saunders brings it all: flesh-and-blood characters, inventive plots, vivid settings, and spot-on language. – Scott

Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales  |  Yoko Ogawa
Sinister forces collide – and unite a host of desperate characters – in this eerie cycle of interwoven tales. Murderers and mourners, mothers and children, lovers and innocent bystanders – their fates converge in an ominous and darkly beautiful web.

I’ve always been a fan of Ogawa’s sparse prose, which draws you in, gives you a false sense of security, and then yanks the rug out from under you. – Richard

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Deadbeat – Makes You Stronger  |  Guy Adams
Two old friends witness what they think is a living person being put into a coffin and carried out of a funeral home. They attempt to unravel the mystery around this tableau.

Each character narrates at different times and the story is filled with surprises. – Ron

Little Elvises  |  Timothy Hallinan
A crook, who acts as a detective for other crooks, tries to clear a record producer/possible mafia guy of murder. The producer’s claim to fame: a troop of attractive, untalented male singers in the early 60’s.

The protagonist is a criminal who has never been caught, sort of a Robin Hood type, and this makes for a spin on noir detective writing. – Ron

The Rosie Project  |  Graeme C. Simsion
Don, a professor of genetics, sets up a project designed to find him the perfect wife, starting with a questionnaire that has to be adjusted a little as he goes along. Then he meets Rosie, who is everything he’s not looking for in a wife…

An amazing debut novel written with warmth and intelligence, filled with laugh out loud moments and loveable characters… an entertaining feel-good romantic comedy. – Andrea

T.C. Boyle Stories II  |  T. Coraghessan Boyle
You can curl up and delight in this collection of 58 stories by a master storyteller, including 14 previously unpublished stories.  Whether it’s about facing mortality, first love, or fighting to survive, T.C. Boyle crafts a vibrant dramatic story.

You will be swept away by the power of his writing–there is every human emotion in these stories: fear, tenderness, savagery, longing.  This emotional storm is balanced with Boyle’s amazing sense of sarcasm, humor and irony. – Esta

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The Illusion of Separateness  |  Simon Van Booy
Six seemingly unconnected people that are linked in ways not revealed to the characters and only slowly revealed to the reader.  A tender story told in an unusual way.

This is beautifully written with passages I read and then read again to savor.  Loved it from start to finish. – Teri

The Cuckoo’s Calling  |  Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling
Working as a private investigator after losing his leg in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike takes the case of a supermodel’s suspicious suicide & finds himself in a world of millionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, desperate designers and hedonist pursuits.

I confess I placed my hold after the author’s true identity was revealed. But I am a sucker for old-school gumshoe PI mysteries and this one fits the bill. Hopefully this is the start of a series! – Carol

The Burgess Boys  |  Elizabeth Strout
A teen loner impulsively commits a hate crime — he places a pig’s head in the doorway of a mosque in a quiet Maine town. His actions upend his family and force them to confront their own repressed emotions and traumas of the past.

The story is filled with so much compassion and revelation that you almost fall in love with each character! – Esta

The Interestings  |  Meg Wolitzer
In the 1970’s, a group of six young adults vow to be true to their creativity and to stay connected. Their bonds carry them through years of trial and trauma into the present.

This is a saga of an era of social unrest and change. We can savor the details of each character’s exploration of their own sexuality, fears, and ambitions. – Esta

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves  |  Karen Joy Fowler
Rosemary grows up with a very peculiar and unusual sister, and years later she mourns the loss when Fern disappears. The family starts to crumble with anger and retribution as older brother Lowell becomes a radical animal-rights activist.

A dark story that bursts with surprises and secrets revealed, as it questions what it is to be human or animal. – Esta

Life After Life  |  Kate Atkinson
Ursula Todd is born on a cold snowy day in 1910, and dies before drawing her first breath. Almost immediately she is reborn on that same day. And so goes this novel of what ifs, as Ursula and her family continue to wend their way through the century.

Compelling characters and a fascinating plot — plus the most amazing chapter on the London blitz. You’ll feel as if you were there.— Eileen

Girl Books

The last student in the bookmobile wasn’t finding a book that she wanted. She finally asked me for a ‘girl book.’  I knew what she wanted: a Disney or Barbie Princess book. Those books are very poorly written but the little girls love them because of all of the pretty pictures. So, what did I do? I put my hand down and, without looking, grabbed the first book I could touch.  It was about Space.  “Here’s a girl book!”  I exclaimed.

index (5)index (4)The little girl said, “That’s not a girl book! It’s not pink!” The teacher and I exchanged sad looks before I brought out the pink princess books. Yay! She found the one she wanted: The Perfect Princess Tea Party. She left a happy customer.

Then I saw this awesome GoldieBlox ad on the internet which shows three little girls absolutely bored, bored, bored with a pink toy commercial. They turn off the TV and create a fantastic Rube Goldberg set-up in their home. It was inspirational! One of the lines set to the Beastie Boys tune says, “Girls!  Don’t underestimate girls!” It got me thinking about all of the little princesses out there and how to get better books into their hands so they’re not bored, bored, bored. Here are some great picture books for your little princesses.

index (6)Cinder Edna by Ellen Jackson is one of my favorites. Cinder Edna lives next door to Cinderella and they each end up with the prince of their dreams but Cinder Edna is so much happier because she has her priorities straight. While Ella gets the help of her Fairy Godmother and ultimately lands Prince Charming, Edna figures out a way to get to the ball herself and has a rollicking good time! Guess who lives happily ever after?

index (7)In Olivia and the Fairy Princesses by Ian Falconer, Olivia embarks upon a quest for identity with lofty goals and being a princess is NOT one of them. Olivia is having an identity crisis. There are too many ruffly, sparkly princesses around these days, and Olivia has had quite enough. She needs to stand out. She wants to do more than just fit in. So what will she be? The answer is marvelous!

index (8)Princess Me by Karma Wilson is a rhyming story about a little girl who imagines being a princess, with her stuffed animals serving as royal subjects:

Make way! Make way!
Here comes the princess of the land. She’s sweet and kind.
She’s oh-so-grand. And just who is she, this lovely Princess Me? Come inside this book to see!

index (9)Not All Princesses Dress in Pink by Jane Yolen is a winner, pure and simple. These princesses dig in the dirt, kick soccer balls, and splash in muddy puddles–all in their sparkly crowns. I love the rhyming text:

Not all princesses dress in pink. Some play in bright red socks that stink, blue team jerseys that don’t quite fit, accessorized with a baseball mitt, and a sparkly crown.

Don’t forget to wear your sparkly crown!

index (10)In The Princess Knight by Cornelia Funke, Violetta is a little princess who wishes she could be as big and strong as her brothers. But what she lacks in size, she makes up for in determination. At night Violetta slips out into the woods and secretly teaches herself to become the cleverest, bravest, most nimble knight in the land. She’s ready to fight as a knight and wins the prize of living happily ever after.

index (11)Pirates & Princesses by Jill Kargman is the story of Ivy and Fletch who have been best friends since babyhood. They’re in for a surprise when they start kindergarten. The girls play with the girls and the boys play with the boys on the playground. Ivy likes the girls’ princess game and Fletch likes the pirate game but they miss each other. I won’t say much more other than the book is sweet, hysterically funny in its narration, and has a great message about being who you want to be regardless of gender stereotypes.

index (12)If you’d like to read an adult book on this whole pink princess idea, try Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein. The author concludes that parents who think through their values early on and set reasonable limits, encourage dialogue and skepticism, and are canny about the consumer culture, can combat the 24/7 “media machine” aimed at girls and hold off the focus on beauty, materialism, and the color pink somewhat.

Well, I hope that this list gives you a start on finding interesting and well written books for your little princesses. They surely won’t be bored, bored, bored with these great picture books!

Not Just a Pretty Face

The Magicians coverLike a literary magpie, I am drawn to pretty, shiny, exciting things. I often enter the library without a clue about what I want to read. I wander and browse until something jumps out at me – a cool spine design, a flashy cover, a witty title. It doesn’t take much.

I judge books by their covers.

Sometimes this approach backfires, but more often than not, I find that I like the book if I like the way the author has chosen to decorate it. It could be dumb luck, or perhaps the author and I agree on some deep, mystical, aesthetic level. Either way, I’ve been happy with my track record, and I’d like to share some of my favorite ‘window shopping’ finds:

Dreams and Shadows coverDreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargill. This book will appeal to anyone who is into folklore, mythical creatures, and generally wizardy stuff. Cargill’s style of writing was right up my alley – a little bit edgy, but sprinkled with humor and an occasional academic interlude to fill in more information about some of the supernatural beings that are involved in his story. I feel this book was left open-ended enough that it could be turned into the first of a series, or it could remain as a good stand-alone work. Those who liked American Gods may be into this.

Utopian Man coverUtopian Man by Lisa Lang. This was a really lovely read from start to finish. I enjoyed getting lost in the world that Edward William Cole, our Utopian Man, was trying to create with his glorious Arcade. Setting the story in 19th-Century Melbourne made the book all the more fascinating, as it’s a time and place that is very unknown and exotic to me. I think the author brings this feeling of newness and excitement across very well to the reader. This is a light read full of beautiful imagery, a little bit of conflict, and a lot of imagination.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. I’ve already raved about this book in another post, so I’ll get to the important part. This book jacket GLOWS IN THE DARK! Aside from it being a great book, what more do you need to know?

Deathless coverDeathless by Catherynne Valente. 2/3 Russian fairy tale, 1/3 history of Russia from the death of the Tsar through the Siege of Leningrad. It took me a couple of chapters to warm up to this book, mainly because I didn’t know what it was I was getting into: fantasy, a dream sequence, a paranoid delusion, or allegory. Once I figured out how I related to the book, I was drawn in. Deathless reads primarily like a folktale, punctuated with passages full of beauty, mystery, hardship, poetry, mythology, joy, and melancholy. While the library doesn’t own Deathless, I was able to get it through Interlibrary Loan. EPL does have many of Valente’s other titles on shelf.

Age of Wonder coverThe Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. I picked this one up shortly after I finished grad school. I found a note I’d written about it on GoodReads while I was reading the book that made me chuckle: “Interesting subject matter, but perhaps a bit more dense than my poor brain wants to deal with so soon after graduating. Recovery is a long, hard road. I’m sticking it out though, for the greater good.” I am happy to report that it was worth it, and that I learned a lot about science in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As grueling as I made it sound, the book was quite a pleasure to read.

Super Sad True Love Story coverSuper Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. SSTLS is kind of an odd book for me. Generally when I love a book, I love it from the beginning. With this story, my feelings sometimes bordered on hate, and for the most part, hovered in the area of disinterest. Then a funny thing happened: I finished the story and let it marinate in my brain for a while. Soon enough, ideas from SSTLS started popping up in conversations with friends and they would immediately jump in saying that they’d read the same book and completely agreed. Similar to the movie Idiocracy, SSTLS delivers a darkly humorous appraisal of the future of mankind that occasionally seems prophetic when watching the news.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Kind of like Harry Potter, but for grown folks. I went on to read the sequel, The Magician King, and enjoyed it just as much. I would recommend Grossman for anyone who likes a little humor and sarcasm to go along with their fantasy reads.

Travels in Siberia coverTravels in Siberia by Ian Frazier. Before I knew that Ian Frazier was awesome, I stumbled upon his cover for Travels in Siberia. I thought it was lovely and that combined with my odd fascination with all things Russian was enough to get me to put it on hold. I was not disappointed. I think those who enjoy the kind of travel writing one gets from Paul Theroux or Bill Bryson would really connect with this author.

Lisa

What Deane Reads

My husband, Deane, is a voracious reader.  He’s always reading. He reads fast and furiously.  If he’s without a book he begins to twitch and then starts reading cereal boxes, magazines, anything, but is unsatisfied until he gets his hands on another book. Luckily for him I work at a library and can keep him in a constant supply of books, books, books, and more books.

Here is a photo of Deane showing his library spirit at the Everett Fourth of July Parade:

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I’ve gotten to know his reading tastes, of course, after 30 some odd years of marriage. I know that he’ll always read what I call ‘boy books':  the newest Tom Clancy, Lee Child, and the like. But he’ll also enjoy what I’d consider ‘better literature’ such as The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin which was on my night stand, but is now in Deane’s hands since he needed a book. In fact, his reading tastes have evolved so much that he thought Where’d You Go, Bernadette? was fluffy and vacuous while I really liked it! Who knew?

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Why am I telling you this? Because perhaps you didn’t know that the librarians at the Everett Public Library are ready and willing to provide reader’s advisory service to you and not just that lucky fellow, Deane. You should already know that you can ask the folks at the reference desk for information on the phone (425-257-8000) or better yet, in person, but they can also recommend fiction to you.  And you don’t have to sleep with them. Bonus!

If you can’t make it into the library but have access to the Internet, you can take advantage of  the Reader’s Corner part of EPL’s website which has loads of resources for readers. We also have a database called Novelist which is a fantastic way to find new reads or books similar to the ones you already enjoy.

I like to use the web site Goodreads as a resource for what to read next and to keep track of what I’ve read. It’s like a virtual bookshelf but also offers ways to explore the world of books such as recommendations and lists.

Also, one of our knowledgable reference librarians points out that another source he finds helpful for people just wanting to quickly identify some good new (and older) books is Bookmarks magazine available for use at the main library only.

So what is Deane reading this summer besides my copy of The Orchardist? He just finished reading Winter of the World by Ken Follett. Deane proclaimed that this was a great book with good characters, though he thought that it was somewhat contrived in places in order to weave all of the plot threads together neatly in the end.

Right now he’s sitting in the sun reading Truth Like The Sun by Jim Lynch. Deane says that Lynch describes a pivotal moment in Northwest history when Seattle came of age during the 1962 World’s Fair in a pretty good novel.

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I brought three books home from work today for Mr. Deane. He glanced at Barbara Kingsolver’s newest work, Flight Behavior, and said, “Oh, yeah.  I’ve read some of her books”. Deane remembered reading books by T C Boyle when I showed him San Miguel, a novel about the families who inhabited the islands off of Santa Barbara, California. But when he saw John Connelly’s newest, The Black Box, he said, ‘Oh, YEAH!’ and put Lynch down like a hot potato. Well, I guess you can’t change a tiger’s stripes or teach an old dog new tricks or some other such expression, but you can get the books of your liking at the Everett Public Library!

Leslie

The Menagerie & the Literary Artist

First published in 1922, Franz Kafka’s brilliant story “A Hunger Artist” focuses on a psychologically complex and imperfect man whose profession is to publicly fast in a cage for 40 days at a stretch. But public interest in these events begins to diminish over the years. Toward the end, the hunger artist finds himself reduced to circus work, and his cage is set up along a gangway where he is little more than an impediment to the crowd that daily troops past him on its way to the animal menagerie:

He might fast as much as he could, and he did so; but nothing could save him now, people passed him by. Just try to explain to anyone the art of fasting!  Anyone who has no feeling for it cannot be made to understand it. The fine placards grew dirty and illegible, they were torn down; the little notice board telling the number of fast days achieved, which at first was changed carefully every day, had long stayed at the same figure, for after the first few weeks even this small task seemed pointless to the staff; and so the artist simply fasted on and on, as he had once dreamed of doing, and it was no trouble for him, just as he had always foretold, but no one counted the days, no one, not even the artist himself, knew what records he was already breaking, and his heart grew heavy. And when once in a while some leisurely passer-by stopped, made merry over the old figure on the board, and spoke of swindling, that was in its way the stupidest lie ever invented by indifference and inborn malice, since it was not the hunger artist who was cheating, he was working honestly, but the world was cheating him of his reward.

One of the notable things about Kafka’s work is the way his clear and precise language invites multiple interpretations. Coming to this story all these years after it was written, I found myself automatically substituting the literary artist in place of Kafka’s performer. Suffice it to say, things do not end well for the hunger artist. In this era of widespread visual, interruptive and multimedia diversions, one hopes that the literary artist – and the practice of engaged literacy – can somehow avoid a similar fate.

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My previous post was on wordless books, and the following juxtaposition perhaps serves as a fitting coda to that piece and to the dire musings above.

In reading Kafka’s The Complete Stories, I didn’t get around to John Updike’s introduction until I was done. In his description of “The Metamorphosis,” in which traveling salesman Gregor Samsa wakes up as an insect, Updike points out Kafka’s concern that no depiction of the insect should appear on the cover of the book, not even at a distance – that it would shut off the reader’s sympathy for this conflicted creature. Updike goes on to describe the dark humor and pathos of Gregor’s plight as he and his family try to adjust to his situation:

Later, relegated by the family to the shadows of a room turned storage closet, he responds to violin music and creeps forward, covered with dust and trailing remnants of food, to claim his sister’s love. Such scenes could not be done except with words. In this age that lives and dies by the visual, “The Metamorphosis” stands as a narrative absolutely literary, able to exist only where language and the mind’s hazy wealth of imagery intersect.

Maybe it’s not too late for the literary artist after all.

Scott

Go Dutch

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
by David Mitchell (Random House, 2010)

In his previous books, David Mitchell established his astounding virtuosity as a storyteller, weaving together numerous genres and storylines into the fabric of a single book. This time out he works mostly within the historical fiction framework and proves again that he is among the best novelists writing today. (He’s been a finalist twice for the Man Booker Prize, and Thousand Autumns is on the recently announced longlist for this year’s award.)

To attempt to summarize in a few words a book of such commanding versatility is a fool’s errand. But I have to give you some idea of what to expect. In briefest outline, and without giving away too much, the book is set in Japan just over 200 years ago, during the waning years of the Dutch East Indies Company. Young Jacob de Zoet arrives at the Dutch trading post, an artificial island off Nagasaki called Dejima, for a five-year stint as a clerk – a test of his worthiness set by the father of the girl he wishes to marry back home. This work begins in earnest as he must correct the corrupt accounts of the previous station chief who is dispatched just as Jacob arrives. Through a chance encounter, he is smitten with the somewhat liberated midwife Orito Abigawa, who is, of course, unobtainable for a westerner like Jacob. As her family falls deeper into debt, Orito is pulled from her studies at the behest of powerful Abbot Enomoto and is conscripted into a “nunnery” that engages in secret and sinister ritual practices. Jacob and Uzaemon, his friend and competitor for Orito’s affection, strive to rescue her from her mountaintop shrine. There’s much more, but I’ll leave that for you to discover.

A brief plot summary like the one above can only take you so far. It cannot begin to convey the fully-formed characters and their complex interactions; the powerfully evoked settings on both land and sea; the multiple subplots and nuanced storylines; and the book’s underlying concern with the corrupting nature of power and money. Mitchell also explores the tensions between eastern and western culture in such areas as trade (or isolationism), science, medicine, politics, religion, and enlightenment values.

More extensive reviews can be found in The Guardian, The Times, The Washington Post, and BookForum. And The New York Times offers an excerpt from the book.

If you’ve already read Thousand Autumns and are looking for a similar reading experience, you might consider: Tom Jones by Henry Fielding; Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan; or São Tome by Paul Cohn.

Scott

Girl in Translation

book coverI don’t like happy endings.

There.  I said it.

I’m one of those people who lives inside her head 24 hours of the day, my imagination never seeming to wind down. Most who know me would think I would seek out books with happy endings or endings that are neatly tied up. So not true. I like a satisfying ending.

And without giving away the ending to Jean Kwok’s book Girl in Translation, I will say it was a greatly satisfying ending, caught somewhere between happy and real. Too many authors make a happy ending for their novels and I consider this taking the easy way. Girl in Translation will leave you feeling, “this is the way it was supposed to end.”

 We’ve all been new in school, new in town and filled with those particular horrors of “What if no one likes me? What if no one even talks to me? What if no one notices me?” Take all of those feelings and tightly entwine them with being new to the country and not having a firm grasp of the language. Oh yeah, and add being a teenager to the mix and you have Girl in Translation.

We follow the main character, Ah-Kim Chang (or Kim as she’s known in America) as she and her mother emigrate to America with dreams and expectations of a better life, only to work 20 hour days in a sweat shop and live in an apartment filthier than  in any episode of Hoarders. The mother and daughter sometimes have to sleep in shifts to keep the roaches from crawling all over them.

The novel opens with Kim and her mother’s arrival in America, sponsored by Aunt Paula, an out-and-out cruel woman who owns the sweat shop. And we watch them until Kim heads off to college. My favorite part of this novel wasn’t so much a particular scene or plot twist. It was watching Kim grow up, clinging to her Chinese heritage at first, strangled by it as a teenager straddling both worlds, and then finding the balance between being and becoming.

 To me, the message of the novel wasn’t that these immigrants were strangers in a strange land but that they were humans in a new world and struggling-like the rest of us-to find their own way. And it was completely satisfying.

Jennifer

The Seemingness of War

Stories of WarThe subject of narrative truthfulness has come up frequently in my recent reading, and last week I was surprised to find it again as a central theme in Tim O’Brien’s novel about the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried. The traumatic experiences endured by the members of Alpha Company defy resolution, as they replay themselves again and again in the minds of the soldiers, and become warped or embellished as the men try to relate to others the intensities of fear, anxiety, and carnage. In his chapter “How to Tell a War Story” O’Brien says:

In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed. When a booby trap explodes, you close your eyes and duck and float outside yourself. When a guy dies, like Curt Lemon, you look away and then look back for a moment and then you look away again. The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.

Storytelling is also a way the soldiers pass time (they even scold one another on their storytelling styles), and the more improbable stories can take on the qualities of urban legend. O’Brien describes Rat Kiley’s “reputation for exaggeration and overstatement, a compulsion to rev up the facts”:

It wasn’t a question of deceit. Just the opposite: he wanted to heat up the truth, to make it burn so hot that you would feel exactly what he felt. For Rat Kiley, I think, facts were formed by sensation, not the other way around, and when you listened to one of his stories, you’d find yourself performing rapid calculations in your head, subtracting superlatives, figuring the square root of an absolute and then multiplying by maybe.

Fiction about war goes well beyond daily news reports and fatality statistics, gaining power through its ability to present psychological and emotional truths that best represent the author’s experiences. O’Brien’s book does so powerfully and memorably. Please join us in reading The Things They Carried, and in attending related book discussions and other events as part of our month-long Big Read program running throughout the month of May.

Scott

Plot is Dead? Fiction and Reality Hunger

Manifestos are meant to provoke, and David Shields doesn’t disappoint. I wrote about Reality Hunger in an earlier post that focused on his views of reality-bending “non-fiction” and the collage-inspired appropriation of work by other writers. I have to say, I’m not ready to abide deliberate fabrications in what are purported to be factual accounts.  And though artistic creation is certainly colored by influence and tradition (that may include stylistic borrowing, derivation, satire and parody, etc.), I am uncomfortable with Shields’s view of carefree artistic appropriation. But in regard to fiction, the most astonishing claim Shields makes, in my opinion, is the idea that plot is dead. The future of fiction, as Shields sees it, is in fragments, collage, and the blending in of factual and essayistic elements.

Shields may be bored with plot, but the appeal of a good story continues to determine the reading choices for the majority of readers. Plot is of central importance in much popular fiction, and it is practically definitive for adventure stories, mysteries, and thrillers. Romance readers require happy endings, and plot-driven quests are common in science fiction and fantasy. It might even be argued (as Shields does) that some memoirists give in to temptation and introduce fake events in order to create a captivating story line. Storytelling has very deep roots, and I think plot-based books will continue to dominate the offerings of the major publishing houses.

But publishing trends and popularity aside, I would love to see more interest in the type of fiction Shields is espousing.  I’m glad for the passages in which he makes direct reading recommendations, and for the reluctantly supplied footnotes – both of which may help steer adventurous readers to deserving authors. Among the many rewarding though hard-to-classify writers Shields has singled out are: Lydia Davis, Jorge Luis Borges, J. M. Coetzee, Nicholson Baker (especially The Mezzanine and U & I), and Fernando Pessoa (for his The Book of Disquiet).

Just as Shields will occasionally spit out lists of books in support of his manifesto, I thought I’d add to his suggestions some titles I’ve enjoyed that use collage, fragments, ancedotes, restless inquiry, the prose poem, or essay-like explorations: Bluets by Maggie Nelson; The Bathroom by Jean-Philippe Toussaint; The Interrogative Mood: a Novel? by Padgett Powell; Most of It by Mary Ruefle; and Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas.

The links above will allow you to read reviews or summaries of the books in the library catalog, or to place titles on hold for easy pickup. David Shields has thrown down the challenge. Take a deep breath and crack open his book. Or step into the brave new world of fiction offered in the links above. Getting started is as easy as the click of a mouse – what have you got to lose?

Scott