Archive for the ‘books’ Tag

Before Bookmobiles   Leave a comment

 The Giver of Stars is a primer for women’s rights and a celebration of librarians. Set in Depression era in the rugged mountains of rural Kentucky, Jojo Moyes creates a colorful portrait of a group of five women who come to be known as the Packhorse Librarians. Moyes takes a page from history when Eleanor Roosevelt championed the WPA’s (Work Progress Administration) efforts to distribute books in remote areas of Appalachia.

Alice Van Cleave is newly married and far from her family home in England. She has difficulty fitting in in the small, rural town where her husband and father-in-law own a nearby mining operation. An appeal for women to help distribute books leads Alice to become an unlikely participant. She’s mentored by Margery, a no-nonsense, independent woman. Three others join the pair.

The novel is as much about the strength of women as the role of the librarians who not only deliver reading material but offer companionship, comfort and news from town. As Alice’s friendship with Margery and the other librarians grows, she realizes her marriage is slowly disintegrating. Her father-in-law is a bully, and Alice’s husband is uninterested in pursuing a physical relationship with her.

The relationships among the librarians with their reading community evolve from mistrust to dependence. The descriptions of the rugged landscape are beautiful and harrowing.

The power of friendship and sharing the joy books offer are richly detailed. The precursor to bookmobiles, the packhorse librarians brought new worlds and ideas to areas previously overlooked.

The Giver of Stars
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Pamela Dorman Books
390 pages

Lost in a Land of Books   1 comment

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern is a cross between a fairy tale and a video game, with some magic thrown. This requires the ability to suspend one’s sense of disbelief.

Most chapters begin with the name of Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a graduate student who finds a mysterious, uncatalogued book in his school library. It’s especially baffling since it’s about him. Alternating chapters relate to a particular story within the found book. Confused yet? I’ll back up. A land, beneath ours, contains an ancient library with guardians who protect the books and the stories they contain. Zachary’s efforts to uncover the book’s meaning take him on adventure where bees, cats, doors, books – lots of books – and swords are important symbols.

Morgenstern creates a literary world unlike any other. It’s dependent on imagination and an appreciation of the different realms books take us to when we read. The writing is rich in visual detail, even if, at times, it doesn’t always make sense. This is similar to what Zachary experiences. He encounters multiple choices in his quest; almost as many subplots presented to the reader trying to fit all the pieces together.

Pirates, a sea of honey, searches for lost loves, artists, friends and mysterious passageways also inhabit the novel. The deeper Zachary goes into what is ultimately a search for the starless sea, the less engaging the narrative becomes. Yes, I wanted to know what was going to happen, but at almost 500 pages, it took too long to find out.

The Starless Sea
Three-and-three-quarter bookmarks
Doubleday, 2019
494 pages

Checking Out a Library Book   Leave a comment

The Library Book

The Library Book might be better titled The Los Angeles Central Library Book. Author Susan Orlean provides an exhaustive history of the downtown LA library. The 1986 fire that destroyed four-hundred- thousand books and other materials including periodical, numerous collections and caused extensive damage to the building is the starting point for her overview.

The fire, how it started and efforts to rebuild are the most engaging aspects. While the Central Library isn’t exactly a phoenix rising from the ashes, it’s close. Arson is suspected and one suspect, since deceased, is profiled in great detail. Harry Peak is a charismatic wanna-be actor. He was also a chronic liar. He lied to friends, family, arson investigators and attorneys.

Orlean incorporates a fun, clever approach to each chapter citing four references that provide context for what will follow. For example, it’s clear from the sources cited that Chapter 11 will be about fund raising.

Where the narrative bogs down is in the history of the library’s various directors. Granted, some were more colorful, more resourceful, less interesting, less impactful than others. These chapters were on the dry side.

The most fascinating aspects, in addition to the learning about the fire itself, were learning about the librarians, their specific job descriptions and their commitments to the library and its patrons.

It’s clear Orlean has a deep respect for the roles libraries serve, but there was too much in her book that is the stuff of trivia competitions, something that doesn’t appeal to me.

The Library Book
3 Bookmarks
Simon & Schuster, 2018
319 pages (including notes)

Not in Kansas Anymore — or Ever   Leave a comment

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The land of Oz serves as the backdrop in Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts, but it’s more than a look behind the green curtain where the wizard was hiding.

The novel’s timeline alternates between 1938 when filming on the MGM classic took place and the life of Maud Baum, whose husband Frank authored the beloved series.

Beginning in 1871, this novel, based on fact, chronicles Maud’s childhood as the daughter of a suffragette, her experience at Cornell University where she was one of 19 women in a class with more than 200 men, and how she came to meet, then marry Baum.

The chapters set in 1938 show Maud striving to impress upon the movie’s power team the importance of staying true to her husband’s book. This, she’s convinced, depends on Judy Garland being able to project Dorothy’s innocence and hope. Maud sees this threatened by the movie studio’s efforts to control Garland through a regimen of diet and sleeping pills. Thus, Maud reaches out to protect the young actress.

The chapters concentrating on Maud’s life are a glimpse into the whimsical nature of her husband, the efforts for women’s right to vote, hardscrabble life on the North Dakota plains and her struggle to find meaning in her own life.

Letts deftly defines the various time frames and landscapes. Even though readers know the ultimate success of the movie, it’s Maud’s growth that is most captivating. How Frank came to write the Oz stories their popularity merely provides the framework.

Finding Dorothy
Four Bookmarks
Ballantine Books 2019
351 pages

Growing Old With Attitude   Leave a comment

No! I Don't Want to Join a Book Club by Virginia Ironside

Imagine Bridget Jones at age 60 and you’ll have a good idea of Marie Sharp, the narrator of the terribly-titled No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club. Ironically, I received this apty subtitled paperback – “Diary of a 6oth year” – at my own book club’s holiday gift exchange. Rest assured, I have no intention of leaving my book group!

Author Virginia Ironside tells Marie’s story through diary entries. Marie is a no-nonsense woman about to turn 60; she has no qualms about doing so. Rather, she embraces the idea of the milestone birthday as a rite of passage which will allow her to do as she pleases rather than striving to meet expectations held by others. In the process she has decided to give up men and focus on a few close friendships. She vows not to do anything she doesn’t want to, in addition to avoiding book clubs this includes joining a gym and learning Italian.

Marie is a former art teacher, divorcee, the mother of a grown son and has several good friends. References to her carefree days in the 1960s indicate she hasn’t spent her life as a stick-in-the-mud.

Ironside injects plenty of humor among several poignant observations. Predictably, Marie experiences the cycle of life and plenty of surprises during the 18 months of entries she shares. She is, perhaps, most surprised by the depth of emotion she has for her newborn grandson. Despite her vow of no romantic liaisons, it’s possible that door may not be completely barricaded.

No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club
Three-and-a-half bookmarks
Plume Books, 2008
231 pages

Lost and Found   Leave a comment

libraryii

I lost my library card.

It’s one of my most important forms of identification. I’ve held in my hand far more often than my driver’s license or my passport.

I knew the card was easily replaceable, but I’ve had this particular card for 27 years. Before that I had the one issued to me when I was in high school, but I had to relinquish it when I changed my last name. I was attached to the card as much for the length of time it’s been in my possession as for the access it’s provided to feed my imagination and my intellect.

I’d removed the card from my wallet just before a trip out of the country; I knew I wouldn’t be checking out any books in a Mexico City library because I suspected it wouldn’t be accepted anyway. One of my first stops upon returning home was to my local branch. Fortunately, my license was accepted as alternative ID for the book I wanted. Yet, I worried. I couldn’t remember where I’d placed the card.

purse spew

I went through my wallet multiple times; I ransacked my purse – just in case. I searched drawers, underneath piles of papers and books. I ended up organizing the clutter around my computer.

I wondered if I’d left in it the car. I hadn’t. I rearranged more untidiness. I opened one more drawer.

The next best thing to finding something that’s been lost is that sometimes it results in a little bit of cleanup.

library card

Street Cred   1 comment

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Full disclosure: I’m a John Irving fan. However, at around page 39, in Avenue of Mysteries, I wondered if he’d lost his touch. Before I knew it, I was on page 100 and realized I had nothing to worry about Irving’s storytelling mastery.

Fourteen-year-old Juan Diego and his younger sister, Lupe, are dump kids in Oaxaca, Mexico. That is, they live and work among the trash heaps where garbage is sorted, saved and burned. Through books he’s salvaged, Juan Diego has taught himself to read and learn English. He also serves as translator for Lupe, whose words are unintelligible to everyone else. What she lacks in comprehensibility, she compensates for in her mindreading ability. She’s no fortune teller. Although she has a sense of what will happen, she knows peoples’ histories.

The narrative moves between Juan Diego’s youth and his adult self, a successful writer living in the U.S., who visits the Philippines. Juan Diego’s dreams reveal his past: the dump, the Catholic Church, his mother (the prostitute and cleaning woman for the church), the would-be priest from Iowa and the circus, among many other elements. It wouldn’t be John Irving without the numerous components and the way they intersect.

As he travels, Juan Diego’s state of mind is manipulated by the medication he takes and forgets to take, as he meets Miriam and Dorothy, introduced as mother and daughter. The relationships with the women and a former student are complicated and interesting, but not nearly as engaging as Juan Diego’s earlier life.

Avenue of Mysteries
Four Bookmarks
Simon & Schuster, 2015
460 pages

Three’s a Charm   5 comments

books

Thanks WordPress for letting me know this is our third anniversary. I don’t have a book or restaurant to review right now, but I did make my 275th post earlier this week.

The traditional gift to commemorate three years is leather. Hhmmm. Sounds like I need to get a book to celebrate!

Thanks WordPress, but more importantly, thank you readers! It’s nice to know I have followers who aren’t related to me, although I am very grateful to those who are for being so consistent in your love and support. I’ll keep writing and I hope you’ll keep reading. Here’s to three more — at least!

A Book for Booklovers   1 comment

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The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is the literary equivalent of a triple chocolate dessert. It’s rich, nuanced and meant for those who love chocolate, or in this case, books.

A.J. is an ill-tempered man running a bookstore on an Atlantic coastal island. The store does a brisk summer tourist business. Otherwise it’s a slow, quiet livelihood for A.J., whose wife has been dead for almost two years. But, he’s not old. He’s not even middle-aged. He is, however, a snob, particularly when it comes to literature, and he’s set in his ways, such as they are, as a lonely and often rude man.

Parts of this novel are entirely predictable, but in all the right spots. A.J. meets someone, actually three someones, who change his life: Amy, a publisher’s sales rep; Lambiase, the local police chief; and Maya, the two-year-old child abandoned in his shop. Despite some unsurprising turns, Zevin writes with humor and poignancy. She also displays a knowledge of books.

The relationships also allow A.J. to accept the greater world around him, for better and worse. It helps that the three persons who share his life are book nerds. Lambiase, who is only ever referred to by his last name, is the last to jump on board as a reader. His evolution from a by-the-rules cop is fun and warm. It’s A.J.’s connections to Amy and Maya that resonate the loudest through their shared passion for pages that need to be turned by hand.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Algonquin Books, 2014
260 pages

Unlocking Secrets   3 comments

thirteenth tale

When I mentioned to a friend that I was reading Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, she was surprised it was new to me. It is, after all, a book for booklovers and a mystery, two aspects I find appealing. There is also a sense of the gothic, which typically doesn’t grab me. Yet, I had trouble putting the book down.

This story within a story is compelling on many levels. There’s Margaret Lea, a reclusive woman whose companions are the books in her father’s antiquarian bookshop. Although close to her father, her mother is distant, practically absent from family life. Margaret had a twin sister who died at birth, an event from which Mrs. Lea never recovered.

Margaret receives a letter from Vida Winter, considered one of Britain’s most prolific and beloved authors. Despite her popularity, Vida has creatively maintained her privacy. However, in poor health she summons Margaret to write her biography. In the process, dark secrets emerge.

Each character is transformed through the story telling. Margaret becomes softer as she learns about Vida’s mysterious and startling past. Vida, whose strength diminishes day by day also begins to demonstrate warmth and concern. The more Vida reveals about herself and her dysfunctional family (long before the term was coined), the more engrossing the tale becomes.

Vida tells about the twin sisters, Adeline and Emmaline, and just when the reader is certain to have determined who is who and what is what, Setterfield adds more ingredients into the tantalizing mix.

The Thirteenth Tale
Four Bookmarks
Washington Square Press, 2006
406 pages