Friday, September 17, 2010

WWOP and Fun Fiction

WWOP for her book club swan song? (WWOP=What Would Oprah Pick).  As I write this post on Friday, devoted Oprah Book Club fans, authors, and most of all book retailers and publishers, all of whom had been poised in a heady froth of anticipation and speculation, now know the title Oprah chose for her very last book club:  Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (and really does this book need any more media frenzy? As I said in an earlier post, I have to agree with Weiner and Picoult about this very topic). 

I am really very disappointed, Oprah.  I was hoping that you would embrace something different.  Now, Oprah, this isn't because Franzen turned down the honor of letting his last book, The Corrections, becoming a 2001 book club is it?  A way to see that they all crawl back eventually give in to your very substantial medial power?  In my humble opinion, Franzen's "thanks but no thanks" to you in 2001, was fairly snarky and condescending not only to your talk show queen self but to the reading public that embraces Oprah's picks.

I always got the impression that Franzen thought us ordinary folks lacked the proper appreciation of (and dare I say the capacity to appreciate?) literary fiction.  I got this impression from his interviews, such as his interview with NPR's Terry Gross in 2001 and even a recent one with All Things Considered Guy Raz, where he managed to display a good deal of patronizing disdain for "regular" fiction.  He also displays a shocking lack of any sense of humor, perhaps the bigger crime in my book!  As much as Franzen might deny it, Freedom is really a book in the classic "Oprah Book Club Book"style.   

Jonathan Franzen has nothing on me, I am pretty snarky about all of this myself.  Is it because I am disappointed she did not choose one of my predictions (Some Sing, Some Cry by Ntozake Shange & Ifa Bayeza; Room by Emma Donoghue; The Help by Kathryn Stockett; or To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee-what an excellent discussion this could have been!) and I will have to live with being mocked by my fellow members of the library staff?  Of course!  Or is it because every time I hear the title, and you know we will be hearing about it, of Franzen's book the George Michael song starts playing in my head?  Most definitely - horrible 1980s flashbacks!   

 Perhaps the root of my snarkiness might lie in a long term criticism I have had of Oprah and her Book Club.  While I heartily applaud her for getting people to read books they they may never have tried and for generating tons of excitement about books and reading in general (and in specific titles and authors) I think that her choices ultimately perpetuate the myth that books are only "worthy enough" to be read if they are "serious literature".  I think that this ties in to a social stereotype that people hold about books, and by extension libraries, as being parts of elitist institutions. Patrons have even said to me, when I am offering reading suggestions to them,  "I am not smart enough to read that book or that author."
 Usual Perception
I think that anyone can read anything but that we all have different tastes and interests and we might not want to read literary fiction or get the same things from the same book.  All of this is okay!  Differences in abilities and tastes are good!  Just once I wish she could have picked a book that is fun-good, fluffy, enjoyable fun.  If Oprah would have done this, would lots of Americans have then come out of the closet (where they store their mass market paperbacks) and admit that they love romance, thriller, adventure, and mystery books?  Would the New York Times then start reviewing chick lit?  Nirvana!

Since I strongly believe that it is okay to read for fun, this week I would like to recommend some of my favorite fun read authors.  Okay, may I confess that I just got the irony of the situation and realize I am doing the same thing, "making suggestions from on high", one of the very things I criticized Oprah for.  But to have her power, I promise, I would only use it for good.
One of my favorite "funny" authors that I read is Christopher Moore.  Now, he may not be an author that all would find funny because Moore writes in a delightfully warped way that I really enjoy.  Death becomes funny in A Dirty Job; King Lear becomes a comedy in Fool; and you will not find an angsty vampire anywhere in his Love Story Series, although you will find a vampire cat. I just love what he said about Stephenie Meyer:  "Her vampires are sparkly, which I think we can all agree is wrong." (Snarky again!).

 Douglas Adams shares Moore's ironic view of existence in his epic, and especially funny, science fiction series The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy Series.  Adams and Moore could even be the intellectual children of Kurt Vonnegut's school of writing because like him they are also masters at using absurd humor to comment on the human condition and society.  Flannery O'Conner was also a master at this, although I never quite laugh as much or as loud when I read her books-much more introspective laughs (i.e. I did not laugh until I cried). 
There are just so many authors that can make you laugh!  I love reading  Sarah Bird and Ben Rehder and their takes on Central Texas and beyond; Carl Hiaasen, who I only recently began reading, has a great sense of what I would call broad comical farce and Tim Dorsey writes similar novels.   Jasper Fforde is another one of my personal favorites, I love his Thursday Next Series, as are Nick Hornby and Jonathan Miles.    Some of the funniest books I read are my beloved chick lit and Regency Romances, particularly authors that I frequently mentioned: The Two Jennifers, Cruise and Weiner, Susan Elizabeth Philips, Marian Keyes, and Julia Quinn.  Nonfiction writes can also make you laugh, two of my favorites are Augusten Burroughs and David Sedaris. 
Happy Reading and Laughing This Week,

Friday, September 10, 2010

Books About Home

The vast expanse of country from the Colorado to the Rio Grande, from El Paso to Houston, has inspired many writers to feature Texas as a setting or even as an integral character in their work. Texas stars in such varied works as the timeless and classic westerns of Elmer Kelton, Larry McMurtry, and Edwin Shrake; the humorous adventures of Ben Rehder's mystery solving Blanco County Game Warden, John Marlin; Sarah Bird's delightfully tongue-in-cheek social commentary; Shanna Swendson's tales of magic and romance; the bleak depressing hopelessness of Cormac McCarthy; and the sweeping family saga of Leila Meacham's Roses.  Roses, whose cover is misleading, made me nostalgic for the grand multi-generational epics of the 1980s - the ones that were always turned into miniseries, another grand 1980s tradition!  Just from this brief review of a few authors, it is easy to see how literature set in and about Texas is as varied as the geography of the state.

Most of the books about my home state, Illinois, are set in Chicago. One of my favorite "Chicago" books is Eric Larsen's The Devil in the White City. Larsen blends together the true stories of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, the Colombian Exposition, and its architect Daniel Burnham with the serial killer Dr. H.H. Holmes, who used the Fair to lure victims. This is a book that is both creepy (no better word for it!) and engrossing-a great book to read around Halloween. I have always admired Larsen's ability to bring together seemingly disparate and random narrative threads of the people, places, and history of a time into one beautifully cohesive woven work. 

Michael Harvey is another master storyteller and his Michael Kelly series (The Chicago Way, The Fifth Floor, and The Third Rail) combines the tough, smart working class reputation of Chicago along with its rich and powerful history of a town with a strong political dynasty (sometimes corrupt, but always interesting) with intelligent noir mystery.

I also love Susan Elizabeth Phillip's Chicago Stars series, my favorite is Natural Born Charmer. Have I already mentioned in this blog how much I love the beginning of the very first chapter of this book?  You see, the lead female character, Blue, is walking down the road in a beaver costume...Phillips writes some of the wittiest dialogue in chick lit (read the chapter I am talking about)!  This series by Phillips and its characters are also related to the series and characters of her books set in Wynette, Texas-a fictional Hill Country town near Austin and San Antonio.  So, a connection between my two home states!

I love the city of Chicago and have spent a fair amount of time there (visiting the Impressionist Collection at the Art Institute is one of my absolute favorite things to do on the planet, the peace and beauty of those rooms...).  We even honeymooned there.  However, I am from a much different part of Illinois, a very small town (approximately 800 people) in far, far Southern Illinois, Dongola.  I miss is the physical beauty of Southern Illinois, particularly in the fall when everything is a riot of glorious color!  

Thanks to a geological gift of nature, glaciers from the last ice age made it two-thirds of the way through Illinois, scouring most of it flat, luckily their progress stopped short of the southern end of the state.  The glaciers helped to create and preserve spectacular scenery.  The two photos above are pictures of Southern Illinois during the wonderful days of fall.  The bottom picture is the famous Camel Rock from Garden of the Gods, part of the Shawnee National Forest, which covers extensive parts of Southern Illinois from the Mississippi to the Ohio River.  

After several digressions and a few rambles, I am finally getting to the impetus for this post, two books that are actually set in Southern Illinois.  Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland by Jeff Biggers is a historical, but poetic, examination of the soft coal industry across the nation and the toll it has taken on people and land as personified by this particular region.   The book is also deeply personal as Biggers, a Southern Illinois native describes how coal mining has effected his family.  I think that the memoir aspects brought the larger story down to a personal and relatable level. 

 Here is a link to a great interview with Biggers as he talks about this book, which focuses on past and current mining activity and the resulting social implications (union wars, slavery, environmental destruction, political maneuverings, contribution to global warming, etc.) of coal mining in the area immediately surrounding the Garden of the Gods.  All the soft (bituminous) coal underneath Southern Illinois is partially a result of the same glacial legacy that helped shaped the geography of the region.  I always like to think that the glaciers gifted Southern Illinois with a "beauty and the beast" of a gift.   Reckoning at Eagle Creek is an engrossing read that helped me to better understand the region I was born in and the many forces that shaped it.

I do love reading about places I know but it also breaks my heart knowing that these gorgeous, important, and biologically unique areas are being destroyed.  I also sympathize with the miners and their families (and indeed with those dealing with the colateral damage caused by shoddy coal mining practices:  houses that are caving in due to mine subsidence, contaminated, etc.).  Not only because of their health problems but because they working are caught in such a quandary between needing a decent job and being hurt by that same job.  The  coal industry is one of the small number of jobs that actually pay a decent and real living wage in an area that is economically disadvantaged.  A perfect example of a Catch-22 scenario and yet even these jobs are disappearing because of a number of factors-mining mechanization, reduced reliance on soft coal, etc. 

The second book about Southern Illinois, Snakewoman of Little Egypt by Robert Hellenga is not out yet, it will be published on September 14 and  I am anxious to read it because of a several factors: I enjoy Hellenga's work; the reviews have been wonderful; this story of reinvention and redemption sounds fascinating; and once again I may recognize places and people in the story.  So if the story is about Southern Illinois why is Little Egypt in the title?  Are there deserts, a sphinix, or some really great pyramids?

Convergence of the Missippi & Ohio Rivers
 So glad you asked these questions!  While I've seen no evidence of any sphinx, etc. (although I do admit that Cahokia has some huge mounds that are pyramid like) many of the towns have Egyptian names, although non-Egyptian pronunications: my very own Dongola, Thebes, Karnak, and Cario, like Karo Syrup.  One explanation for the term Little Egypt is that Southern Illinois was a "promised land" for those leaving other less hospitable places although I doubt this is the reason because in the Bible the "promised land" is sought by those leaving Egypt.  Another is that the area contained fertile land due and/or a delta like region at the convergence of the Mississppi and Ohio Rivers. 

Heron Pond
Again I doubt the validity of this explination as while the land is good for some types of farming the early settlers found that they had quite a bit of swamp land to drain or rocky hills to tackle before they could begin substantial farming operations.   The most likely and historically accurate reason for this name is that in the 1830s the settlers in Northen Illinois experienced several years of very poor harvests due to droughts and that they had to travel south to purchase grain from an abundant harvest just, according to the Bible, as some ancient people had been forced to travel to Egypt to do.  

Ever since I first saw Cario and Cape Girardeau, Missouri (another old stomping ground) mentioned in Mystery on the Missippi (Trixie Belden #15) I am thrilled to read about places that I know well and have actually been to.  I hope that I discover additional books written about Southern Illinois or that more are written in future.  In the meantime, there are lots of books set right here in Central Texas that give me that little thrill of reading about home.

Happy Reading,
Fort Kaskaskia - We were married right here

Thursday, September 2, 2010

New Books! New Books! New Books!

Well, my ability to blog, and my stern resolution to do so, in a timely manner crashed and burned as we approached the end of summer reading. May I plead sheer exhaustion of my mental capacity?  After a wonderfully busy June and July, my brain shut down for the entire month of August. Our summer reading programs were a success with over 1,000 children, teens, and adults participating this year. It boggles my mind because just five short years ago we only had 120 participants. My, we have really grown in such a short time! 

However, I am already looking forward to Summer Reading 2011 because we are going to have a "magic" theme in honor of the release of the last of the Harry Potter movies (sigh, first the books and now this...).  I am already ruminating on what the "title" will be and so far "Magical Adventures" is the front runner.  You know how I love Harry Potter!  Now, if I can only con, I mean talk and convince, Barbara that turning the Galleria into Hogsmeade  and the Library into Hogwarts is a wildly fantastic and amazing idea...

Back to 2010.  We have just placed our last book orders for this fiscal year and the first items arrived yesterday.  NEW BOOKS! I love getting NEW BOOKS!  The best perks of my job are selecting new titles for purchase and getting to see and touch the books as they first arrive when I am processing them.  I get giddy and excited when I see the UPS driver bringing them in.

We have many of the current, or soon to be, bestsellers from the old reliables such as Kathy Reichs, James Patterson, Sandra Brown, Lauren Weisberger, Clive Cussler, Philippa Gregory, etc. as well as the much buzzed-about new book by Jonathan Franzen.  As a side note about the Franzen book, Freedom,  I agree with Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Crusie's analysis and thoughts on the buzz concerning this author. Check out their interview here and Crusie's blog beginning with the August 25 post; I howled with laughter over "franzenfreude" - my new favorite word for the phenomena they describe!    My favorites are some of the books that may not become bestsellers but sound fantastic and strongly appeal to me for a variety of reasons. I want to read all of them right away.  I am thrilled that there is a long weekend coming up, maybe I can read at least 3 of them.  That would be lovely!

Here are some of the titles on my "I-wish/want-to-read-these-right-now-list" and just a few words about why they appeal to me:

  •  Our Tragic Universe, by Scarlett Thomas - tongue-in-cheek and whimsical

  • The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise, by Julia Stuart - clever and unusual premise

  • Juliet, by Anne Fortier - history, mystery, intrigue, and Shakespeare
  • Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal - Regency England and Magic

  • Dragongirl, by Todd McCaffrey-Pern, I've loved this world since I was a teen

  • My Hollywood, by Mona Simpson-social commentary disguised as chick lit

  • The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia, by Mary Helen Stefaniak-first few pages hooked me

  • Maybe This Time, by Jennifer Crusie (yes, same as above) - it will be funny, smart, and have witty dialogue - LOVE her books

  • Entanglement, by Zygmunt Miloszewski - I want to see if I can start a Polish Noir craze to replace the Scandinavian Noir trend fueled, but not originated with, by Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy.  My grandmother was also Polish.

  • Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray - very English and nominated for the Booker Prize

  • Deeply, Desperately, by Heather Webber, I Love This Bar, by Carolyn Brown, She's Gone Country, by Jane Porter and Perfect Blend, by Sue Margolis - mind candy fun and I loved the first book Webber's series

  • Murder in Vein, by Sue Ann Jaffarian, Wicked Witch Murder, by Leslie Meier, and Murder on the Bride's Side, by Tracy Kiely -mystery spiced with chick lit, which is how I like my mysteries, and I adore Jaffarian's Odelia Grey books and the Kiely title, while set in the present, draws on Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility

  • Nashville Chrome, by Rick Bass - quirky premise and based on real people, one of my mom's favorite singers? (I think, have to check this out)

  • The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson - High fantasy epic, been hearing about this book for eons

  • What Alice Knew:  A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper, by Paula Marantz Cohen - I'm intrigued by the subtitle

  • Stiltsville, by Suanna Daniel - I suspect that this book whose subject matter seems quiet and uneventful will have powerful prose

  • Composed, by Roseanne Cash - I love her intelligent songwriting abilities and I believe they will translate nicely to her skill as a memoirist.

  • Clockwork Angel, by Cassandra Clare- the first book in her new series, The Infernal Devices.  I loved her Mortal Instruments series and she always has my heart for her short story "The Girl's Guide to Defeating the Dark Lord"and her humorous send up of one of my favorite books of all time, The Lord of the Rings, The Very Secret Diaries of Lord of the Rings (warning:  absolutely hilarious but a bit racy for some tastes).
So which book do I start with? I am conflicted, they are all calling to me, "read me first!" and I want to succumb to the siren call of every single one of them.  I wish I could clone myself to do just that and I would make an extra clone to do errands, laundry, etc. too!  Since it is a holiday weekend I am going to begin with all the fantasy and science fiction books, genres I have always loved but do not read as much as I used to and I'll start with a return trip to visit Pern and its dragons.  Then Jennifer Crusie's newest and then I'll go on to a chick lit or two.  

Come in and check out all the new books and see what appeals to you.  Try a new genre, author, or the latest from an old favorite.  If you need any suggestions or are wondering "what do I read next" because you have finished all the books by a favorite author come by and see me.  Helping people find their next great read is one other part of my job that I love.  Not only the joy and fun of introducing people to new books but getting suggestions from our well-read patrons. 

Enjoy your Labor Day Weekend and Happy Reading!