Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Of Debut Novels and Vampires

Helen to Garp, "I am a reader, not a writer."  John Irving, The World According to Garp, 1978
     That is me-I'm a reader, not a writer.  As much as I would love to be able to write a wonderful book full of gorgeous and witty prose, it is never going to happen.  I do not posses the talent to write and invent my own rich world, I so wish that I could but when I have tried it always ends up "sounding" like my most recent "favorite" book or author.  I think I lack an originality gene.  Yet I think that I do posses a "I-love-to-read-just-about-everything" gene that gives me the, perhaps, biological imperative to be appreciative (and envious!) of all the talented writers out there.
     I highly recommend the oustanding debut novel, A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (also famous for her blog-Good Wine Under $20). This book is the first in a planned trilogy and the minute I finished it, I went to look up when the second book will be published. Alas, the second book will not be published until 2012-curses! A Discovery of Witches reminds me of another exceptional debut novel, The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova.  I love The Historian-the writing is so lush and I am  such a sucker for beautiful and evocative descriptions and Kostova excels at it. 
These two novels share a number of things: libraries, archives, historians, strong women, Europe, suspense, a touch of romance, the supernatural, gorgeous writing, an ability to evoke time and place with words, and academic vampires. Yes, academic vampires.  Another way of looking at it is how my best friend Leiellen described Dracula in The Historian "a frustrated graduate student"-that always makes me laugh when I think of it that way, how true!
     Harkness' book is much more dynamic as it is imbued with suspense, mystery, and thriller elements-lots of great action. This book appealed to me on many levels as it included many of my favorite subjects—books and libraries, science and the theory of evolution, feminism, and history-all woven together in an engrossing and delightful read.

     As an aside, I can't believe I keep recommending all vampire books! I never thought I would since I am not a fan of the books who are at the root of the current vampire craze for young adults, Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Series. Her books, in my humble opinion, have several serious flaws. First, did Meyer not have an editor?  They all, especially the last three books, were in serious need of a very good edit. 
     Next, I did not like the character of the perpetually brooding and petulant Bella at all and how she only seemed to exist because of and for her "man" - who has stalkerish qualities-he was her entire world.  I do not consider Bella a good role model-I wonder how many young girls took her message to heart?  Last, but not least, I do not think vampires should sparkle.  So wrong! I also can't help but wonder, what are the odds that you have both a werewolf and a vampire fall in love with you? 

     Two other wonderful debut novels are The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht and Swamplandia! by Karen Russell.  Both  women were named to The New Yorker's list of the "20 Under 40" fiction writers worth watching.  I found Swamplandia! to be very funny, highly imaginative, and quirky yet so very oddly endearing and sweet.  I am plain envious of Obreht's talent, she is not even 30 yet, amazing!   I also enjoyed the highly original Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt-an unusual discourse on depression and how fears can haunt everyone no matter their accomplishments or social status.  
     Other debuts on my TBR List (To-Be-Read) are Taylor Steven's The Informationist and So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman.  The debuts keep coming as next month we should receive I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive by Steve Earle (the singer-songwriter who I have long admired for his biting wit and wisdom) and Blood, Bones, and Butter, by Garbrielle Hamilton an evocative memoir of food and family.

Happy Reading,

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

February - the Beginning of Sports Nirvana

Ah February, the month of love and even though the 14th has come and gone there are still many love celebrations to observe.  There is “Love Your Library Month” and so I would like to urge everyone to email, call, write, or post on our Facebook page why you love our library!  We would love to pass on these comments to the Mayor, City Council, and the City Manager. There is also a comment box in the library – so you when you come in you can write down why you love your library.  
The heart is also feted with "American Heart Month" and we have lots of heart-friendly cookbooks to check out.   The animal rescue community urges everyone to observe "Responsible Pet Owners’ Month" and we urge you to put the kibosh on irresponsible pet love so that you can enjoy “Love Your Pet Day” on February 20 with a clear conscience because your pets are spayed or neutered. 
February is not really about holidays for me but the middle of the month signals that some of my favorite sporting events are fast approaching: 1) Daytona, the first race of the NASCAR season (Go Junior-he has the pole!) is just a couple of days away; 2) the glory of March Madness (Go Duke-2010 Champions, repeat in 2011!) of the NCAA Tournament is just around the corner and conference play is underway; and 3) spring training is underway(Go St. Louis Cardinals and you better talk to Pujols!). It is also time to remember Dale Earnhardt, the greatest NASCAR driver of all time, who passed away on the last lap of Daytona on February 18, 2001.  I can’t believe it has been a decade.

While I religiously watch certain sports, it occurred to me that I do not read any true sports books unless you count The Encyclopedia of Duke Basketball that my husband gave me for Christmas.  Oh sure there are the romance books that have a tenuous connection to sports such as the Chicago Stars Series by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. The main book characters are connected to a pro football team although it is is peripheral to the story and is a device that ties the different book in the series together. I also love her books (Fancy Pants, Lady Be Good, and her latest, Call Me Irresistible) which feature professional golfers from right here in the Texas Hill Country.  I love the series but I do not read it for the sports!  Oddly enough, and you think I would love them, but I do not care for the romance books set in the world of NASCAR.  All of the titles I have tried seem to lack the snappy dialogue and that leavening of humor I so enjoy in my favorite romance books. The one I like best in this romance sub-subgenre was Once Around the Track, by Sharon McCrumb. 
Of the books that I have read and enjoyed where the sport itself takes more of a center stage are Diamond Ruby by Joseph Wallace and Playing for Pizza by John Grisham.  I am not a fan of Grisham's legal thrillers but I am surprised by how much I liked this small novel.  It chronicles the story of how Rick Dockery, a washed up NFL player, finds himself playing professional football in Italy and what happens as a result.  It's a bit sappy and predictable but who knew they played pro football in Italy!  I enjoyed the afternoon I spent reading it. 
Wallace's book, the better written of the two, is set in the Roaring Twenties and it fictionalizes the real life story of Virnett "Jackie" Mitchell, who was signed as pitcher for the all-male Chattanooga Lookouts at the age of 17.  A phenomenal pitcher, her fame grew and then her legend was cemented when the mighty New York Yankees travelled to Tennessee to play an exhibition game.  On April 2, 1931, in the first inning of a rain-delayed game, Mitchell struck out Babe Ruth (who took the called third strike very badly indeed to say the least) and Lou Gerhig on 4 and 3 pitches respectively. Baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis voided her contract and declared women unfit to play baseball as the game was "too strenuous" and I do not think it was a coincidence that the rather oddly-named northerner banned women two days after the exhibition game. 
Ruby Thomas in Wallace's book not only faces the same sexism that Jackie Mitchell faced but his story also places his heroine in the broader societal context of the 1920s.  The novel expands upon many of the other simmering issues of the time including anti-Semitism, class, and even the disastrous cultural effects of World War I and the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.  While the author can go on a bit long at times, it is still a rich and well-woven tale.

Happy Reading!

p.s. if you are both a mystery and a sports fan, try Harlan Coben's long running Myron Bolitar series, which features a crime solving sports agent. I haven't read any of his books but I know that Coben is one of our patrons' favorite mystery writers.  The newest book in this series, Live Wire, will be out on March 22 and I expect it to be in great demand here at the library. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!

My husband and I moved to Texas ten years ago so that I could pursue my Ph.D. in biological anthropology at UT. I was (and still am) interested in the ecology and behavior of nocturnal prosimian primates (i.e. the cute little ones). I wanted to know how some species hunted insects and if the size of external ears and other morphological characteristics of the auditory system were evolutionary evolved adaptations to insectivory and if a reliance on insects as a food source played a role in the earliest primate origins and evolution. My all time favorite primate is the unique, and in my eyes adorable, Daubentonia madagascariensis commonly known as the aye-aye, inspired this line of inquiry. I was very tempted to title my dissertation “My Little Primate, What Big Ears You Have!”.  I have to mention that my best friend Leiellen gave my beloved aye-ayes the very unflattering sobriquet of bat opossum. 

During my program, I discovered that I was no longer quite ambitious or driven enough to devote myself to going full throttle after what few jobs there were in academia and in doing all the things that I would have to do to get there. My heart was no longer in it and it really showed. Academia no longer made me happy nor did it give me a sense of satisfaction that I was doing something that had a deeper meaning, had a lasting impact, was important, made a difference, etc.  I loved having the opportunity to teach and share my fascination with primates and the beauty and elegance of science with others but teaching well has less value than publishing large numbers of papers and securing lots of grant dollars.  The great thing about librarianship is that every day is full of moments where you help people discover and learn all sorts of different things. 

Even though I am no longer in science I still love reading books about different scientific fields and research. Ah, so you think books about science are all dry and dusty tomes? Au contraire! There are truly talented authors that can take good and often complex scientific ideas and research and bring these stories to life so that anyone, including nonscientists, can become totally engrossed in the story. A good science story is as exciting as any adventure tale that has ever been written! 

Two of the authors that I feel are particularly talented are Natalie Angier, a scientific writer at The New York Times and author of The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, and Mary Roach, whose latest book is Packing for Mars although I believe that Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers is my favorite. Both authors have a great sense of humor and I think that helps them tell the stories so well. Angier’s goal was to write a basic primer of scientific literacy so that the reader is able to acquire a firm basic understanding in a number of areas. She argues, and I agree, we need this basic understanding so that we can evaluate the information that we are bombarded with on issues as global warming.  Roach has a more multidisciplinary  approach in her exploration of what would it take for humans to realistically travel to Mars.

Because of my background, I especially enjoy books about evolutionary biology and since it is Charles Darwin’s 202nd birthday on February 12th, you could celebrate by reading one of the books we have about evolution. You could read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which is wonderfully written but rather full of delightfully florid Victorian prose. A great basic and concise primer is Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True, exceptionally well-written also but the florid prose is at a minimum. We also have two brand new titles you can check out: The Evolutionary World: How Adaptation Explains Everything from Seashells to Civilization, by Geerat Vermeij and Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature, by Brian Switek.

Of the two books, I like Switek’s best. Vermeij, after an excellent and clear discussion of adaptation in the natural world takes a leap (and he is not the first person to ever do so) and begins to apply the principles of adaptation to cultural phenomena. I have always disliked talking about culture and other nonbiological systems in this way because I feel that it leads to the dangerous justification of Social Darwinism. I just don’t buy it. Switek’s book not only examines the growing body of fossil evidence that has accumulated in science Darwin’s time but he also looks at the scientists and how they made their discoveries. It is such an enjoyable armchair historical journey!

Try to stay warm this week with a great book about science or any good book. Don’t forget to join us here at the library for our author event for Lake Travis Reads, “An Evening with Ben Rehder” on Wednesday, February 9, at 7:00 pm.

Happy Reading!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Facebook, Book Club, & The Top 100

If you are a social media aficionado, please become our "Friend"  by clicking on “Like” at the top of our Facebook page, it is a very easy way to keep up with all the breaking news at BCPL! 
I’d also like to invite everyone to join our monthly Bee Cave Book Club, click here to see our selections for 2011.  Once again we continue our tradition of having an eclectic and interesting mix of fiction and nonfiction.  There are some really great books on this year's list! Are you saying to yourself, I’ve never joined a book club because they are stuffy and academic?  Not this group!  We are a very informal and diverse bunch of people of all ages who get together to share our love of reading and to enjoy relaxed conversation.

We always welcome new members and invite everyone who is interested to join us, even if you have not read the book.  Come for whichever book(s) strike your fancy! We will meet the first Monday of each month (holidays can change the schedule) and beginning in February, 2011, we will meet at the Barnes & Noble in the Hill Country Galleria (since the Library is closed on Mondays).  Look for us in the comfy chairs in the cookbook section.   Any changes in the meeting location or date will be announced on  our Web site, Facebook page, and monthly newsletter.  Contact me if you need more information. 

I'd like to share the most circulated books of 2010 with you.  Here are the 100 top most popular books in Adult Fiction and Nonfiction, Young Adult Fiction, Juvenile Fiction, and Easy (Picture) books.  The Adult Fiction List was dominated by books that have been on (and usually at the top) of the best seller list for months, and in some cases  (e.g. The Help and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) for over a year.  Thrillers and mysteries were also the most popular genres.  My favorite books on this list are People of the Book, Loving Frank, and Roses-an old-fashioned sweeping generational saga, it could be made into a 1980s type miniseries.  If you like this type of fiction, try Ken Follett's most recent book, Fall of Giants, which I am listening to right now.

The most popular type of nonfiction books was cookbooks of all kinds-from healthy eating titles such as The Kind Diet to Rebecca Rather's The Pastry Queen.  Rather has a bakery/restaurant in Fredericksburg and her book is a must-check-out because it contains one of the most incredible cake recipes ever - Mexican Chocolate Fudge-Pecan.  Heaven!  The nonfiction list was also topped by books that have been on the bestseller list for years, and in some cases four or more years (e.g. Eat, Pray, Love; Three Cups of Tea; and The Tipping Point).  We are on trend here in Bee Cave!

Don't forget Lake Travis Reads is just a couple of weeks away!  Please join us for an evening with Ben Rehder on Wednesday, February 9, at 7:00 pm.  Here is the flyer for more information-it is going to be a very fun evening!

Happy Reading!

p.s. to tempt you further, here is a picture of the Mexican Chocolate Fudge-Pecan cake that has been made into mini-cakes.  You can also make a bundt cake or cupcakes with the recipe.  It is super easy to make and it looks so incredible.  Impress your guests, friends, and family with some of this moist, toasted pecan goodness!   It is an excellent Valentine's Day treat too!

Friday, January 14, 2011

New Year, New Books Part Two

Our 4th year of Lake Travis Reads is currently underway.  This year it is "Lake Travis Reads Ben Rehder" and we are inviting everyone to read any of his very funny Blanco County mysteries.  Join us here at Bee Cave Public LIbrary on Wednesday, February 9, at 7:00 pm for a visit and talk by Ben Rehder himself (the event is free, there will be refreshments, and he will be signing books!).  I can't wait to hear him in person because by all reports he is a fabulous speaker.  What a great way to spend an evening! 
     Last week I talked about some of the nonfiction books I am eagerly waiting to read.  I wanted to share that the author of one of those books, Rodney Crowell, will be  at BookPeople on  Friday, January 28, at 7:00 pm.  Sure to be a great event.  Kester Smith reviewed Crowell's book on his blog and it included this great line when talking about Crowell's family, "To put it a different way, if Rodney Crowell’s family hadn’t existed, Flannery O’Connor would have had to make them up… and then Johnny Cash would have had to sing about it."  I just love that line!  
     I am not just looking forward to reading nonfiction as I am also awaiting a number of less serious and wonderfully confectionery mind candy fiction titles in January. I think I have shared that I love to read romance novels, particularly those set in the Regency period in England but in the past 5 or 6 years I have enjoyed contemporary romances also.  I am absolutely thrilled that one of my favorite contemporary authors, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, has a new book coming out this month! Her books always make me laugh and for months beforehand I very eagerly look forward to the publication of each book in the American Lady (her new book, Call Me Irresistible, is the third in this series) and Chicago Stars/Bonner Brothers Series. I also can’t wait to read There is Cake in My Future, by Kim Gruenenfelder-it contains a touch of magic to go along with the romance and humor.  
Not that I have forgotten about my beloved Regency period, because I hope I have a nice rainy day to curl up and read Dukes to the Left of Me, Princes to the Right, by Kieran Kramer; The Girl in the Gatehouse, by Julie Klassen; and the latest in the Secret History of the Pink Carnation series, The Orchid Affair, by Lauren Willig. Willig’s series focuses on the real and imagined “flower spies” that fought the good fight against Napoleon-check out her very nice Web site.  Her books are flavored with the spiciness of espionage and intrigue, liberal doses of witty dialogue, just the right amount of romance (for my taste), and tasty historical detail.   The historical detail is not surprising as Willig has a Ph.D. in English history from Yale as well as a law degree (magna cum laude) from Harvard.  So who says that romance writers and readers aren't serious scholars? 
     Susan Vreeland’s Clara and Mr. Tiffany continues her fictionalization of the lives of artists but this time she moves away from painters to explore the life of Clara Driscoll, one of premiere glass artists in Louis Comfort Tiffany’s art nouveau studio. If you have ever watched Antique’s Roadshow I am sure  you have seen her work, such as the shade on the famous Dragonfly lap.  I seem to remember that all the works are attributed to Tiffany and not individual studio artists, unlike the works of famous pottery schools.  Vreeland's new book exposes the inequities and hardships that women faced and just how little credit they received for their enduring contributions that resulted in the success of the House of Tiffany.  Vreeland also addressed such shoddy treatment of women n my favorite book of hers, The Passion of Artemisia, which chronicles the interesting life and career (!) of the 17th century Italian female painter, Artemisia Gentileschi.
     I have recently began dipping my toe back into the pool of mysteries and have found that I prefer (no surprise!) the chick-lit romance type (e.g. Lisa Lutz or Harley Jane Kozak) or the more traditional “Agatha Christie like” mystery. I loved Dame Christie’s books growing up. One of the best writers in that tradition is Canadian Louise Penny and I have fallen in love with her exceptionally well-written Chief Inspector Gamache series. I urge you to try these, the first book in the series is Still Life.  After reading the review for the second book in Elly Griffith’s Ruth Galloway series and I decided that it strongly reminds me of Penny’s’ books. So I am going to continue reading mysteries with Griffith’s The Janus Stone.  I also urge you to check out Alan Bradley's precocious heroine, Flavia de Luce, the third book in this delightful series comes out in the next month.
A wild card book, which I am surprised appealed to me at all because I am heartily tired of reading reviews of books that feature vampires (Jane Austen as a vampire anyone?), is The Radleys, by Matt Haig. I have seen it described as an exploration of the modern nuclear family, which just happens to be composed of vampires; quirky and intriguing. My interest in this title was also piqued by the line “We’re middle-class and we’re British. Repression is in our veins” that was quoted in the Booklist review.  I wonder if the title is a reference to the Radley family in To Kill a Mockingbird?   Love the cover too! 

It's a new year, so try one new book in a genre that you usually would not read, you might enjoy it.  I have found that the one problem with branching out on a regular basis is that my "just read" list gets longer and longer.

Happy Reading!

Friday, January 7, 2011

New Year, New Books

Yet again, I have crashed out of the blogosphere but this being the season of resolutions hereby let it be known that I, Angela Palmer, am resolved to become a very regular blogger in 2011. This week, I’ll ease myself into the practice by spotlighting some of the upcoming releases that I just ordered for the library that I look forward to reading.
     We are getting some great nonfiction and recently I have been reading more nonfiction than fiction. As someone who leans toward falling on the more pessimistic end of the life outlook spectrum, I am surprisingly eager to read The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World, by Eric Weiner. Weiner apparently inhabits my part of the spectrum but his search lead him to some interesting insights about what makes us humans happy.
     Singer Rodney Crowell is publishing a memoir, Chinaberrry Sidewalks, which focuses on his early life and his parents. I’ve long admired his pithy storytelling/songwriting and I predict that he will use the same talent to write a dynamic book. I also enjoyed his ex wife’s, Roseanne Cash, 2010 memoir Composed. It was deeply thoughtful and personal but it was not a Hollywood mudslinging/finger pointing blame fest, and I expect that his will be the same.
     Due to budget constraints, I did not get to purchase two nonfiction titles, Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers and The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elisabeth Tova Bailey, when they were first published. However, I squeezed (by bumping other titles that were being published this month) some room in the current month’s budget because they both lived up to their initial rave reviews and have been showing up on every “Best Books of 2010” list.
     I do worry that Zeitoun will discuss the plight of companion animals in the wake of Katrina and since I worked with many animal survivors of that storm, I may have to read it with a large box of Kleenex by my side.  Bailey's memoir chronicles her fascination with the daily life of a snail, which she closely observed on a plant brought to her by a friend during a long and mysterious illness.  The reviews and descriptions of this book intrigue me as does writing about such a focused and small subject.
     When the new books arrive, I’ll post a message on our Facebook page. This gives me the opportunity to urge you to follow us on Facebook. Just click on the “like” button at the top of the page, to the right of our name (and I can’t pass up the opportunity to say “like us, really like us” as Sally Field would). We will be posting periodic updates about all sorts of news and information about the library, we’ve entered the world of social media! So keep an eye out for the new books are here announcement. It is so exciting opening up the boxes of new, shiny books and it makes my “to-be-read” list grow by leaps and bounds-I plan on reading a great deal in the weeks to come!

Happy Reading!