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Marta's Reading Insight

Posted by on Wednesday, Apr 7, 2010 - 4:25 PM

I just finished The Lake Shore Limited by Sue Miller. One of my favorite authors since she wrote The Good Mother (1986), Miller has written a layered and latticed story of how one woman processes the death on 9/11 of her significant other. It is about a playwright who uses everything in her writing. Her friends (including the sister of the deceased) and their relationships emerge in her play and in their reactions to it. Miller tells the story from multiple points of view in different chapters, so you learn how one person thinks and reacts and then you hear from someone else about the same situation. At the core is the hard truth that death is part sorrow and part relief. Each character tries not to recognize this ambivalence. Miller is adept at weaving together the various characters and her descriptions of place and time are vivid – especially when snow envelops the scene. The ending leaves options open and does not feel like the usual “I-don’t-know- how- to end-this problem” encountered in many novels.

Miller’s characters seem to reflect her age from the forty-something Good Mother- single and torn between her cherished child and her sexy lover -to the older, thicker and grey-haired couple who introduce her latest story. An age close to the author, I appreciate her careful depiction of the conditions and emotions of the different ages of life

I have not read all of Miller’s books, but I do not hesitate to recommend them if you enjoy thoughtful, complicated fiction about family relationships. My favorites were The Good Mother, The Distinguished Guest, While I Was Gone, Lost in the Forest and the new one. In addition to her ten novels, she has also written a non-fiction book about her father.

I am eagerly anticipating a new book of essays by John McPhee. Silk Parachute is his 28th book! A pioneer of narrative non-fiction, McPhee writes such smooth and careful prose that he makes just about any subject beguiling. His first book in 1965 was a biography of Princeton senior Bill Bradley. This new book includes looks at lacrosse, long-exposure view-camera photography, weird foods and the U.S. open golf championship among other topics. Nothing escapes his interest. He concludes with a two-and-a-half page answer to the question, “Why would a writer who could live almost anywhere he wanted to, choose to live in New Jersey?” His short and eloquent answer is a history and geography lesson delivered with a touch of local color.

For more by this Pulitzer Prize and Book Award winner.

PS: One of my all-time McPhee favorites: Oranges

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match them up!

Posted by on Friday, Apr 2, 2010 - 1:02 PM

Books with the greatest number of holds. We have multiple copies!
1- Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine
2- Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson (due out in May)
3- The Big Short by Michael Lewis
4- Game Change by John Heilemann & Mark Halperin
5- Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
6- House Rules by Jodi Picoult
7- Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
8- Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
9- Postmistress by Sarah Blake
10- Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Use these clues to learn more about the authors and match them up:

A-From Princeton to Harvard to family farm in New Hampshire
B-Dublin-born CUNY professor
C-From Princeton to Salomon Brothers to Vanity Fair
D-Political activist & photographer
E-Staples High School alum
F-Indian-American medical doctor who grew up in Ethiopia
G-Science writer & non-profit foundation president
H-Journalists from Wired, New Yorker, Economist & Time
I-High school & college English teacher, poet, essayist & novelist
J-Foe of Neo-Nazis & graphic designer

Answers:
1.E, 2.D or J, 3.C, 4.H, 5.J or D, 6.A, 7.G, 8.B, 9.I, 10.F

How did you do?

Book news

Flashlight Insight

Posted by on Thursday, Mar 18, 2010 - 11:43 AM

Two and a half days without electricity brought back the joys of “flashlight reading” and Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann was the perfect book. McCann, not a native New Yorker, researched the world of 1974 New York City to create a vivid picture of the drugs and desolation of the Bronx and the excitement of Philipe Petit sashaying his way across the wire between the two World Trade Towers. McCann writes strong characters, each unique. He does not shy away from the gritty details of crime and prostitution or the knotty questions of faith and loyalty. He captures the interaction of various races and classes of people …and eventually ties it all together, as their connections become clear. Truly, he has written a book to escape into – away from the cold air, the water in the basement, the howling wind, the falling trees, etc.

For comic relief, try Why My Third Husband Will Be a Dog by Lisa Scottoline. A collection of columns from the Philadelphia Inquirer, it’s a humorous take on the life of a single, middle-aged, dog-lover (and best-selling author) whose humor is witty and entertaining, but works best in small doses. Scottoline’s voice is clear…you can easily imagine the kind of friend or neighbor she would be. Her family stories are particularly endearing. A good choice to pick up, when you need a little cheering up (on day two or day three without power) but too much of a good thing for a straight read-through.

Television announcer Jim Moret is the son of actor James Darren who was a heartthrob to those of a certain age. Moret's book The Last Day of My Life is an inspirational account of his taking stock and being grateful and includes some details of his life. Much of what he writes seems obvious, yet he has a graceful way of reminding the reader that life is good. If you find this kind of book just too sugary, skip this one. If you like a little positive reinforcement now and then, this is a good browsing choice.

I am slowly working my way through 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: a Work of Fiction by Rebecca Goldstein. (Her husband is cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker.) Amid all the books pitting the atheists against the religious, Goldstein takes a creative path right through the middle by examining the scientific arguments while recognizing the unscientific spiritual components of life. At the center is a celebrity “atheist with soul.” Intellectually engaging, this is one to read slowly with pauses for your own thoughts; it’s a philosophical novel with real moral questions that leave the answers up to you.

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New Additions

Posted by SusanM on Wednesday, Mar 10, 2010 - 1:59 PM

great world.jpgI’m excited to tell you about the two new additions that we’ve just added to our Speaking of Books collection. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann was the winner of the 2009 National Book Award and has captured the praises of many book critics. McCann was born in Dublin, but resides in NYC, and he has written a beautiful novel about New York during the 1970’s. It begins with the amazing walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center by Philippe Petit in 1974. McCann uses this incredible event as an analogy for all the ordinary people on the ground below who walk their own tightrope every day. McCann weaves it altogether in this fascinating novel of love and loss. Filled with compelling characters and interesting stories, Mr. McCann’s unique style of writing brings New York to life during a time of social change and transition. Book clubs that love a good literary novel will enjoy this story of interconnected lives brought together by Petit’s “artistic crime of the century.”

jenin.jpg Last month we were fortunate to have Susan Abulhawa speak at the Westport Public Library about her first novel, Mornings in Jenin. In this book Abulhawa puts a human face on the Arab-Israeli conflict that has taken place over the last six decades. The story follows a Palestinian family that is forced to give up its land when the Jewish state of Israel is established and is evicted to a refugee camp in Jenin. The experience of these refugees is told through the eyes of Amal, who was born in the camp, and is granddaughter of the patriarch. This beautifully written novel is also about love and loss, courage and hope. It is a powerful story that will also make a great addition to our Speaking of Books collection. If your group is looking for an historical novel, this portrayal of one side of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict will be perfect for discussion.

So consider both of these new selections when looking for your next book club choice. Let smadeo [at] westportlibrary [dot] org (me) know if you would like to reserve either title or if you need a discussion guide.

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Marta's Reading Insight

Posted by on Thursday, Feb 18, 2010 - 3:29 PM

More opinions about recently read books.

SECRETS OF EDEN: A NOVEL by Chris Bohjalian attracted my attention because the story revolves around a small-town Vermont minister. The idiosyncrasies of living “close-up” with neighbors and “frenemies” whose young pastor’s single life style and aloof manner cause discomfort are well-captured by the author. However, this book is really a murder mystery- the victims a long-time abusive husband and his battered wife. The details of spousal abuse are balanced with mother – daughter tenderness , women’s friendships and the single guy’s (the minister’s) love life. A secondary story of an enduring belief in angels adds another layer to the look at long term effects of spousal abuse. The identity of the murderer is not difficult to guess, but that does not detract from the story. This was a fast and enjoyable read. Bohjalian is adept at taking an issue of current interest and building a novel around it. Other authors with similar fiction are Jodi Picoult, Anita Shreve , Barbara Delinsky & Elizabeth Berg.

BLACK ELVIS: STORIES by Geoffrey Becker piqued my curiosity because Becker is coming to the Library on May 17 to talk about his novel Hot Springs. A professor at Towson State in Maryland, Becker was awarded the Flannery O’Connor Award for this collection of stories. Each is inhabited by people who seem unsure of the next step and what that step might mean on their life journeys. Most are musicians. Many are academics meandering through their lives outside of the ivory towers. I like his writing which places you right into the story where you gradually realize the discrepancies between the inner and outer lives of the characters. There’s an imperturbable aspect to the (mostly) men he depicts – as if they know they are con men, but it really doesn’t matter…the consequences are left to the reader's imagination. In one story, a recently deceased author finds that the afterlife consists of an endless book tour where he is the stand-in for the author who was expected…leaving him with both a sense of being appreciated and of being a fraud.

A GOOD TALK: THE STORY AND SKILL OF CONVERSATION by Daniel Menaker examines social conversation…its origins, its uses and its pitfalls. Humor is his style; anecdotes are his content-all presented with a slightly sarcastic tone. Reading this is like sitting down for a cup of coffee with a witty friend. Literary factoids and good advice lurk amidst all the clever writing. A good book to browse.

Are you “math-impaired?” Take a look at SECRETS OF MENTAL MATH: THE MATHEMATICIAN’S GUIDE TO LIGHTNING CALCULATIONS AND AMAZING MATH TRICKS by Arthur Benjamin & Michael Shermer. It’s full of tricks for rapid – and correct- calculations. You won’t believe it, till you try it!

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The Help

Posted by SusanM on Thursday, Feb 11, 2010 - 10:54 AM

help.jpgIn the last six months the book that I have been asked to order most frequently for book clubs has been The Help by Kathryn Stockett. It seems almost everyone wants to read this book. It was released just a year ago and almost immediately the buzz started. Kathryn Stockett is a first time novelist, and her manuscript for this book had been rejected 50 times before it was published! Thankfully she persisted, and the result has been one of those memorable books that book clubs have embraced.

The Help is the story of several black women in the south and the white women they worked for. It is set in Mississippi in 1962, a time of social turmoil and change. Kathryn Stockett grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and is quite familiar with life in the south. Her story focuses on the point of view of the women and not on the political detail of what was going on. One of the white women, Skeeter, has decided to write a book to tell the story of these African-American caretakers. Although it was extremely risky to tell their tales, these women bravely felt it was time to share the true feelings about their lives. Her characters are both complex and admirable and you will be quickly drawn into the stories they tell. This is a page turner, and I have to admit, I found it hard to put down.

Although Ms. Stockett has been criticized for writing in the voices of the black women and for her use of dialect (listen to this interview on NPR with the author); The Help was most definitely the popular choice of many as the best book of 2009, and is currently number one on the best seller list. Because of this popularity I have had to tell all of the book clubs that asked for it that as much as I would love for their book club to read it and discuss it together, it would be impossible to borrow enough copies for them. We have ordered The Help for our Speaking of Books collection in the paperback format, but the publisher keeps pushing back the release date, obviously due to the hard cover’s success. In trying to keep up with the requests of our patrons at the library, we now have over 45 copies of The Help in circulation, and I’m hoping that as the wait list abates, we should be able to start using those copies for book clubs.

So let smadeo [at] westportlibrary [dot] org (me) know if you would like to add The Help to your book club list. I’ve started a list of those book clubs that would like to read it and we’ll do our best to fit it into your schedule. I think that you’ll agree that it was worth waiting for.read more

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Marta's Reading Insight

Posted by on Thursday, Jan 28, 2010 - 1:23 PM

A few of the books I have read recently…and my opinions about them.

DEFY GRAVITY: HEALING BEYOND THE BOUNDS OF REASON by Caroline Myss
I think of myself as a veteran of the New Age heyday and so, probably have a greater tolerance for this type of book than others do. I have followed Myss’ books since the first one, Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can, after I heard about her at a seminar This book is repetitious and it bothers me when a self-help author talks about her previous erroneous beliefs. On the other hand, Myss always includes some interesting ideas for coping with life. In this case, I appreciated her explanation of how the habit of feeling self-entitlement can interfere with your relationships and your peace.

CHEAP: THE HIGH COST OF DISCOUNT CULTURE by Ellen Ruppel Shell
Shell traced the global effects of the focus on getting a bargain and detailed the facts that seem obvious to those who care. This presents the developing history of our obsession with low prices and what that obsession really costs. I was hoping for a little more about the psychology of the obsession…but, not in this book.

PRICELESS: THE MYTH OF FAIR VALUE (AND HOW TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF IT) by William Poundstone
Here I did find the discussion of people and prices and how they interact. It’s called behavioral economics. Poundstone shows how people are influenced in their beliefs about whether or not they are getting a bargain. Did you know that “price consultants” and “negotiation coaches” assist retailers in getting the most of our spending dollars for the least value?

BLAME by Michelle Huneven
Huneven writes fiction that carries you along and, in this case, even the ending was satisfying. I think writing the ending to a novel must be one of the most challenging tasks for an author. So often, a good read fizzles out at the end. Blame is about an alcoholic who has an accident in which two people are killed. She goes to jail- an experience described in uncomfortable detail- is released and rebuilds her life. A surprise lurks near the end of the story. Lots of food for thought here. I also enjoyed Huneven’s Jamesland, a novel full of scenes that years later linger in my memory.

GATE AT THE STAIRS by Lorrie Moore
Well, from the first sentence, I was marveling at her writing (think Updike.) Then, I got caught up in the story which weaves the threads of coming-of-age, family dysfunction, post 9/11, multi-racial interaction, guilt…and somewhere about half way through, I found myself thinking that more editing would have helped. Still, a good read.

NOAH’S COMPASS by Anne Tyler
Typical Tyler and I like typical Tyler. About a sixty-something man whose inner and outer lives are not necessarily in sync, this is another quirky, Baltimore story and an entertaining, fast read.

DISSONANCE by Lisa Lenard-Cook
I was drawn to this one by the cover art- an old-fashioned piano stool and piano keyboard. Lenard-Cook fits together the contemporary story of a piano teacher living with her scientist husband in New Mexico with the story of a musician who survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Family dynamics are an important part of the novel. Intermittent paragraphs about music as metaphor enhanced the book for me, but would probably discourage some readers.

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One Day at a Time

Posted by SusanM on Wednesday, Jan 13, 2010 - 1:38 PM

BROKEN GLASS.jpgSnowy days and frigid temperatures are the perfect combination for curling up and reading a good book. Making the best of our recent weather conditions, I just finished two books that should make great book club selections. Both deal with a similar topic: alcoholism. Although they approach the topic from a different perspective, there are some parallels in the way the main characters handle the issue. Each book can stand alone as a great discussion book.

Blame by Michelle Huneven appeared on a few of last year’s ‘best of 2009’ fiction lists. It is the story of a young college professor who, while driving home after an evening of drinking and partying, killed two women. Patsy MacLemoore will spend the next twenty years dealing with the consequences of her actions in this artfully written novel about guilt, atonement and ultimately forgiveness. Alcoholism and sobriety have played a part in both of Ms. Huneven‘s previous novels, Round Rock and Jamesland. She is herself a recovering alcoholic and through her books has given us a first hand look at Alcoholics Anonymous and the pros and cons of such an organization.

There are many notable literary memoirs that have been written about alcoholism. Pete Hamill describes his years of drinking in A Drinking Life, and journalist Caroline Knapp details her love affair with alcohol in Drinking: a love story. But Mary Karr, poet and literature professor at Syracuse University has written a memoir that you will find hard to resist.

Lit appeared on several of last year’s best nonfiction lists. Ms. Karr has written two earlier memoirs, The Liars Club and Cherry which focused on her early years in Texas and her adolescence. Lit is about marriage, motherhood and her battle with alcohol. Karr relates the story of her ‘nervous breakthrough’ as she calls it, and about all the help she had along the way. As she struggles to get sober and after years as an agnostic, she embraces Catholicism. It’s a powerful story, dark at times, but also filled with self deprecating humor. Karr is a master storyteller with a beautiful writing style.

Both Blame and Lit are about coming to terms with our past and our present, about finding one’s self and surviving. There’s lots of discussion material here and I highly recommend them for book clubs looking for a female’s perspective on this troubling topic.

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ESSAYS

Posted by on Thursday, Dec 31, 2009 - 12:01 PM

Boring, you think? Don’t bother reading on. This blog is for fans of the carefully crafted writing of good essays. I love them! Find a good book of essays and you have a gourmet feast of many satisfying courses.

I have found a treasure trove in Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind. Her words grab you and her ideas shake you… from literary conceits to pop culture treats. David Foster Wallace becomes almost comprehensible in her hands. Movie reviews surprise with her gut reactions that have not a trace of the intellectual snobbery you might expect. She portrays her father with grace and understanding and honesty. And on she goes…with perfectly honed phrases that do not allow your attention to wander.

Playwright and actor Wallace Shawn proclaims a “break from fantasy land …to go off to a place called Reality …” in his new book, Essays. If you enjoyed My Dinner with Andre, you will recognize the original voice and provocative questions that characterize Shawn’s approach here, as in the movie. He is a gentle writer whose point of reference is always himself…fearless with his wondering about how our culture works and why things affect him as they do. “Morality,” “Patriotism” and “Writing about Sex” provide some of his musings.

“He imagined no alternatives to being himself.” This is Leonard Michaels talking about his father in The Essays of Leonard Michaels. Mostly memoir, these pieces re-create the tone and the culture of downtown New York mid-twentieth century. Michaels’ five foot tall father intimidates his son, but then relieves the anxiety of the younger and bigger man with profound and succinct comments. Caught dating a non-Jewish girl, the son dreads his father’s reaction. After a “dense” silence, the father sighs. “I’ll dance at your wedding,” he says. The relief is palpable …and the girl breaks up with him. In “Writing About Myself,” the author addresses the ways in which the elements of writing –grammar, tone, imagery, etc. - reveal so much that whatever the subject, the writer’s presence is known.

Experience and memory emerge in essays by Hilary Masters. In the new book In Rooms of Memory, Masters also writes about his father, the poet Edgar Lee Masters. Describing his father in careful detail, Masters paints a picture of chilling emotional distance and sentimental longing for more connection with the man whose public persona is better known to his son than is his family role. In “Three Places in Ohio,” home cooked food is lovingly and sensually described as the highpoint of a weekend trip preceded by the writing of a last will and testament and followed by a test for prostate cancer. A healthy appetite for life prevails.

More favorite essay collections:
Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman, High Tide in Tucson by Barbara Kingsolver, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup by Susan Orlean.

Book news

BOOK CLUB FAVORITES OF 2009

Posted by SusanM on Tuesday, Dec 15, 2009 - 4:15 PM

book club favorites.jpgIt’s time for those “Best books of 2009” lists to start appearing everywhere. We’ve just posted the WPL staff favorites list of 2009 and the NY Times has selected its choices. I try to keep a record each year of the books that are most requested by our book clubs, so that I can see what the trends are in order to anticipate what books would make good additions to our Speaking of Books collection. This year I am proud to say that the top five selections are already a part of our book club collection! And judging by the demand for these titles, they should remain popular for some time. So here they are…

The number one selection for book clubs this year was Loving Frank by Nancy Horan. This book appeared on our list last year and it’s no surprise that book clubs continue to request it. Historical fiction at its best, it is the story of the romance-affair between Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Cheney. With many relevant issues it is perfect for book discussions. Close behind it in demand was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. This charming novel, filled with great characters, is a favorite of both book clubs and avid readers alike.

Two prize winners are next on our list. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, was the winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize. A tale of modern India, this is the rags to riches story of Balram Halwai, the ‘white tiger’ of the title, who will do anything to achieve his destiny. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year. A series of interconnected short stories, this is a novel about small town life, family dynamics and loss. Book clubs have warmly embraced both of these books.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa is number five on our list of favorites. Many clubs have already read this beautiful, moving little novel in anticipation of WestportREADS. With many upcoming programs planned surrounding the book, it’s not too late for book clubs to be a part of our town wide read. Let me know if you would like some copies for your group.

Rounding out this year’s list are some of last year’s favorites: Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson, The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Two newcomers this year were Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay, also in our Speaking of Books collection, and The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein.

Any of these books would make a great addition to your book club’s reading list or for that matter a great holiday gift. Please let smadeo [at] westportlibrary [dot] org (me) know if you would like copies for your group or a discussion guide.

Happy Reading in 2010!read more

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