Friday, August 24, 2012

A 9/11 Novel That Gets It Right

Although our adult summer reading club and its accompanying trivia contests ended on August 19th, here's one more trivia question for you.

The novel The Submission, by Amy Waldman, is:

A. Entertainment Weekly's #1 Favorite Novel of 2011
B. The Suburban Mosaic's 2012-2013 Book of the Year for adults
C. The library's Tuesday morning book group selection for September 4th
D. All of the above

If you guessed all of the above, you are correct! It's also one of the best books I read in the last year, and it is in many ways the perfect selection for the Suburban Mosaic Book of the Year program, a suburban Illinois community reading program that seeks to foster cultural understanding and reduce prejudice through literature.

The novel takes place in the aftermath of 9/11 and is told from multiple viewpoints. Among them are two 9/11 widows, one wealthy and privileged, the other an impoverished illegal immigrant; the hot-headed brother of a fireman who died in the towers, guilt-ridden over their estrangement; and a gifted architect, the winner of a contest to design the 9/11 memorial. When it is learned that the contest winner is an American Muslim, the memorial judging committee and others are caught up in a national debate in which emotions and personal agendas threaten to fragment a grieving country.

The author, Amy Waldman, has the gift of sympathy, and she enables readers to feel for and understand characters whose actions they may ultimately disagree with. That she is able to do so and take on subject matter that might feel exploitative in lesser hands is a major achievement, and the novel is a thought-provoking page-turner.

The Suburban Mosaic also selects books of the year for teens and children. The teen selection is the best-selling Will Grayson, Will Grayson by David Levithan and John Green. The other titles are Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (for grades 5-8), How Tia Lola Learned to Teach (for grades 1-4), and Spork for pre-kindergarten readers. Check one of them out to share with a young person and/or sign up at the 3rd floor desk to attend The Submission book discussion on September 4th.

Have you read any novels that address 9/11? What are your thoughts on them? 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Love it or Leave it?

While going through “My Shelves” on the library’s online catalog, I realized that the number of books I’ve finished hasn’t been going up nearly as quickly as it used to. And, as happens strangely often, the answer to “why” came in the form of a quote from a Pixar movie. In this case, it was Ratatouille. This is an exchange between an awkward, up-and-coming chef and a renowned food critic:
“You're slow for someone in the fast lane.”
“And you're thin for someone who likes food.”
“I don't like food. I love it. If I don't love it, I don't swallow.”

It dawned on me that the food critic‘s answer is the same as mine—lately, if I find that I don’t like a book, I put it down, and pick up the next thing on my never-ending list of book to read. Now, “not loving,” I don’t mean, “I don’t like what’s happening.” It means if it’s begun to feel like a chore to read it. For example, if I find myself bothered by the author’s lexical choices, or not connecting at all with the characters. It means that basically, this book and I haven't "clicked." I usually hate the thought of reading being a chore.

But on the other hand, is it ok for reading to sometimes be a chore for the sake of self-betterment? As an English major in college, I certainly didn’t always enjoy the assigned reading. One professor I had even apologized for the fact that we had to read Pamela, assuring us that if we managed to trudge through it, we’d understand why it was an important work in the end, however much we wanted to quit. And he was right—in the end, I was glad I finished it… even if I’ll never get those hours of my life back. And really, can you even judge whether you like a book or not if you give up halfway through? Maybe the ending will make it all worth it. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve done myself a disservice, especially thinking back on books that I might have missed out on had I not pressed on through a tedious beginning and finished.

When you’re reading something you just haven’t clicked with, do you press on and get it done for the sake of finishing it (or giving the ending a chance to change your mind), or move onto the next book?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Help From Hugo

The Hugo Awards have been a great source of inspiration when I am wondering what to read next. When I tabulate my immediate books on tap for the next few weeks, from time to time I consider this list to see if there is anything that interests me at this specific time.

Why the Hugos? Simple: I love fantasy and, to a shade lesser of a degree, science fiction. The Hugo Awards recognize the best of science fiction and fantasy and have been given out each year since 1955. There are a variety of different categories for many types of media, both literary and visual, but the category I prefer to pay attention to is Best Novel. A unique facet of the Hugos is that they are voted on by the fans of the joint genres. The only requirement to vote is to be "a supporting member" of the World Science Fiction Society.

Former Hugo winners already constitute some of my all-time favorite books. Dune by Frank Herbert (winner in 1966) and American Gods by Neil Gaiman (winner in 2002) are two giants with which my initial encounters are forever etched in memory. The Man in The High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1963 winner) introduced me to the bizarrely illuminating world of the man known as PKD. These are authors who create vast worlds and craft huge ideas to illustrate lucid truths in all of us. I'm always anxious to be taken to a new place, to discover a hidden part of the human condition that I never viewed from that particular aspect before.

I am heading on a vacation soon, and I will pick up the the 1976 Hugo winner The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. Government forces from Earth are waging an intergalactic war with hostile aliens, but due to a weird quirk of space travel, only months are passing for the loyal soldiers doing the actual fighting, while centuries are passing back home. A timeless testimonial to the ultimate impotence of war and the disillusionment of those affected by it, this novel looks to have as much to say about today's world situation as it did about Vietnam.

What are some award or other lists that you use to kick-start your reading journey?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Young Adult Literature for All Ages

With NPR releasing The 100-Best Ever Teen Novels list and the runaway success of various teen book franchises, there is no denying teen literature is hot right now. The NPR list features a mix of newcomers and old classics to the young adult genre.

 If you have never ventured into the young adult or high school sections, you may be surprised and even devastated to know how many great books you are missing out on. When I was a teenager I read mostly adult literature. But as an adult I have learned to appreciate the emotionally-charged, creative, and often fast-paced literature available in the teen area. Here are a few that really entertained me far after my teenage years were over.

Are you already a fan of The Hunger Games? Check out Veronica Roth’s Divergent series. Set in a dystopian Chicago, the adventure revolves around a female protagonist coming to terms with her role in society. Already set to be adapted to film, this is a great time to read the series before it becomes the next big thing. Another series to check out is Lauren Oliver’s Delirium where love is considered a disease that people are cured from upon turning eighteen.

Do you prefer more realistic tales? There are plenty of teen books being released that do not involve a dystopian society!  An instant classic is Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. The story follows a teenager living on a Spokane reservation who decides to try and better himself by traveling outside the reservation to attend an all-white farm school. The book is both bittersweet and surprisingly funny while exploring themes of what it means to be an outsider. Other great, character-driven reads include John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines, where the hapless hero analyzes how he has managed to get dumped by nineteen girls named Katherine.  In Nick Burd’s The Vast Fields of Ordinary, the protagonist must come to terms with a rapid series of changes during the summer between high school and college. 

Lastly, for fellow fans of horror who have run out of Stephen King novels to devour, check out Lauren Myracle's Bliss.The novel takes place in the sixties with the protagonist leaving her parent’s hippie commune to enroll at an elite high school where she befriends a girl obsessed with the occult. The book embeds itself in the time period, with numerous references to the Charles Manson case to raise the tension that builds till its cinematic conclusion.

For more suggestions and ideas of what to read, check out Tracy’s Teen Lit Picks on the Staff Picks page. If you are a fan of young adult literature, what is your favorite? Were you surprised by anything that made or did not make the NPR list?

Friday, August 3, 2012

Reading Fast and Slow

Generally I prefer to do things fast. I usually walk fast, drive  too fast, read fast, eat too fast, and I probably talk too fast. Apparently I am not the only one, since everything in the world seems to be getting faster (computers, speed limits, Olympic swimmers, etc). On a recent trip, we were driving cross-country and I was relishing the higher speed limits and technology. My GPS estimated the trip would take 8 hours and 45 minutes. Of course I kept trying to figure how much time I could shave? I set a goal to get there fast, employed the cruise control and made time. Later with my wife at the wheel, I noticed cars flying by. "You know you are only going 50 MPH?' "Yes" she answered. "The speed limit is 70." "It's pretty" she said. I looked outside  and it was pretty, with rolling hills and yellow wildflowers reflecting the sun in a magical way. I said "But we're trying to make time" and she replied, "Dude we're on vacation!"

These polarities of fastness and slowness have been showing up in my life more lately. I have been watching the Olympics. Usually I enjoy the fast events like swimming and bike racing. But I also really appreciate the events in which slower movements are as essential as fast ones, such as in gymnastics, archery and synchronized swimming. One of my favorite blogs recently did an article on living slowly and how it relieves stress. I also recently skimmed over the book, Thinking Fast and Slow in which Nobel-Prize winning author Daniel Kahneman examines two systems of the brain and how one works fast and the other slow. I reserved the book so I can read it more slowly at a later time.

That got me thinking about how I read. I really enjoy books I can read fast. Thrillers like those by Lee Child and Harlan Coben I read fast, usually in a day or two. But other books I deliberately read more slowly. Sometimes it is to think or feel more deeply about the content and how it relates to my world (Like Unbroken and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). At other times it is to savor the poetic beauty of the language (like Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy or Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. To me the books that are most meaningful over time, books I still think about years later, are the ones I read slowly.

What are some books that you have read more slowly just to savor or think deeply about?