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Posts Tagged ‘libraries’

My class ended Monday evening, so when I got home, I started reading a book for fun. The publicist for  the debut novel  Ginny Moon, Shara Alexander, sent me an advance copy, because author Benjamin Ludwig lives in New Hampshire, and I used to write a column that mainly featured NH authors. I had seen reviews already, since I order fiction at my university, and I had already ordered a copy, because I like to stock fiction that features characters in professions our students will pursue — and we have programs in school counseling, teaching, nursing, and psychology, so I thought a book about an autistic girl that features many adults in helping professions might be of interest to them.

What I didn’t count on is that I would like it so much that I would read way too late under the covers with a book light cupped inside my hand so I wouldn’t wake my husband. Or that I would skip drying  my hair before work so I could finish the last couple of chapters while eating breakfast. Or that I would have to touch up my eye makeup because I would cry through the ending.

Ginny Moon is fourteen and lives with her adoptive parents. Her “forever mom” is pregnant and that makes Ginny think a lot about the baby doll she took care of when she lived with her birth mom. As Ginny remembers, or “goes into her brain” more often, her adoptive family are disturbed by the ways she acts out. Readers piece together what Ginny is remembering long before the adults in the book, and I found  myself feeling very frustrated and even angry with some of them — how could her teachers and other school staff not see that something is amiss? How can her “forever” parents be so clueless, and even somewhat selfish? Will anyone figure out what Ginny is hiding and what she is trying so hard to tell everyone?

I don’t necessarily like this kind of emotional page turner, but Ludwig manages the drama well. Yes, I cried, but I never felt manipulated to feel a certain way, as poorly written family novels can sometimes do to readers. I could vividly imagine what Ginny and the other characters looked like, and I could hear her voice. In my last job, I met many people on the autism spectrum, and it seemed to me that Ginny seems like a very authentic, human character, possibly because Ludwig is a father who adopted an autistic daughter, so he’s writing what he knows.  My favorite character is Patrice, the psychologist who has been with Ginny through her entire ordeal (the Blue House where she lives with her forever parents is not the first place she’s landed since being taken from her birth mother), has a cat named Agamemnon, and seems to be a little more clear-eyed and level headed than the other adults Ginny relies on.

This book will appeal to a wide audience — I would definitely recommend it to book clubs, and I think there is plenty to appeal to teens. When I worked in the public library I sometimes had people ask me for books for older readers who don’t like swearing and sex in their books, and this one would fit the bill (there are some descriptions of adults behaving badly, but told from a child’s point of view, so compared to other novels that mention sex or drugs or abuse, this one is pretty tame). If you know a special ed teacher or aspiring special ed teacher or counselor, this would be a good end of the school year or graduation gift. If you’re looking for some thought provoking but entertaining fiction to take on a plane trip or to occupy you while you wait for a repairman or at your kid’s softball practice, this is it. Just don’t expect to get much sleep once you’ve started reading it, nor to look good at work the next day.

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Ok, so it didn’t snow today, or last Friday, but it snowed Saturday-Monday and I read three more books.

One book bingo square I filled is “A book from one of the library’s new shelves.” I chose Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah. It’s as much the story of his remarkable mother as it is his story. Noah explains apartheid and the post-apartheid years in Johannesburg and describes his childhood and adolescence, as well as his family history. As the child of his unconventional mother and father — a black Xhosa woman and a white Swiss man, Noah is considered colored, or mixed race, in South Africa, and his very existence was illegal. Growing up his black relatives and their neighbors considered him white; he thought of himself as black.

Noah has a conversational style and as you might expect, a gift for finding humor even in extreme hardship. And it’s clear that despite repeatedly describing beatings he received from her, Noah’s mother is the reason he survived his childhood. In one story he explains that she frequently told him things a child perhaps should not hear, but she had her reasons: “My mom told me these things so I would never take for granted how we got to where we were, but none of it ever came from a place of self-pity. ‘Learn from your past and be better because of your past,’ she would say, ‘but don’t cry about your past. Life is full of pain. Let the pain sharpen you, but don’t hold onto it. Don’t be bitter.’ And she never was.”

For my “book whose title that begins with W,” my second born suggested Why We Broke Up. I got it at the library book sale at one point, because we both love Maira Kalman and they loved Daniel Handler as Lemony Snicket — A Series of Unfortunate Events was one of the first series they read without me reading it aloud. Why We Broke Up is is the story of Min, a teenager who is writing to her two-timing jock ex-boyfriend, Ed. She’s explaining what’s in a box of stuff she’s going to leave on his porch as soon as she’s done writing the letter. Her best friend, Al, is driving her to take the box of stuff back. I enjoyed it, although I’m not sure the second born would — they’d probably want to know what in the hell Min saw in Ed (ok, lust, popularity). I couldn’t decide if Ed is a serial shit, a victim of his own popularity and co-captain privilege, a product of the patriarchy, or unreliable because of his own troubled childhood. Min is awesome, except that she’s dim about Al, who is superior to Ed in every way. Al is awesome, and at first I thought kind of unbelievable but then I realized no, there are kids who are kind of mature beyond their years. A little painful to read for someone who made her share of dumb decisions about which boys to spend time in high school, but I like the way it’s told, and I LOVE the illustrations.

Finally I read “A book with a red cover,” one that I’ve owned for years but had only flipped through: A Journey Into the Transcendentalists’ New England by R. Todd Felton. I bought this in Concord, MA, when we went on a family day trip after reading about — and some works by some of Concord’s famous residents, particularly Thoreau. I’ve been reading and thinking a good bit about 19th century Boston, especially because the Computer Scientist and I have spent more time there this year. This book is an introductory guide to the places and people who were important to the Transcendentalist movement. It’s full of photos and maps, but no visitor information, so it’s more a guide in the sense of giving an overview than a tourist guide. It made me curious about The Boston Atheneum – a private library, still in existence today. And it made me aware of some of the history of places I’ve already been — I didn’t know The Atlantic Monthly was founded by a group called the Saturday Club, which met at The Omni Parker House.  Nor did I know that the building attached to the Brattle Book Shop on West Street, now occupied by a restaurant called Papagayo, was once Elizabeth Peabody’s bookstore, where Margaret Fuller and Peabody held “conversations” for thinking women and so many of the great writers and thinkers of the day came to talk and buy books.

I love history and reading this, as well as a biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner that I’m about halfway through, makes me want to go through my shelves for more Boston history. I could read something in that vein for the “A biography or memoir” square, since the Gardner book would fit the “book about art or artists” square (she collected art, befriended artists, and founded the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. For this evening, I’m after “A book with a number in the title.”

And, there is snow in the forecast.

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I’m not sure what to say about this book that will do it justice — it’s a good read, a novel that both tells a story and speaks truth, and it made me feel my white privilege acutely. Adichie manages to be both humorous and heartbreaking, and she takes readers into communities and cultures many of us don’t know. It you’ve read booksconscious for long, you know that for me, that’s pretty much the total package — good writing, truth, transport, compelling narrative. Oh, and characters who are alive.

Americanah is the story of Ifemelu and her childhood sweetheart Obinze. They come of age in Nigeria under military rule and both get fed up with the university strikes and decide to leave. Ifemelu follows her Aunty Uju to America, where she finds things are not what she expected. Obinze, denied an American visa, ends up trying his luck in England, where he has a cousin. I don’t want to give away details of what happens to each of them, but readers follow their struggles and successes until, full circle, the story returns to Nigeria.

Part of the story is that Ifemelu writes a blog about racism; in America she experiences being black for the first time (late in the book she tells a white American “I got off the plane in Lagos and stopped being black). The blog posts in the novel are particularly relevant, painful reading now.  She also writes in a refreshing way about the immigrant experience. I know refugees in my community, and I know how shocking it has been for them to come here and experience the reality of America as compared the image they held while waiting to come here. I hadn’t ever thought about the fact that some people, not refugees but other immigrants, don’t find what they are seeking and return to their countries. That’s not the story we’re told about the American Dream. I appreciated the view that America isn’t the end of people’s stories in this book.

Adiche, describing Ifemelu’s discovery of Obinze’s favorite books in her local library in Philadelphia, writes, “how could a string of words make a person ache for a place he did not know?” Of course, I recognized that feeling. If you do too, you will find that familiar, pleasant ache in Americanah. The thing is you might also ache for a place you do know — America. But right now, I can’t think of a better way to do that than to read fiction.

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Paul Hertneky lives in author-rich New Hampshire (in fact he’s going to be reading & speaking at the Hancock Library on June 9 at 7pm, and Rust Belt Boy is published by one of my favorite small presses, also in New Hampshire, Bauhan Publishing) but he grew up in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. Ambridge was steel country, and the rise and fall of the American steel industry helped define the town. In his memoir Rust Belt Boy, Hertneky writes about what his hometown and his large immigrant family imprinted on his psyche, and also about what it was like to grow up there.

This book is full of vividly rendered scenes — Hertneky as a boy buying Friday pirohi (“The first bite made me close my eyes”) and asking his grandmother about communism (“my curiosity felt like a constantly full bladder”). His father making puppets out of the rabbits he’d just skinned: “Like the priests during Mass, Milt transformed death into life . . . .” Hertneky in the library which “made me feel whole” lost in the books that helped him dream of other places and other lives. The adult Hertneky at seminal moments, at the steel plant where his co-worker was nearly killed, and as he made a fervent declaration of love only to find it wasn’t reciprocal.

This is a book about one rust belt town where one boy grew up, which is fascinating, especially when I read about the Harmonists, who made Ambridge prosper before heavy industry and who I’d never heard of even though I grew up in Pennsylvania. But it’s also a universal coming of age tale reflecting on the fifties, sixties and seventies in America. Given how different Ambridge and places like it are today, Hertneky has gifted readers with the memory of a time and place that is mostly gone. Rust Belt Boy is a lovely read, interesting as a cultural and geographical story, as a memoir, and as a history of the aspirations of immigrants who made postwar prosperity their American dream.

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For my book bingo square “a book on display in the library” I picked up All Together Now. I haven’t read Gill Hornby’s debut, The Hive, but I ordered both of these novels for the library based on their reviews. Now that I’ve looked up an interview with her, I’m a fan — anyone who says “I’d like to actually be Jane Austen” is my hero(ine). Also she is brave enough to write a novel when she is married to Robert Harris and her brother is Nick Hornby AND — and this is the most inspirational part — she didn’t publish until she was in her 50’s. I’d like to be her. I’d like to think I’m on my way. I’m not yet 50, but my kids are not needing me as much these days and as you all know, I was fired from my newspaper column last year.

Also, I really like books which are set somewhere totally different than where I live that remind me of what my grandmother always said: people are the same everywhere. Gill Hornby does that — her people are my people, even though I’ve never met anyone exactly like them. She has an excellent sense of the frustrations and small joys of everyday life.

In All Together Now the community choir in Bridgeford, a small town whose civic pride in in decline, and whose High Street shops are threatened by a proposed superstore on the edge of town. Through a cast of characters who sing in the choir, Hornby tells the story of the town trying to get back its vibrancy and the choir carrying on after their director is seriously injured in an accident. 

There’s Bennett, former choir schoolboy, who has also recently found himself formerly employed and formerly married. And Annie, the empty-nester librarian who feels something’s missing in her life. And Tracey, single mom with a secret. Jazzy, who has problems at home but fancies herself the next Adele. And many others, from various walks of life and backgrounds, who come together for various reasons to sing.

Without getting sappy or treacly, Hornby pulls all these lives together with the superstore drama and tells the mostly happy story of people finding themselves joined in a common purpose. Each of them also manages to learn something about their own happiness as well. It’s nice to see middle-aged characters whose midlife epiphanies are both ordinary and transforming – like many people, they are each trying to find their way in a changing world when it feels like just yesterday, they were the ones ready to change it. A charming, uplifting book. And you’ll want to play all the songs. 

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A colleague of mine at the library lent me her copy of A Single ManShe said she’d never read Isherwood, came across this book on our sale rack, and decided she wanted to try it. When someone likes a book so much they invite me to borrow it, that’s a compelling recommendation, so I took her up on it.

I have to admit, I’d never read Isherwood either. I thought A Single Man was nearly perfect (only nearly, because I’m not sure perfection exists). The characters are so complete they came off the page in my mind. The story is simple but the book isn’t about what happens so much as it is about life happening. It’s one of those novels that is absolutely True, by which I mean it tells capital T truths about what it means to be human, in a way that I think even nonfiction doesn’t always do. It has both a kick-ass beginning and an ending that I can’t get out of my head. My grandmother would give it her highest praise: there is not one extra word. Everything Isherwood wrote belongs.

George, the main character, is an older man whose much younger partner Jim died suddenly in an accident a short time before the book opens. It’s the 60’s, and even in southern California he is not entirely out. He refers to Jim as his “friend” and even pretends to his neighbors that Jim has gone to be near family rather than risk revealing too much by telling the truth. George is still grieving and the opening pages of the book, which describe him having a sort of out-of-body experience of coaxing himself to get up out of bed and get on with the day, drew me in immediately:

“Waking up begins with saying am and now. . . . Here comes next, and is at least negatively reassuring; because here, this morning, is where it has expected to find itself: what’s called at home. But now isn’t simply now. Now is a cold reminder: one whole day later than yesterday, one year later than last year.”

To me this is an intriguing and promising opening. I wanted to know whether George was going to feel better. The rest of the novel takes readers through the rest of this one day in George’s life. It doesn’t necessarily answer my question.

If you read about Isherwood you’ll see that some of the characters in the book appear to be inspired by people in his life. He did have a much younger partner. And Charlotte, George’s dear friend and fellow British ex-pat, might resemble Isherwood’s real life dear friend and fellow British ex-pat, Dodie Smith. Learning those possible parallels made the book even more endearing to me.

But I should add — it’s not endearing in a cute and cuddly way. This is a tough book that confronts prejudice, homophobia, and meanness. It questions consumer culture, the American higher education system, and the dawn of suburban sprawl. George’s emotions range from euphoria over life’s simple pleasures, like going to the gym to despair that the students he teaches at a community college are never going to get what he’s trying to tell them. He is both thrilled to be alive and afraid that his life is meaningless. He feels pure rage at those who vilify homosexuality and loneliness as he observes people together. At times his loss seems to take on a mystical presence yet he seems content with what he still has at other moments. His enormous grief seems to pulse just below the other emotions. Sometimes the streams cross and George is nearly overcome, he changes his mind about what he’ll do next, he seems to be feeling everything at once.

What’s incredible is that readers get this rich sense of the man when we see him on just one day, and also that his inner life becomes so vivid. I don’t want to give away the ending but I have to say it blew me away — I was not expecting it and the last two pages may be among the finest book endings I’ve ever read. I immediately wished I could talk about it with someone and will do so tomorrow. What I will say, and what I’ll leave you with, is that A Single Man gets to the heart of what it feels like to be human — coursing with emotions, full of longing to connect with people, to be purposeful, to be happy and also not to make others unhappy, to know what one’s life should be. I’m a straight woman, born in a far different generation and in another country, but I felt George’s joy and discomfort, I was a part of his humanity, so long as I was reading this book.

 

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Neil Gaiman thinks it does. Tomorrow evening my library’s new “Short & Sweet” group – devoted to reading & discussing a short story or essay each month – will talk about Gaiman’s talk, “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading, and Daydreaming,” published as an essay in The Guardian. I  re-read it this morning to make some notes for the discussion. Gaiman proposes that our “common humanity” depends on reading for pleasure, especially reading fiction.

The beginning of the essay is about Gaiman’s belief that new readers (mostly, but sadly not always, kids) should be allowed to read whatever they want, that snobbery about “bad” books simply prevents people from reading, and that escapist reading gives people the chance to see their world differently.

But he goes on to note that fiction can teach empathy (something that scientists have studied). “You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.” I’ve written here at bookconscious over the years that my ideal reading experience is to finish a book like that, one that acts on my mind and heart and stays with me.

Gaiman notes this can have an impact on society, “Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.” Gaiman explains that Chinese officials welcomed Sci-Fi conventions in the last few years because they learned that many of the most creative, inventive people in the American high tech. industry read Sci-Fi as kids.

Fiction, Gaiman says, reveals “that truth is not in what happens but in what it tells us about who we are.”  The best books, including many I’ve written about here, help us make our way in the world armed with that kind of Truth.

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