More Book Lists

Ron Charles’ list of best books of 2019 for the Washington Post had not one book I had read. Many were nonfiction which I tend to avoid, one I had started but could not finish (On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous), but one sounded appealing enough to order from the library – Strangers and Cousins.

If you want to see what they are reading inside the beltway these days, here is the Washington Post top ten:

  1. Black Leopard, Red Wolfe by Marlon James – fantasy epic
  2. Falter by Bill McKibben – nonfiction
  3. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – this year’s Booker Prize
  4. A Good Provider is One Who Leaves by Jason DeParie – nonfiction
  5. Know My Name by Chanel Miller – nonfiction
  6. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong – fiction
  7. Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe – nonfiction
  8. Strangers and Cousins by Leah Hager Cohen – fiction
  9. The Topeka School by Ben Lerner
  10. The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom – nonfiction

Library Reads at http://libraryreads.org has the monthly nationwide library staff picks list for adult fiction and non-fiction.  This time of year they offer their complete list, asking library staff to vote for their favorites.  I usually find many on their list I’ve read, and sometimes a few I’ve missed.  Check out their site for over 150 titles they recommended this year.  Librarians always have good ideas.

Here are a few I’ve read:

  1. The Clockmaker’s Daughter: A Novel by Kate Morton 
  2. The Library Book by Susan Orlean 
  3. One Day in December: A Novel by Josie Silver
  4. Unsheltered: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver
  5. My Sister, the Serial Killer: A Novel by Oyinkan Braithwait
  6. Night of Miracles: A Novel by Elizabeth Berg 
  7. Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty 
  8. Once Upon a River: A Novel by Diane Setterfeld
  9. The Suspect by Fiona Barton 
  10. The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict 
  11. The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides 
  12. Good Riddance by Elinor Lipman 
  13. Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir by Ruth Reichl 
  14. The Lager Queen of Minnesota: A Novel by J. Ryan Stradal 
  15. Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman 
  16. The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware 
  17. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett 
  18. This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger

The Giver of Stars

Where do you get your books? Imagine your librarian delivered them personally to your door as JoJo Moyes’ Kentucky packhorse librarians do in her latest novel – The Giver of Stars.

Chronicling the real story of Appalachian women in the WPA (Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration), Moyes creates a tale about five women, who ride mules and horses to deliver books to outlying areas in the Kentucky hills. Drunk moonshiners, coal barons, and the general attitude of men in the nineteen thirties make their job much harder, but the women persevere to bring literacy to unlikely places and to provide backwoods women with important armor besides their shotguns – the ability to read books.

Although not as compelling as some of her former novels, The Giver of Stars offers all the same components – adventure, romance, and breathtaking drama. The women each have a burden to overcome but they manage to persevere through prejudice, family restrictions, physical hardship, and, of course, the men. Not all the men are villains, however. Moyes has two love interests who manage to not only respect but also aid the women when they most need help.

Van Cleve, the controlling wealthy owner of the lands he is destroying with his coal mining, is the villain. As the story progresses, it seems likely he will prevail. If you have read any of Moyes’ books, you know she can be counted on for a happy ending, so I am not offering a spoiler to tell you she comes through again in this one, but the solution is almost at the end of the book and seems contrived.

In researching the novel, I found an uncomfortable note about another author claiming to have written a very similar novel published not long before this one. Author Kim Richardson’s novel – The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek – also about the packhorse women of Kentucky, was published a few months before Moyes’ novel. Her imagined characters face many of the same issues and incidents as Moyes’ women. Although Richardson brought her concerns to the publisher, the company decided no legal action on copyright infringement was warranted, and Richardson has declined to sue on her own. 

My knowledgeable librarian who has read Richardson’s book tells me it has more of a science fiction vibe, but uses the same historical premise as Moyes. Richardson’s book is in my library system, and I have ordered it to compare notes myself. 

From volunteering at the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Hawaii, I know amazing librarians who give personalized service to the blind, identifying books they might like, chatting on the phone with patrons to discover their interests in reading, and mailing large print books or books on tape to their doors.  Librarians are among my favorite people, and literacy is among the issues I hold dear, so there can’t be enough books about both topics for me.

 

 

Lost in the Stacks

Mahesh Rao commentary on libraries in his New York Times essay “Lost in the Stacks,” reminded me of how libraries have nurtured my own love of reading.  My first memory of going to a library is linked to  holding my mother’s hand as we walked through the park to a tall building – an adventure to a new world.  Later in college I found comfort in hiding behind books in a remote carrell as I studied obscure passages.  Just like Rao, I inadvertently forgot to return a book or two, discovered years later in my own collection.

Librarians, more than authors, have always held my reverence.  Some are modestly taciturn, never revealing their wealth of information until asked.  Others, like Rao’s North London friend, are ready to share common interests and review my selections as I check out more books than I can carry.

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Trinity College Library, Dublin

Books about libraries draw me in.  Some of my favorites:

  • Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon with the Cemetery of Forgotten Books is a library for literary works no longer remembered by anyone. Daniel  finds mystery and adventure, as books salve the lingering pain of his mother’s death.
  • The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai connects a children’s librarian with questionable ties to the Russian mafia to a curious 10-year-old boy whose parents enroll him in an anti-gay class and strictly monitor his library material.
  • This Book is Overdue by Marilyn Johnson challenges the stereotype of librarians.  See my review – here
  • By Its Cover by Donna Leon uses a rare books collection in a prestigious Venice library as the setting for the twenty-third in her series of Guida Brunetti mysteries. My review – here.

 

 

Do you have a favorite book about libraries?

Related:

 

The Book of Speculation

9781250054807_p0_v5_s260x420When a librarian receives a rare old book from a stranger in Erika Swyler’s The Book of Speculation, he discovers a door into his past, leading to a world of carnival performers with mysterious secrets.

Simon Watson’s life is disintegrating: his job as a research librarian in a small New England town is eliminated through budget cuts and his childhood waterfront home is falling apart from years of disrepair. The book – bought on spec by an antique book dealer, hence the name – becomes his source for researching his family line.  The story connects the lives and history of three families affiliated with a nineteenth century traveling carnival – the carnival overseer; the mysterious Russian fortune-teller; and the underwater mermaids of Simon’s heritage through his mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.  Unraveling who has grown into the present-day characters offers more speculation – until Swyler reveals all in the end.

The story flips back and forth from Simon’s present to the past.  The history of traveling carnivals with freak sideshows offers a vivid description of the hard life on the road in the early nineteenth century, and a glimpse into the lives of the performers.  At times, however, the story swerves into strange territory with a young tattooed man who can turn on lights with his touch, a deck of tarot cards infused with mystical powers, and a curse causing the breath-holding women to cause floods and abnormal tides, before they all die at a young age.   Simon’s pain-staking task of finding his heritage leads to a bizarre family tree and an extramarital affair that seems contrived to explain away a strange childhood.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the easy flow of the story, the magical possibilities, and the outlandish explanations.  If you are a fan of  The Night Circus, The Golem and the Jinni, and other books with a mix of other worldliness and family drama, Swyler’s book will fix you under its spell.

Related ReviewThe Night Circus

 

 

 

Want to Get Away? Read “The Borrower” by Rebecca Makkai

Some days, who doesn’t want to hop in the car and keep driving – as far and as long as you can?  I remember mornings when blue skies and endless roads held a promise of escape, and it was hard to turn into that parking lot for work.  In Rebecca Makkai’s The Borrower, twenty-six year old children’s librarian Lucy Hull, unexpectedly finds herself on a road-trip with her favorite library patron, ten-year old Ian Drake.

The story centers on two characters: Lucy, the only daughter of Russian immigrant parents, who is doing her time at her first job since graduating from Mount Holyoke as an English major; and Ian, the library regular who devours any books Lucy suggests.  Unfortunately, Ian’s mother, suspicious of fictional influence, does not approve of all of Lucy’s selections.  Lucy knows books, and so does Makkai, as she cleverly inserts classic book titles and songs-for-the-road, incorporating the storyline from some favorites you will recognize.

Lucy is happy to conspire with Ian to help him read books about anything he is interested in – sometimes, checking out the books to herself to maintain his cover, other times subversively slipping Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing into his backpack.  Mrs. Drake has enrolled Ian in Pastor Bob’s anti-gay camp, and her list of readings is confined to Pastor Bob’s suggestions.

When Ian packs his knapsack, runs away from home, and hides out in the library, Lucy decides to cooperate in his escape plan – and the road trip begins. The odyssey continues from Missouri to Chicago to Pittsburgh and Vermont.  Makkai uses other characters along the way to add humor and convenient ploys that work to help Lucy in the end.  When Lucy and Ian make a rest stop at her parents’ luxurious apartment on the lake in Chicago, Lucy’s Russian immigrant father tells his story of his harrowing and heroic escape from Russia.  Later, when she visits her uncle in Pittsburgh, the story gets retold, and the family’s connections to shady underworld characters is confirmed.  Having connections can be very helpful when you are in danger of being arrested for kidnapping.

Makkai cleverly spins the story so that you vacillate between wondering if Lucy and Ian will be caught, and hoping that they will get away.  Makkai’s plays on words are sometimes funny:  a scene in a New England bar when a man who has had too much to drink calls her a libertarian, and she thinks she – the librarian –  has been discovered; Lucy listing the seven deadly sins – Sloth as measured in calories not burned; Avarice – apparent sense of entitlement; Lust – untalented musician slept with…

It all works out in the end.   If you can laugh and just enjoy the ride, you will enjoy the adventures of this unlikely pair, despite – or maybe because of  – Makkai’s obvious political musings.