Monday, April 30, 2012

All There Is & The World of Charles Dickens

Reviews in Brief by Jeanne

Storycorps was begun in 2003, based on the simple principle that everyone has a story to tell. Since then, they have collected more than 40,000 interviews which are being preserved in the Library of Congress.  If you listen to WETS, the local NPR station in Johnson City, you may have heard excerpts from some of these stories.  The subjects vary widely, from an elderly man remembering his first job as a paperboy to a child remembering her fight against a life-threatening illness.  Some are funny, some sad, some profound, but all are slices of the human experience. In most cases, the interviews are done by friends or family members: a child interviewing a grandparent, a son asking questions of his father, two sisters talking about life in the Great Depression.
All There Is:  Love Stories from Storycorps collects some of the most memorable of these stories along the theme of love:  Love Found, Love Lost, and Love Found at Last.  Some couples knew immediately they were meant for each other; some had arranged marriages; others started out as friends; but all have a unique story to tell. One of the most moving stories for me was from the woman whose husband is still living but who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Other stories could be tragic but end with such hope and optimism that I couldn’t help but smile.  “Love stories for people who don’t read love stories” is the way the Publishers Weekly review summed it up and I can’t do any better.

2012 marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth, which is as good a reason as any to revisit the works of this most popular writer. Dickens’ influence has remained strong while many of his contemporaries’ works have fallen out of the popular consciousness.   The World of Charles Dickens by Martin Fido is a lovely little survey of the author’s most popular works along with biographical information and historical context.  The book is well-illustrated and includes drawings and photos from various editions and productions of the works, as well as Dickens’ life.  Fido concentrates on themes and influences in individual works rather than plot descriptions; in the section on The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Fido comments that to understand the problem of the mystery and possible solutions, “we must, alas, laboriously summarize the plot.” There are sections about the police, revolutions, religion and other matters which figure into the stories.  The tone is critical (in the sense of examining, not negativity) but not so scholarly as to bore casual readers.  In short, this is a quick refresher course in Dickens, so one can nod knowledgably and say, “But of course, there is no longer any real doubt that he was carrying on an affair with Ellen Ternan” or “The missing heir is vital to most of Dickens’ stories."  It helps that Fido has a sense of humor, too!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Nevermore: Hunger Games, Elizabeth & Hazel, Calico Joe, Miss Julia & more!

Every seat around the table was filled at the Nevermore Book Club last Tuesday and the discussion lively as the Club took on topics ranging from the Pulitzer Prize to DNA that provides a plot twist in the best seller Defending Jacob. (Yes, Gone with the Wind was mentioned again!)

This year the Pulitzer Prize Board refused to award a Pulitzer for fiction.  A couple of us thought the possibility of a tie in the vote from the Pulitzer jury may have given the Board which makes the final Pulitzer choices reluctance to award a prize to just one author. Others felt the three choices put forth by the Pulitzer jury did not appeal to a large audience. The three-person Pulitzer selection jury read more than 300 books from which they chose The Pale King by David Foster Wallace, Swamplandia by Karen Russell, and Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. Several club members had read one or more of the selected books. No one seemed overly enthusiastic with the choices. (The fiction selection committee has since revealed they were unanimous in their choices of the books nominated for the Prize in fiction which does away with our tie theory!)

Mr. Barry read from an article published by Meg Wolitzer that raises questions about women authors’ works being considered “woman’s fiction” and  being relegated to the second shelf while male authors who do “serious” fiction are top shelf. (See the link to the article The discussion that followed was pointed and clear: how important is the gender of the writer to most people? Most of us are interested a good story or a well-done book without regard to gender. When you look at the books that have truly become part of the public consciousness over the last few years, women authors such as J. K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, E. L. James, and a host of other women writers have dominated the field.

Books being read by Club members include:

Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock by David Margolick tells the story of the 1957 desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The names Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan Massery may not be well known, but the image of them from September 1957 surely is: an African-American high school girl, dressed in white, walking stoically in front of Little Rock Central High School, and a white girl standing directly behind her, face twisted in hate, screaming racial epithets. This famous photograph captures the full anguish of desegregation—in Little Rock and throughout the South—and an epic moment in the civil rights movement. Our reader said the book tells a very painful story about the women and bond they share even today, but it also gives a look at what was really happening at the time. She said, “Everyone had a hand in this pie.” 

Miss Julia to the Rescue by Ann B. Ross is another adventure with the intrepid Miss Julia as she rescues her favorite private detective from a deadly situation in West Virginia. Ross’ Miss Julia is what we call in the South a “hoot.”  Ever so proper, determined to help her loved ones, and egged on by her own nosiness and need to meddle in other lives, Miss Julia jumps right in with hilarity and sweet resolve. Our reader says Miss Julia makes him laugh out loud.

Calico Joe by John Grisham is a baseball story and a story of fathers and sons. Our reader says it is beautifully written and totally different from Grisham’s legal novels, but it does show baseball as “brutality disguised as sport.”

Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins has another reader enthralled. One of the hottest book series in the world and a blockbuster movie, these books are highly popular with both young adult and adult readers. Several members of the group have read all three books and loved them!

Lois Lowry wrote an earlier dystopian YA series which began with the Newbery Award winning book The Giver.  The book is set in the year 2078, where everything is peaceful.  People are assigned their roles in life and young Jonas has been assigned the role of Receiver of Memories.  As he begins his training, he begins to find that his world may not be quite as he has been told.  Gathering Blue is the second book in the series, and our reader had progressed to the third and final book, Messenger.  This is a series that should be read in order.

Based on the recommendations of another member one reader is immersed in Defending Jacob by William Landay. His take is that the novel is not only an excellent mystery, but also a study in relationships between parents and children, and husbands and wives. He thinks the ending brings about a new definition of parenthood. Defending Jacob is highly recommended by three members of the Club!

The Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani is Mr. Barry’s book of the week. Spurred by Ms. Trigiani’s visit last week for National Library Week, he is finding the book a relaxing, easy, enjoyable read.

Monday, April 23, 2012

A Turn in the Road by Debbie Macomber

Reviewed by Doris
Debbie Macomber is one of our most requested authors. Her  Blossom Street and Cedar Cove series along with her Christmas books are snapped up as soon as we get them from the publisher. The newest book in the Blossom Street series, A Turn in the Road, and it is very much one of Macomber’s signature novels. It showcases three women who have reached a point in their lives where they look at change and must decide which path they will follow. 
Bethanne Hamlin is in the middle years of her life like most of Macomber’s main characters. She was married for twenty years to Grant who one day walks out of their marriage to be with a much younger woman named Tiffany. Devastated by his desertion and the pain it brings to her and her two children, Bethanne must find a new way to live her life. Using skills she learned as the perfect corporate wife to Grant, she sets up her own company specializing in party planning. In five years she has five stores and is thinking about franchising across the country. In achieving her business success Bethanne has found a new confidence and sense of self that makes her much different than the woman Grant deserted.  When Grant and Tiffany divorce, Grant wants to reunite with Bethanne but she isn’t sure that’s what she needs to do.  She is still dealing with some anger and resentment from the way Grant destroyed her family. Her daughter Annie who always was a “Daddy’s girl” is pushing hard for the reconciliation, as is Grant’s mother Ruth. Her son Andrew has not forgiven his father and is in the middle of finishing law school and planning his wedding. He cautions his mother to remember how badly Grant behaved and to be very sure before she agrees to reconcile. That is just Bethanne’s problem: she is not sure she can really trust Grant again even though he is trying hard to win her back and he acknowledges his mistakes.
Ruth, Grant’s mother, has always been close to Bethanne. When Grant destroyed his family, she took him to task harshly. Now she is really hoping Bethanne will let Grant come home since he has taken responsibility for his mistakes and because he sincerely seems to love Bethanne and wants to rebuild their life together. Ruth too is facing a decision about her life. Her 50th high school class reunion in Florida is coming up in a few short weeks. Ruth makes plans to drive from Seattle to Vero Beach, Florida, on her own because she wants to see Royce, her high school sweetheart. Ruth hurt Royce very badly so she feels a great need to see him and make amends. Knowing her son and daughter will be fiercely opposed to her taking off cross-country by herself, Ruth tells Bethanne about the trip. Hoping the trip will give her some distance and time to make a decision about Grant, Bethanne tells Ruth she will go with her.
Annie, Bethanne and Grant’s daughter, was fifteen when her adored daddy walked out on his family. She began a cycle of acting out and doing everything she could to sabotage Grant’s new wife. Now she is Grant’s strongest advocate and she is pushing Bethanne as hard as she can to reunite with Grant. Annie has been in a long relationship with Vance, and she believes he is going to ask her to marry him one special night. Instead Vance delivers some news that sends Annie in a tailspin. When she hears about her mom’s and grandmother’s trip, Annie invites herself along. She too is facing a crossroads in her relationship, and she hopes she can push her mom right back into dear Daddy’s arms. Will this trip give Annie a better understanding of her mother’s fears and choices?
With two weeks to get to Vero Beach the travelers choose to add a few stops here and there (Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, New Orleans). On one of these little side jaunts, they run into some car trouble. At an isolated lake where they stopped to cool off, the three women are rescued by, of all things, four bikers.  Bethanne goes with the biker named Max to find a tow truck. Annie calls her father. Ruth decides she will hide the clothes of three bikers swimming nude in the lake. Much to her embarrassment the bikers are not the least shy about coming out of the water to discuss the situation with her!
Bethanne and Max connect in a very visceral way. Bethanne realizes almost immediately that he is not what he seems, and she finds herself deeply drawn to him. Max seems to feel the same way about her, and that sets in motion new choices and concerns for Bethanne. With Annie and Ruth giving her a hard time about Max every minute of every day, Bethanne pushes Max away and then pulls him closer. Grant who receives a phone call from Annie every ten minutes tattling on her mother decides he needs to join the party in Florida. Ruth grows more nervous the closer they get to Royce. Annie meets a couple of new guys who give her a little different perspective on her relationship with Vance.
Macomber is quite good at dealing with crossroads and women whose lives are in a state of flux. Her Blossom Street series is all about women finding new paths for themselves. A Turn in the Road is much like her other books in the series—easily readable, funny at times, poignant at other times, and a surprise or two thrown in for good measure. In this book you know how the trip (and the plot) is going to end, but you can enjoy the ride to get there.  (Just a personal note here: I found Bethanne to be way more patient with Annie and Ruth than I would have been. I would have put both of them out on the side of the road and taken off with Max!)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Connie Willis: The Future Visits the Past

Connie Willis is known for her marvelous time travel fantasy books.  The premise is this:  In the year 2060, serious students of history can research topics first hand by traveling back in time to observe events first hand.  Only those willing to undertake intense preparations are accepted: they must know the languages, accents, customs, current history, and be able to blend in with the populace.  While it’s believed that no historian can change history, the idea is to be as unobtrusive as possible.  The time travelers are dropped off in their time period and must return to a specific place to be retrieved; the system will not work if there are contemps (contemporary people) about or any recording device that would show a person appearing and disappearing.  Certain other rules apply:  for example, one person can NOT be in the same time twice, even if the locations are far apart; and if a person from the future dies while in the past, he or she is truly dead.  There is no resurrection in the future.
Even though they’re published separately, Blackout and All Clear form one story. A young group of Oxford students are embarking on their time travel research.  Several are headed back to the World War II era to study various aspects of life then.  Polly is going to observe shop girls during the Blitz.  She will have a cover story, papers (including a ration booklet), money, and a memorized list of where bombs will fall during her stay so she can avoid renting a room or working at a place that will be hit during the time she’ll be in there.  Michael is visiting several different time periods to take notes on “ordinary heroes,” the people who rise to the occasion and do amazing things, like the firefighters who went to the Twin Towers on 9/11 or the people who sailed to Dunkirk to evacuate the troops.  Merope—who has to change her name to something more time-period suitable—is playing the role of an Irish maid at one of the English country houses where children were taken in order to get them out of London during the Blitz.  She’s just popped back for a quick lesson on automobiles, as she’s been informed that she’s going to have to learn to drive; and it’s a chance to get away from the children for a bit, especially the Horrible Hodbins, a brother and sister duo who would try the patience of a saint. Each of the three students is intent on his or her assignment, made more difficult by the fact that the Lab has suddenly started changing assignments or canceling them outright. 
As our three main characters step back into the past, each quickly becomes aware that something is not quite right.  Michael’s landing is off by a couple of days, meaning he has missed his connection; Eileen is having trouble getting to her drop to return to her time period.  A few quirks are expected, but soon it becomes apparent that something has gone very, very wrong. Will they be trapped in the past?  And even worse--is it possible that the theories are wrong and that something they’ve done has changed history?  Will England fall to the Axis powers?  Will there even be a future to return to?
Michael and Eileen set out separately for London, knowing that Polly is supposed to be there somewhere, but they’re not even sure what name she’s using.  Polly is also having trouble with her drop and she has a deadline:  she’s been back to that era before, and if she doesn’t leave before her earlier self visits, she will die.

I am a Connie Willis fan.  Not only does she do meticulous research that makes the reader feel what it was like to really live in that time, but she creates appealing characters.  They aren’t perfect by any means, but they are honest, decent human beings who want to learn.  However, I admit I was rather daunted by these two volumes, totaling over a thousand pages.  A thousand pages! I wasn’t sure I wanted to read that many, at least not for one story.  At another point I stopped to bemoan the fact that there were only two hundred pages left!  I was ready and willing to read for a thousand more.  (And yes—somehow I still want to know more of what happened after the book ended.  I do hope Ms. Willis will clue us in on what happens in the future.) There’s a balance of danger, tension, humor and romance.  I’ll admit that on a couple of occasions I was confused by a shift in perspective and time, but for the most part it all held together beautifully; and by the end, all I could do was marvel at how well it had been plotted.
Most of all, I love the perspective this technique of future visitors in the past affords. These time traveling students open themselves up to an era; like most young things, they rather think they already know all the answers, but they’re as eager as puppies to explore.  It’s sort of a pet peeve of mine that modern historical novels—or movies or television shows-- have to insert modern sensibilities into their characters whether or not most people from that era would really hold such a belief.  I remember being in an Anthropology class back in--well, never mind when, let ‘s  just say a few years back—and the professor starting talking about “Bonanza.” Did we really think we were seeing a representation of the way 19th century people thought and acted?  Would they really have been respectful of Native Americans?  Did they all really think women should vote or run a business? Highly unlikely, especially given that some people we still respect today held some views that would largely horrify us because concepts and beliefs we take for granted now would be either unknown or highly controversial then.  This is what Willis gets so very right: the students go back in time, believing that they understand exactly what people thought and how they behaved in a particular era, only have their preconceptions challenged—and even to have some of their own prejudices challenged. Characters will surprise you in ways both good and bad, just like real people do. Willis also creates characters I’ll remember for a long time, from the absolutely exasperating Alf and Binnie Hodbin to the great actor Sir Godfrey to the wretched landlady, not to mention Polly, Merope and Michael.
The students’ knowledge of coming events can be incredibly poignant, as when a young shop girl believes that the bombing won’t last more than a week or two, when Polly knows that it continues for months. Yet Polly herself isn’t prepared to come face to face with the extent of the destruction, nor the uncertainty of what happens to people she’s come to know and care about. It’s a very different thing to read about a bombing and quite another to be living it.  I’ve read other novels (and non-fiction works) about World War II but Willis really made me feel what it was like to be in one of the bomb shelters or huddled in the Underground during an attack in a way none of those other books were able to do.  If you’re an Anglophile, you’re in for a double treat, as Willis obviously knows and loves London, especially St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Most of all, I loved the gradual way that our students matured in the face of adversity.  The people at the end of the book were a far cry from those fresh-faced, self-assured young folk who set out at the start.  One way or another, they have been forever changed, and so have those around them.
If you want to give this story a try, by all means check out both volumes at once so you don’t have to wait to find out what happens!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Past Was Present at Nevermore!

History was apparently the theme of the April 10 meeting of the Nevermore Book Club.  It wasn’t planned but every book, fiction and non-fiction, was firmly rooted in the past.
The first book up was Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco.  It’s a very literate, very dense, very deliberately obfuscated novel about three men who work for a vanity press and who decide to create their own conspiracy legend imbued with mystical lore.  Our club member read a convoluted sentence from the book and asked, “Now, just who is this book for?” Amid the general laughter, members opined that Eco was either showing off or teasing those who like to show off their own vast stores of knowledge.  Eco’s newest novel, The Prague Cemetery, is also very literate but more accessible as is The Name of the Rose.  The reader is going to persevere and will give us an update.
The discussion of ancient documents segued nicely into the new non-fiction work by Elaine Pagels, Revelations:  Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation.  Pagels is a professor of religion at Princeton and is the author of several best-selling books, including Beyond Belief.  Pagels explores the history of The Book of Revelation, including the controversy over its inclusion in the New Testament canon; the question of the book’s authorship; the changing concepts of what it meant to be Christian; and to place the book in the political context of the time. Pagels’ Revelations is a slim volume but one that gives much food for thought.
Many histories of the New World start with the established colonies, but a great deal of human history occurred prior to the Puritans.  Before the Revolution:  America’s Ancient Pasts by Daniel K. Richter takes a look at the many different cultures that inhabited the North American continent, from the nomads who originally settled the land to the Spanish, English, Dutch, French, African and others who followed.  Each group brought with it a set of expectations, beliefs and customs, and each had its own agenda.  Richter is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania.

Last but not least, several of the club members are looking forward to reading Hitlerland: Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power by Andrew Nagorski.  The book is a collection of first-hand contemporary accounts from American, British, and German observers about the rise of Hitler.  The selections are well-chosen and diverse; while some are from well known personalities such as Charles Lindbergh or William Shirer, others are from largely unknown businessmen or minor officials. Since several members of the club were captivated by Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin,  anticipation for this new title is running high.

Monday, April 16, 2012

What's Hot for April!

 It's time to see what books top the reserve list at Bristol Public Library:
16. Miss Julia to the Rescue by Ann B. Ross is the thirteenth in the series and will be welcomed by fans of the feisty widow. 
15. Loving by Karen Kingsbury is the fourth and final book in the Bailey Flanigan series, about a young woman who leaves home to find a career and adventure.  The earlier titles are Leaving, Learning and Longing
14. The Lost Years by Mary Higgins Clark uses Biblical archaeology and lore in her newest mystery.  Biblical scholar Jonathan Lyons believes he’s found a letter written by Jesus, but before his discovery is confirmed Lyons is found murdered.  The police believe he was shot by his wife, an Alzheimer’s sufferer who knew he was having an affair.  It’s up to the couple’s daughter Mariah to uncover the truth.
13. The Innocent by David Baldacci is the Virginia author’s latest thriller.  Government hit man Will Robie has never refused an assignment—until now.  Soon he finds himself on the run with a young girl who may hold the key to a vast conspiracy.  The book will be published April 17.
12.  Home Front by Kristin Hannah is back on the list after dropping off for a month. This contemporary family story deals with a family’s struggle when the wife is deployed to Iraq. Hannah practiced law before becoming a full time writer and has won numerous romance writer awards.
11. Force of Nature by C.J. Box is the new mystery thriller with Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett.  This series is picking up fans very quickly! The first book in the series, Open Season, was a major award-winner, and Box has maintained a high standard.  He has also written several standalone novels.
10. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James is the new digital phenomenon.  Originally available only as an ebook, it will be published as a traditional book in April with two sequels to follow.  The steamy plot concerns a young naïve college student who becomes attracted to an older, very wealthy and very worldly businessman.
9.What Doesn’t Kill You by Iris Johansen focuses on Catherine Ling, a character introduced in Chasing the Night, who embarks on a globe-trotting chase to find the creator of a very powerful and undetectable poison.
8. Unwritten Laws by Greg Iles has been delayed but should be published in 2012.  This is the long-awaited first part of his newest thriller, delayed when Iles was severely injured in a car wreck.
7. Rainshadow Road by Lisa Kleypas is the book in a trilogy by this increasingly popular contemporary romance writer.  Betrayed by her fiancé, glass artist Lucy finds herself being romanced by a new man—but is it love or a set-up?
6.  Unnatural Acts by Stuart Woods is the latest entry in his very popular and long running Stone Barrington series.   What appears at first to be an easy assignment— to show a billionaire’s son the error of his ways—becomes very complicated when an old case intervenes.
5.  The Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani is not only a love story of two people, but a love story for two countries as well.  It’s also a very personal story for Trigiani: she based part of the book on her grandparents’ courtship.
4. Eleventh Hour by James Patterson is the new entry in the Women’s Murder Club series.  It will be published May 7, 2012.
3. Stay Close by Harlan Coben begins seventeen years earlier, when a husband and father failed to return home and hasn’t been heard from since. Old cases never go away; and soon a detective, a soccer mom and a down on his luck photographer will find the past can sometimes destroy the present.
2.  Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult examines the question of end of life issues as a divided family tries to decide what to do after a terrible accident leaves the father in a coma.  Picoult is wonderful at humanizing difficult moral questions, leaving readers both thoughtful and haunted.
And the number one reserve book is:
1.  Deadlocked by Charlaine Harris, the penultimate “Southern Vampires” novel. Fans are eager to see what’s in store for our favorite psychic waitress, Sookie Stackhouse.  Harris has said that she intends to end the series with book 13, so there should be only one more after this one.  If you want to start at the beginning, read Dead Until Dark.

See a book you'd like?  You can add your name to reserve list by logging into your library account or by calling the library to do it for you.