Monday, December 29, 2008

I'm Just a Reader Whose Intentions Are Good

The Namesake
by Jhumpa Lahiri

Don't You Forget about Me
by Jancee Dunn

The End of Manners
by Francesca Marciano

Revolutionary Road
by Richard Yates

What Was Lost
by Catherine O'Flynn

The Mayor of Casterbridge
by Thomas Hardy

No, this is not a list of the best books I read in 2008.

It's much worse.

These are just a few of the books I meant to read in 2008 but didn't. A list of good intentions.

The sad thing is, it's not a list of books that I feel I should read, but books that I really want to read, but haven't. So what happened?!

Well, life happens. Sometimes other obligations come first. And also, as much as I love to read, I love other things as well, and a life in which all leisure time is spent reading wouldn't be a balanced life--not for me anyway.

That said, I wish I'd carved out more time to read in 2008. Not because I feel I should, but because of the pleasure it gives me. Reading is good for the soul--or it can be, if you choose books that feed it.

There will probably never be enough time to read all the books on my "to read" list, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Although Willa Cather is perhaps my favorite author, there are still a few Cather books I haven't read. I like knowing that they are waiting for me--the undiscovered Cather!--when I want them.

One of the books on my "to read" list has been there for years: The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy. Hardy wrote one of my favorite books, Jude the Obscure, about a working class man who aspires to a life of the mind but finds his desire thwarted by England's class system, among other things. I want to read the Mayor of Casterbridge. I saw a television production of The Mayor of Casterbridge that whetted my appetite for the book. A copy of The Mayor of Casterbridge is calling out to me from my overstuffed bookcase. But I still haven't read it. Perhaps for one of the reasons mentioned above. Perhaps because I had a library book due that I felt I should read first. Perhaps because I wasn't in the mood for The Mayor at the precise moment I was selecting my next book to read. (The story, like much of Hardy's work, is bleak. It's about the ruin that occurs when a man, drunk and angry, auctions off his wife and daughter at a fair.) Whatever the reason, my man Hardy got pushed aside.

But no more! 2009 is the year The Mayor gets read!

It's never too late for books on your "to read" list. Is there a book you've meant to read for ages? Is it a book you feel you should read or that you really want to read but just haven't gotten around to? Let us know!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

What does recursive mean, anyway?

More or less, it means "referring to itself". Recursive science fiction might mean a book like Bimbos of the Death Sun, a very tongue-in-cheek murder mystery set at a science fiction convention. Hey, don't look at me that way - Linda liked it too!

And then there are books about books, writing, bookselling, book collecting . . . and librarians generally are unable to resist them. Right now I'm reading The Magician's Book by Laura Miller. Begun as a Salon.com essay about her on-again, off-again love for The Chronicles of Narnia, she has expanded it into a fascinating book about reading and C. S. Lewis and British legends and the Welsh countryside and friendship and other topics guaranteed to keep me glued to it for the next few days.

Miller says she wanted to go to Narnia when she was nine so badly she felt she would actually die. Then she stumbled on "what everybody knew", that the Chronicles were Christian stories or allegories (she has several pages on what allegory really is and why Lewis loved it). She felt betrayed by this alternate meaning, when she had little interest in religion, and an overpowering delight in fauns and dryads.

I read the Chronicles when I was a few years older, and the Christian elements were more obvious to me. Mostly, I enjoyed them, though I still liked the fauns and dryads more. But as I grew older, and read the books again (and again), I loved exploring the double layer of meaning, and I knew that there were more layers of poetry and mythology and the War and England that I was missing. Lewis was an Oxford don, after all.

And that's what Miller's wonderful book does for me: explores all of the layers in the books, without ever forgetting the power of the story, the ordinary cleverness and kindness of the characters, and the beauty of the wild garden that is Narnia.

There are many wonderful "recursive" books in the library, and here are a few staff favorites:

The Child that Books Built: A Life in Reading by Francis Spufford
Why We Read What We Read by Lisa Adams
Books: A Memoir by Larry McMurtry

And here's the big list of what the library owns on that subject:

Books and Reading

Now, books about bookstores, that's a whole 'nother post!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Scrooge or Cratchit?

I passed a church the other day and its sign read: "Want to get rich quick? Count your blessings."

The subject of counting your blessings always reminds me of Charles Dickens' masterpiece, A Christmas Carol. A tale of two men - Bob Cratchit who counted his blessings as a lifestyle, and Ebenezer Scrooge who wouldn't count his blessings until he was visited by four formidable ghosts including one who revealed Scrooge's own death.

How many Cratchits and Scrooges do you know? I know many people who seem to have the same benefits in life: the same opportunity for love, the same financial security, the same good health. And yet, one is joyous and the other never passes up a chance to curse his luck. Poor Bob Cratchit lived in poverty and had a dying son, yet he was happy. Scrooge had some misfortune in his youth, and he squandered the rest of his life making the world (and himself) pay for it.

It is often said that Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol to bring attention to the plight of poor children. He himself had infamously spent time in a workhouse as a boy, like many of his characters. Perhaps that explains the exchange between the second ghost and Scrooge. The ghost opens his robe to reveal two children "wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable." "Spirit! are they yours?" Scrooge asks. "They are Man's," replies the Spirit.

Surely, this accounting we do of our blessings contemplates that we share some with those less fortunate. After all, as Dickens' reminds us, the poor are ours. If we don't take care of them, no one will. Still, I can't help but wonder if that's really what all this blessings business is about. Is it really just a matter of totaling up what you have and sharing it with someone who has less?

Maybe it's more than that. Maybe the blessings we count should include the pure joy of just being alive, and celebrating that fact. After all, even ole' Scrooge "knew how to keep Christmas well" after that little nocturnal visit and Tiny Tim observed "God Bless Us, Every One!"

Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. Most blessed of New Years.

Monday, December 15, 2008

"Lorraine, my density has brought me to you."

Okay, excellent movie quotes aside (George McFly from Back to the Future for those who were unsure), I am here to make a public service announcement regarding your next book. Sometimes pure happenstance can make a book catch your eye that you may not have noticed otherwise, or it may seem like inescapable fate just plopped a book into your lap. Either way you look at it, a little effort to find a good book can reap huge rewards.

Most people might refer to the phenomenon of scanning over books, waiting for one to catch your eye as "browsing", which, in fact, it is. Just browsing in general, however, is eye-exhausting and time-consuming. A surefire way to dramatically increase your chances of finding an excellent book is to look in a place where most of the higher quality books have already been distilled from all the titles available out there. One such source is the New York Times list of the 100 Notable Books of 2008. As this list represents the best of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, it provides an excellent cross-section of what is out there. It is also single-handedly responsible for the addition of four titles to my personal upcoming reading schedule. The Notable Books list comes out by the beginning of December every year, just in time for banishing holiday ennui as well as aiding gift-seekers.

Another way to locate an excellent read is so simple that I almost hesitate to mention it. When you are at the library or shopping in a bookstore, pay attention to book covers. There actually are times when you can judge a book by its cover. Be open to images that grab your attention, as it may contain a captivating tale that you may have never heard about. Here is one cover that caught my attention, shadowy figures and unique titles get me every time. One has to be careful, however: a great cover may not lead to a fantastic story, but then again, it just might.

So whether you're feeling lucky or have prepared yourself to see what density - uh, destiny, I mean - has in store for you, go on out there and start looking for your next favorite book!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Absent Friends

by Roberta

I kept Patrick O'Brian's
New York Times obituary on my bulletin board for five years after his death in 2000. It seemed impossible to accept that there would never be another book in the Aubrey/Maturin series that began so thrillingly with Master and Commander. I feel like I know Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey and the Irish physician and spy Stephen Maturin. Oh, I could (and did) re-read the 20 books in the series, but never to have a new installment? There was no joy in Mudville that year.

In 2004, there was the surprise publication of an unfinished, and untitled Aubrey/Maturin novel, simply called 21. I read it very slowly, trying to make it last. Since it included the original hand-written manuscript, I read that too.

When Michael Crichton recently passed away, I felt a similar pang. No more of his signature blend of science and suspense, and then the doubtless entertaining film to follow. I thought his novels had fallen off a bit of late, my favorite being
Andromeda Strain, but I still read them. I'll never forget standing on a bridge with my teenage son a few years ago, watching an immense flock of tiny birds wheeling and diving over the river, and turning to each other with the same comment, "Prey." We had listened to the gripping audio version on a recent road trip.

I imagine that many readers felt the same dismay when Dorothy Dunnett died, or George MacDonald Fraser, or Tony Hillerman. It somehow seems worse when you have loved the characters through a long series like
The Lymond Chronicles or the Jim Chee mysteries.

Let me offer you hope amidst this melancholy editorial. I promise you, this year you will discover an author you have never read before, and they will go on to write a dozen novels that you will love. In 2008 I discovered Jim Butcher - lucky me! So tell me, what author do you miss that will never write again? Who did you recently discover?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Why is that book on a bestseller list? (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

People are always stopping by the Readers' Services desk and looking at the bestseller list displayed there. They will go straight down the list, putting holds on most of the titles, even when there is a lengthy waiting list for most of those books. James Patterson, Danielle Steel, Nicholas Sparks, John Grisham, Jeffery Deaver, Jonathan Kellerman, David Baldacci.. and so on. Have you noticed that just about every book written by these authors always appear on the bestseller lists, almost before the books hit the shelves? Why is that? And why do so many other (dare I say it?) more worthy books, never seem to appear on these lists? I guess it's true that sometimes life just isn't fair, but wouldn't it be nice if some other authors hit the list once in a while? Some books are more prominently displayed at bookstores than others and are granted reviews in local and national newspapers and magazines, while others are shuffled to the back of the store and never rate a review. A few select authors are blessed by Oprah and therefore quickly make the list, a recent example being The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. I wonder if that book would have been as popular if Oprah hadn't chosen it for her book club? (I've read it and while it's not bad, I don't think it's that great either.) Another example is Harlan Coben's The Woods, which came out about the same time as Tana French's book In the Woods. This was Tana's first book and I gave it higher marks than Harlan's book, but guess which one hit the bestseller lists?

So what do you think? What about those bestseller lists? Have you read any books lately that you think should have been on a bestseller list? And finally, have you read anything lately from one of those lists and said to yourself "how in the world did that one make the list?"!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow

The Weather Outside is Frightful

But this book is so delightful...

With the first snowfall over the weekend, I got to thinking about reading. I always read a lot more in the winter. And the books I choose tend to be lighter and less serious. I read more thrillers and more fantasy and I choose fewer nonfiction and literary books. It isn't something that I consciously do, it just happens that way.

Sometimes a book can be like a mini vacation. I don't know if it is the laughter or the locale, but I always feel a little warmer when I read the hilarious south Florida thrillers by Carl Hiaasen, Dave Barry (yes that Dave Barry), and Tim Dorsey.

What do you like to read when the weather outside is frightful?