Friday, May 20, 2016

Books about Books...and Librarians!

David Wright, from, recommended his top favorite books about books...and librarians.  

Katarina Bivald's The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend
Broken Wheel, Iowa, has never seen anyone like Sara, who traveled all the way from Sweden just to meet her pen pal, Amy. When she arrives, however, she finds that Amy's funeral has just ended. Luckily, the townspeople are happy to look after their bewildered tourist--even if they don't understand her peculiar need for books. Marooned in a farm town that's almost beyond repair, Sara starts a bookstore in honor of her friend's memory. All she wants is to share the books she loves with the citizens of Broken Wheel and to convince them that reading is one of the great joys of life. But she makes some unconventional choices that could force a lot of secrets into the open and change things for everyone in town. Reminiscent of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, this is a warm, witty book about friendship, stories, and love.

Ian Caldwell's The Fifth Gospel
** Available in Large Print **
A lost gospel, a contentious relic, and a dying pope's final wish converge to send two brothers--both Vatican priests--on an intellectual quest to untangle Christianity's greatest historical mystery.

Elisabeth Egan's A Window Opens
From the beloved books editor at Glamour magazine comes a heartfelt and painfully funny debut about what happens when a wife and mother of three leaps at the chance to fulfill her professional destiny--only to learn every opportunity comes at a price. In A Window Opens, Elisabeth Egan brings us Alice Pearse, a compulsively honest, longing-to-have-it-all, sandwich generation heroine for our social-media-obsessed, lean in (or opt out) age. Like her fictional forebears Kate Reddy and Bridget Jones, Alice plays many roles (which she never refers to as "wearing many hats" and wishes you wouldn't, either). She is a mostly-happily married mother of three, an attentive daughter, an ambivalent dog-owner, a part-time editor, a loyal neighbor, and a Zen commuter. She is not: a cook, a craftswoman, a decorator, an active PTA member, a natural caretaker, or the breadwinner. But when her husband makes a radical career change, Alice is ready to lean in--and she knows exactly how lucky she is to land a job at Scroll, a hip young start-up which promises to be the future of reading, with its chain of chic literary lounges and dedication to beloved classics. The Holy Grail of working mothers--an intellectually satisfying job and a happy personal life--seems suddenly within reach. Despite the disapproval of her best friend, who owns the local bookstore, Alice is proud of her new "balancing act" (which is more like a three-ring circus) until her dad gets sick, her marriage flounders, her babysitter gets fed up, her kids start to grow up, and her work takes an unexpected turn. Fans of I Don't Know How She Does It, Where'd You Go Bernadette, and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry will cheer as Alice realizes the question is not whether it's possible to have it all, but what does she--Alice Pearse--really want?

Nina George's A Little Paris Bookshop
There are books that are suitable for a million people, others for only a hundred. There are even remedies--I mean books--that were written for one person only...A book is both medic and medicine at once. It makes a diagnosis as well as offering therapy. Putting the right novels to the appropriate ailments: that's how I sell books." Monsieur Perdu calls himself a literary apothecary. From his floating bookstore in a barge on the Seine, he prescribes novels for the hardships of life. Using his intuitive feel for the exact book a reader needs, Perdu mends broken hearts and souls. The only person he can't seem to heal through literature is himself; he's still haunted by heartbreak after his great love disappeared. She left him with only a letter, which he has never opened. After Perdu is finally tempted to read the letter, he hauls anchor and departs on a mission to the south of France, hoping to make peace with his loss and discover the end of the story. Joined by a bestselling but blocked author and a lovelorn Italian chef, Perdu travels along the country's rivers, dispensing his wisdom and his books, showing that the literary world can take the human soul on a journey to heal itself. Internationally bestselling and filled with warmth and adventure, The Little Paris Bookshop is a love letter to books, meant for anyone who believes in the power of stories to shape people's lives.

Olivia Laing's A Trip to Echo Springs: On Writers and Drinking
Laing examines the link between creativity and alcohol through the work and lives of six of America's finest writers.

Jenn McKinlay's A Likely Story: A Library Lover's Mystery
Delivering books to the housebound residents of the Thumb Islands, just a short boat ride from the town of Briar Creek, library director Lindsey Norris has befriended two elderly brothers, Stewart and Peter Rosen. She enjoys visiting them in their treasure-filled, ramshackle Victorian on Star Island until she discovers that Peter has been killed and Stewart is missing. Now she's determined to solve a murder and find Stewart before he suffers his brother's fate.

Bradford Morrow's The Forgers
The rare book world is stunned when a reclusive collector, Adam Diehl, is found on the floor of his Montauk home: hands severed, surrounded by valuable inscribed books and original manuscripts that have been vandalized beyond repair. Adam's sister, Meghan, and her lover, Will-- a convicted if unrepentant literary forger-- struggle to come to terms with the seemingly incomprehensible murder. But when Will begins receiving threatening handwritten letters, seemingly penned by long-dead authors, but really from someone who knows secrets about Adam's death and Will's past, he understands his own life is also on the line--and attempts to forge a new beginning for himself and Meg. In The Forgers, Morrow reveals the passion that drives collectors to the razor-sharp edge of morality, brilliantly confronting the hubris and mortal danger of rewriting history with a fraudulent pen.

Erika Swyler's The Book of Speculation
** Available in Large Print **
Simon Watson, a young librarian on the verge of losing his job, lives alone on the Long Island Sound in his family home--a house, perched on the edge of a bluff, that is slowly crumbling toward the sea. His parents are long dead, his mother having drowned in the water his house overlooks. His younger sister, Enola, works for a traveling carnival reading tarot cards, and seldom calls. On a day in late June, Simon receives a mysterious package from an antiquarian bookseller. The book tells the story of Amos and Evangeline, doomed lovers who lived and worked in a traveling circus more than two hundred years ago. The paper crackles with age as Simon turns the yellowed pages filled with notes, sketches, and whimsical flourishes; and his best friend and fellow librarian, Alice, looks on in increasing alarm. Why does his grandmother's name, Verona Bonn, appear in this book? Why do so many women in his family drown on July 24? Could there possibly be some kind of curse on his family--and could Enola, who has suddenly turned up at home for the first time in six years, risk the same fate in just a few weeks? In order to save her--and perhaps himself--Simon must try urgently to decode his family history while moving on from the past. The Book of Speculation is Erika Swyler's gorgeous and moving debut, a wondrous novel about the power of books and family and magic.

Gabrielle Zevin's The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
** Available in Large Print **
When his most prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, is stolen, bookstore owner A. J. Fikry begins isolating himself from his friends, family and associates before receiving a mysterious package that compels him to remake his life.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Book Review - Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

I have just read Go Set a Watchman, the first novel that Harper Lee ever wrote. To Kill a Mockingbird functions as a sort of prequel to it, exploring its themes in greater depth; but this was Harper Lee's original sketch of Jean Louise "Scout" Finch and her father, the lawyer Atticus Finch.

Harper Lee has a very distinctive writing style; yet as I was reading, I had the feeling I'd read something similar from a different author. Then it hit me: James Baldwin. Whether either of them ever read the other, I do not know, but the resemblance between the two writing styles is striking: frank, wisecracking without resorting to cynicism, presenting history as a series of events that no one is really happy with and the most entertaining part of life is trading stories about why we don't like to do as we're told. Almost every conversation is a series of minor incongruities over one's ideas of how we ought to live our lives, spoken between characters who are trying earnestly to understand each other but know that in the end it's just not worth all the fuss. I have the feeling that, at some point in her life, Lee discovered to her immense disappointment that life is not half as tragic as some people make it out to be. Not a discovery I recommend making, if you are an author (since I think the tragedy is an excellent form of literature); but once you stumble upon this sort of conviction it does not go away easily.

Unlike To Kill a Mockingbird, this novel takes place within a very short space of time, approximately four days (with a few flashbacks, to earlier events). Scout (called "Jean Louise" for most of this novel, although Atticus still calls her Scout on occasion) is now twenty-six years old and has been living in New York for several years. She comes back to Maycomb County by train, anticipating a restful two-week stay with her friends and family, and instead finds that the town has changed greatly. Rest does not come easily.

The book is ambitious yet cautious; it tries to tackle a great number of issues and encompass an enormous scope, yet remarkably little happens in the entire story. Jean Louise spends time with her boyfriend, Hank, who has trained with her father Atticus to be a lawyer; she finds out that Calpurnia's grandson, Frank, accidentally ran over a man and Jean Louise is anxious over what sentence Frank will receive in court; she attends a tea party with women of her own age and finds that she has nothing in common with them; and, apart from a few passionate dialogues that erupt between Scout and the key male figures in her life, that is it. The novel hints at court cases, but none is witnessed or concluded; jibes at the NAACP and the SCOTUS, but a full history of their actions is never outlined; showers the reader with emotional sparks that result from a major turning point in Jean Louise's life, but barely examines where she came from or elucidates where she will be going. The novel is powerful, but disorganized.

Although it does not dabble in "sit-ins" or peaceful protests, Go Set a Watchman is a novel about the civil rights debates of the 1950s. Scout has been living in New York, an overwhelmingly metropolitan center of world communication, where people of all different races and religions and backgrounds have learned to tolerate (or ignore) one another in every context - in school, on subways, in public restrooms, in the office, etc. She returns to Maycomb and finds out, during a citizens' council meeting, that several prominent officials of the town are racists and treat the "Brown vs. Board" decision as an infringement upon their rights. What is far more horrifying is that Atticus, though unsympathetic to the racists' viewpoints, does not denounce them; Atticus sits calmly, and he quietly defends the black man whose crime is the subject of their debate. Disgusted, Jean Louis leaves the courthouse. Later she attends a tea party held by her Aunt Alexandra, and she hears young ladies sharing many of the same opinions, mostly parroting what their husbands say. The novel finally comes to a boil when Jean Louise confronts her father Atticus and scolds her for raising her to be "colorblind" when she should have been exposed to these racist opinions earlier in her life. Jean Louise discovers that her father is not a deity, but wholly human, and that he cannot simply elevate all people to the same level of intellect at which Jean Louise was bred to live. Though Atticus justifies all of his actions with reason, the image we had of him from To Kill a Mockingbird is shattered.

The title of the novel is derived from a passage in the book of Isaiah, one that tells people to "set a Watchman" who will stay at a city's gates and report what he sees. Jean Louise's Uncle Jack warns her that she must form her own conscience, her own set of beliefs, which can function as a frame of reference when she determines what is right and what is wrong in the world. In short, this is a sort of final nudge in a series of nudges toward womanhood in Jean Louise's life - one final illusion to be shattered before is capable of being her own woman in society. It is a microcosm of a coming-of-age story, one that begins at the very end (kind of like a cross between Jane Eyre and "The Cask of Amontillado," if Virginia Woolf had written it).

The shades of gray in the novel are unsettling, but the novel itself fails to form a coherent whole. There is no Boo Radley, no Tom Robinson, no character whose plight is so terrible that it distracts Jean Louise from her own personal doubts and drives her to transcend her internal struggles. The novel has many powerful moments, but if it had not been written by an author who is now famous, those powerful moments would not have been enough to merit widespread publication. Nonetheless, they were enough for me. Go Set a Watchman is an admirable first novel. It lacks the ingenuity of construction that a mature writer would possess, yet it is a stunning look at the conflict between different ideologies of 1950s America. Uncle Jack holds Jean Louise up to a mirror and says to her, "What do you see?...I see two people." He then adds, "What was incidental to the issue in our War Between the States is incidental to the issue in the war we're in now, and is incidental to the issue in your own private war." I don't claim to know precisely what he means, but my guess is that he refers to a struggle between the "New York" Jean Louise and the "Maycomb" Scout - a struggle between the desire to keep everyone living in harmony, and the assumption that harmony is already a natural occurrence between people. What is our natural state of mind? When we try to treat everyone as equals, do we actually want to make everyone equal, which then reflects an innate human dislike of those who are not already equal to us? To put it more simply - when we try to integrate the races, does that mean we really would prefer that the human race was all one color with no exceptions? Can human beings ever really live with diversity, and be genuinely happy? These are questions the novel does not answer. No definitive answers for these questions exist, of course, but some novels have produced at least a few tentative answers, i.e. Invisible Man, Huckleberry Finn. Go Set a Watchman leaves these questions unanswered, and I would have loved to see another part written - one where Jean Louise Finch, as a mature adult, confronts the world and finds out whether she is strong enough to make her ideas a reality. Alas, a trilogy that will never happen.