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Station Eleven

ISBN: 
9780385353304

There sure are a lot of books about the End of the World these days; Dystopian novels have been very popular in our rapidly changing present and uncertain future. I would consider this one "literary" fiction, in the sense that the novel isn't really about the genre, but rather uses it as a device that focuses more on its descriptive language and sense of place. This book is set specifically in the Toronto/Great Lakes area as it evokes a sense of wonder about our civilization in its retrospective loss of everything. The story weaves back and forth between several characters before, during, and after an outbreak of "The Georgia Flu" (the Eastern European kind). As any good, modern plague story, airplane travel is quickly identified as the initial means of pandemic. This is not a fast paced, action-driven story (as most of the dystopias I have read), but rather revels in its lack of immediacy. There is no reason to rush, because we have been exposed to the outcome; there is no longer any hustle and bustle of the modern world.

The book jacket suggests this is a cross between Cormac McCarthy and Joan Didion. I can see those inspirations in the author's writing, but it really isn't as blunt or lyrical as either of those great writers. Yet, seeing the comparison in itself is a compliment to the thoughtfulness put into the characters. The story is a bit too disjointed to every really care enough about any particular person, for me, but its detailed authorial observations kept me intrigued throughout (like how gasoline can "go bad" after a certain amount of time or the simple lack of something like a newspaper, in a world without electricity, can break down all institutional communication). The book is less suicide-inducing than The Road and less grief-stricken than The Year of Magical Thinking, but worth a read if you want a well-reviewed book from last year that no longer has a holds waiting list.

The Black Snow

ISBN: 
9780316376419

Irish writer Paul Lynch begins his second novel with a vivid barn burning scene--one of the most powerful novel openers I’ve read in a long time. It starts out calm, some farmhands working quietly in a field, the farm owner’s wife, Eskra, baking, until the scent of smoke and a dark cloud rising suggest that something is very wrong.

The farmer, Barnabas Kane, races to the barn with a loyal worker, and Barnabas presses inside and nudges Matthew Peoples inside also. They try to rescue the fifty seven cattle that are banging their stalls in a frenzy of fear. A friend rescues the farmer, but the other man never gets out, nor do most of the cattle.

The book shows the aftermath of that fire.  For months, the house stinks of smoke: the towels, the sheets, even the wallpaper. In one scene, Barnabas rips down curtains, slashes the wallpaper, even tears his clothes off after recognizing their smoky smell. Eskra comes home and believes he has lost his mind. Read more »

Armchair Travel Delights

If this isn’t the year for a summer vacation, why not have a stay-cation with these books and delight in some armchair travel to places you may never have a chance to visit otherwise.

 

 

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller

Mom says, "Don't come creeping into our room at night."
They sleep with loaded guns beside them on the bedside rugs.
She says, "Don't startle us when we're sleeping."
"Why not?"
"We might shoot you."
"Oh."

So begins Alexandra Fuller’s memoir Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, a memoir of her childhood in growing up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during civil war.  Born in England, Fuller immigrated to Rhodesia with her parents when she was a toddler.  It’s hard to imagine why her parents thought moving to Rhodesia during a civil war was a good idea, but both had ties to the continent.  Her father moved to Kenya as a young man and her mother lived in Kenya during the twilight of its empire days.  Fuller never gives the impression they were imperialists but settlers.  Fuller’s dad was often absent-fighting for “white rights” in Africa.  At home, her mom managed her depression mostly with alcohol- “We're all mad, but only I have the certificate to prove it.” 

Life was hard.  The family moved from one poor performing tobacco farm to another.  Fuller focuses on stories of family life while moving around Rhodesia with the Rhodesian Civil War framing the background.  For example, Fuller’s first school picture is include and in it she is holding an Uzi. But for every mention of the war, there’s also a tale of life in Africa.  From planting during the spring to reclaiming a farmhouse from the encroaching jungle to even the sounds, Fuller paints such a detailed picture of the landscape that you can almost feel you’re there.

For more about Fuller’s family and life in Africa read: Scribling the Cat and Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.

  Read more »

Novel Novels: Not Your Average Story

 

Not every story has a clear beginning, middle and end.  Here are three that challenge the traditional definition of "novel."

 

 

The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan

 

The title of The Lover’s Dictionary describes exactly what is inside this novel: a story of a relationship told through alphabetical dictionary entries describing the large and small events that shape a relationship.  While the first entry describes a scene from the first meeting, the rest of the novel does not follow linearly. We learn of how the unnamed couple falls in love, events that cause tension, milestones in their relationship and vignettes about love. 

 

For example:

I, n.

Me without anyone else.

Read more »

New United States Poet Laureate

ISBN: 
9780872864627

Just announced: the Library of Congress appointed Juan Filipe Herrera as our latest national poet laureate. The child of migrant farm workers, Herrera is the first Latino poet laureate. As a child, he traveled up and down the state of California with his parents, and later attended UCLA with the help of a grant for disadvantaged youth.

At the age of 21, Herrera was inspired by the debut book by Puerto Rican poet, Victor Hernandez Cruz.

He also writes children's books and those for young adults. Check out our list of his titles. Read more »

The Buried Giant

ISBN: 
9780307271037

If you’ve read any of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels, you know that not only can he write beautiful prose but that he also weaves interesting, compelling stories.

For an author who has written about widely divergent themes: life among the British gentry and serving classes (The Remains of the Day) and a group of schoolchildren being farmed for body parts (Never Let Me Go), his latest takes a leap into entirely new directions.

Call it an on the road/historical/Arthurian/ attempt-to-find-and-slay-a-giant-novel. This giant, who lives in Britain after the Anglo Saxon wars, spumes up dense clouds that cause people to lose their memories.

Beatrice and Axl, two very old Britons, find themselves denied candles in their village, forced to spend their nights in the cold dark, and are treated shabbily in other ways.  They decide to leave and attempt a long arduous journey to see their only child, a son, who has not returned to the village for many years. Beatrice suffers from an unnamed illness that makes her very frail but she’s determined to see their son again.

Because of the endless polluted mists, neither she nor Axl can remember why their son left, or why he has not returned. Axl vaguely recalls an argument just before they parted, so the old couple want to make amends.

In one village where they spend the night, the residents mob a young boy who has a weird bite on his skin. They are so angry that Axl fears for the boy's life, and rushes to his rescue, but the mob attacks him instead. After leaving this village they find this boy again accompanied by a Saxon. Long ago, Axl fought against the Saxons, and the country is just starting to heal from the vicious wars.

Axl and Beatrice agree to travel with them, because the Saxon promises to help the couple reach their destination. They feel sorry for the boy too, but they are also leery of his bite.

While trying to cross a bridge, guards with swords detain them.  When the Saxon sees them coming, he concocts a plan to play the fool. He also advises the couple to say that the boy has come with them. So the Saxon lolls his head, wags his tongue while the guards draw swords and prepare to spear him. But his disguise succeeds at least until the guard realizes later that the boy might be the boy bitten by the dragon, and chases them again.

The party also meets elderly Sir Gawain, one of the knights or Arthur’s Round Table. The king has commanded him to slay the buried giant. At one point, the Saxon accuses him of not really trying to kill the beast.  Why else would it still be alive?

The couple decide to visit a monastery even though it is out of the way and high on a mountain because they heard a monk there offers excellent counseling. But alas, the monastery was not what they thought. Around its windows and parapets, huge ravens swarm eager for bites of flesh. There is also a large tower that looks burnt, and has a suspicious platform on which it looks like battles have been fought, and enemies thrown off. Later the Saxon discovers a weird torture device in an out-building. And yes, those hungry ravens continue to batter the hatches.

Ishiguro weaves history, Arthurian legend, and medieval fear of those different from us into a wonderful parable, but at heart, this is a story of a long marriage, how two people survive both the rough and calm seas of life, trying to bridge their differences, and caring for each other despite mistakes, arguments, hard feelings and the chaos of a world gone mad around them.

For an entirely different take on England long ago, try Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders: a novel of the plague.

Hissing Cousins

ISBN: 
9780385536011

This double biography of two famous first cousins, both belonging to the famous Roosevelt clan, brings the early 20th century to life in both Washington DC and New York and gives us a fascinating peak into two strong women’s lives, both of whom married or were born into politics.

Eleanor Roosevelt and her first cousin Alice were born just eight months apart. Alice came from the Republican Oyster Bay branch of the family and Eleanor from the Democratic Hyde Park (NYC) branch. Not only did they differ in political and social outlooks, but they even pronounced their last name differently. Alice’s family said Rose—evelt. And Eleanor’s pronounced the same name as Ruse-evelt. Read more »

3 Psychological Thrillers

Are you looking for a book that you can't put down?  One that raises the hair on your arms and doesn't leave your mind for days? Or, are you just looking for a recommendation for your Adult Summer Reading guide? One of these may be for you!

 

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Set in Stalinist Soviet Union, former war hero and current MGB agent Leo Demidov works long hours tracking down and arresting citizens suspected of political crimes.  Leo knows most of them are innocent, just as he knows he can easily be on the other side of the interrogation table.  Sent to investigate the death of a co-worker’s child, Leo is upset because he has more important work to do. His frustration levels grow when the child’s parents won’t stop insisting that their child has been murdered. In the Soviet Union in 1953 there is no crime, and certainly no murder.  Meanwhile, Leo’s jealous co-work plants seeds of doubt into their superior’s minds, and when Leo refuses to denounce his wife as a traitor, they both become targets of the State.  While on the run, Leo encounters more evidence that there is a serial killer on the loose-one that is targeting children and he is determined to put a stop to it.

This fast paced thriller will leave you on the edge of your seat. Several twists and tunrs only add to the suspense. Though the book deals with sensitive topics, they are not described in gorey detail.  Smith instead focuses on the fear the Soviet system instilled it it’s people.  Read it now before it hits the big screen this fall!

If you enjoyed Child 44, then read the series other two books- The Secret Speech and Agent 6.

  Read more »

Shutter, Courtney Alameda

ISBN: 
9781250044679

Horror stories scare me and this one was no exception. Micheline Helsing (yes, she's related to THE Van Helsing) is a tetrachromat and a ghost hunter. Tetrachromats can see spirits that regular humans cannot, but Micheline is particularly unique. She uses a special camera to trap and destroy ghosts who are terrorizing the human world. Micheline is good at her job; together with her loyal team she fights off creatures that would leave most of us hiding under the covers. It's a scary job, but Micheline isn't afraid, until the night she disobeys orders and goes after a dangerous spirit alone. Now she and her friends are racing against the clock to defeat an unknown, powerful evil before it consumes them from the inside...literally. 

Check out this creepy adventure for a good scare!

Author Highlight- Ann Patchett

“You may have heard the news that the independent bookstore is dead, that books are dead, that maybe even reading is dead—to which I say: Pull up a chair, friend. I have a story to tell.”

Ann Patchett, “The Bookstore Strikes Back”

 

You might know Ann Patchett from her bestselling novel Bel Canto. But did you know that when her hometown, Nashville TN, lost its last bookstore, Patchett and two friends decided to open their own? Named after the Greek mythological mountain home to, among other things, literature, learning, and music, Parnussus Books has proved that people still buy books. In 2011, with only a name and a business plan, Patchett set off on her book tour for State of Wonder, intending to promote the new bookstore just as much, if not more than the book. 

Before Bel Canto and even before The Patron Saint of Liars, Patchett wrote nonfiction articles for magazines.  Some well-respected ones, others not as much. Here’s where things get interesting. Patchett employed a tactic she learned while writing for fashion magazines. Because issues take three months to go to press, it is almost impossible to predict what the latest trend will be when the issue is finally out. Therefore, the editors just decide what the trend is and go with it.  Ann Patchett decided in 2011 that trend was “independent bookstores” and go with it she did.  At each appearance she hyped up bookstores and books.   As she writes about in her Atlantic article “The Bookstore Strikes Back” (also published in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage), Patchett benefited greatly from the “Colbert bump” and orders for State of Wonder soared after she appeared on The Colbert Report.

While I can go on and on about Parnussus Books, another interesting fact about Ann Patchett is her relationship with the poet and memoirist Lucy Grealy.  Patchett met Grealy when they were undergraduates at Sarah Lawrence, but didn’t really become friends with her until they moved in together while attending the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  After Grealy’s death, Patchett wrote a memoir of their friendship called Truth and Beauty. Lyrical and haunting, Patchett reflects on the young woman they once were and how their friendship evolved over the years. 

 

Bel Canto

World renowned opera singer Roxanne Coss has just finished giving a performance honoring a Japanese CEO at the Vice President’s house in an unnamed South American country. Suddenly terrorists break in taking everyone hostage except their intended target-the President. You see, at the last minute the President stayed home to watch his favorite soap opera.  The CEO, Mr. Hosokawa is Coss’s biggest fan, he may even be in love with her, but then again, so is everyone at the gathering.  From the Russian diplomats to the teenage terrorists, Roxanne Coss has charmed them all.  The common thread is Gen, Mr. Hosokawa’s translator.  We see how the hostages spend their days and forge relationships through his conversations.  In time the hostage situation begins to seem normal for those involved-until, of course, the rescue operation occurs. Rich and imaginative, Ann Patchett knocks it out of the park.

State of Wonder

A researcher at the pharmaceutical company, Marina Singh, is sent to the Amazon to investigate the death of her colleague Anders-who was originally sent to check the progress of Dr. Annick Swenson but hasn’t been heard from for a couple of years.  Marina has mixed feelings about this trip; she’s upset about the loss of Anders, relieved to be getting away from her married boss turned lover; anxious at meeting Annick again.  Marina had once been a resident in obstetrics under Annick-until a disastrous encounter with a patient.  After arriving in Manaus, Marina has to piece together Annick’s whereabouts.  She has left few clues about where in the Amazon she is and which tribe’s fertility she is studying.  Marina is tenacious in her efforts and comes to startling conclusions as she closes in on Annick.  Patchett has the ability to make readers forget they are not actually in the Amazon.  Readers will be left in a state of wonder by the end of this novel.

 

Can't get enough of Ann Patchett? Here are some other works

Run - Struggling with single parenthood and a scandal that cost him his political career, Bernard Doyle fights his disappointment with his adopted sons' career choices before a violent event forces the members of his family to reconsider their priorities.

The Magician's Assistant - After the death of a homosexual magician, his female assistant journeys from Los Angeles to Nebraska in search of the man's hidden past and discovers his estranged family, as well as the love she has always been denied

Taft - John Nickel, an African American blues musician managing a Memphis bar, hires a white brother and sister even though he knows they mean trouble, as he pines to be reunited with his son.

What Now? - An inspirational primer based on the author's 2006 commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College discusses how to manage life's crossroads, recounts times of struggle from her own life, and celebrates the benefits of not knowing what is to come.

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