Friday, July 31, 2015

New YA that goes all the way: review by Kathryn

An Ember In The Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Reviewed by our resident teen blogger, Kathryn Barnes-Mealy

An Ember in The Ashes was a welcome change from the traditional formula authors use in other YA novels. Often YA novels can have a considerable amount of dark aspects in their story, but few go all the way. An Ember in The Ashes was very dark and captivating, and it certainly kept my attention throughout the duration of the book. The fact that it is told in dual perspectives is genius, as it allows the reader to alternate from Laia and Elias’s point of view. The world building was fantastic, allowing the reader to get a glimpse of the world that the characters live in, but not too much as that information is most likely left for the books to come.

The characters in this novel weren’t exactly lovable, but they were believable and honest to the extent that you have to admire the author for taking the time to really focus and develop them. An Ember In The Ashes has it all; action, drama, romance, and even a bit of added mystery to keep the reader guessing.  I would wholeheartedly recommend this to any reader who is looking for something different, or any reader who enjoys reading young adult fiction.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Spoiler Alert: Go Set a Watchman and The Meursault Investigation

You didn't think we were going to stay quiet on Go Set a Watchman, the hotly anticipated, much debated, sequel/alternate reality to Pulitzer Prize winning American classic To Kill a Mockingbird, did you?

No. Way.

Have you read it? Strong feelings on the shocking revelations in the final chapter? We want to hear your thoughts too! Share your opinions in the comments--call it an ebook club if you must. Let's do this!

Many readers and reviewers have expressed shock and heartbreak over what people feel is a drastic shift in the character of Atticus Finch. I would argue, as others before me have, that it isn't just a change in him, but also a reflection of changes in society. That's how fiction does it, really. Harper Lee didn't have to concern herself with telling the reader how Atticus Finch really felt about desegregation in To Kill a Mockingbird--it wasn't the most pressing issue for him in 1930-something, and it had little to do with the events at the center of Mockingbird. I'm not even going to get into all that controversy; it's been discussed adequately elsewhere and I have other issues to address with this novel.

My own personal feelings about Go Set a Watchman?

It's just not very...

*Deep breath*


I mean, it's OK, I guess. I do think if it had been published right after To Kill a Mockingbird, or in addition to it (as a much longer work), people wouldn't still be talking about Mockingbird. It's been long enough now since Lee's first book that it won't likely run the risk of being overshadowed by the mediocrity of her second. Go Set a Watchman reads a bit like watching the reel of deleted scenes at the end of a DVD and wishing you hadn't, or, if you've ever been disappointed by the director's cut (Aliens? I'm looking at you, Ridley Scott) you know that sometimes, most times, an editor is actually a good thing to have at one's disposal. If only I had one to look behind me for blunders...

The only real tension or conflict, and the only actually interesting thing to happen in Watchman, happens in what has been the most confounding, upsetting, and jarring portion of the book for so many readers. If you have been hiding underground, deliberately avoiding reviews of this book like some sort of plot spoiling virus, you won't know to what I'm referring. This novel is missing something like the court case that was at the center of Mockingbird to propel the narrative. It lacks any kind of glue to adhere the scraps of homespun southern charm in Jean Louise's many mental digressions. Scout's return home from New York to a slightly different Maycomb isn't enough. In fact, it leans a little hard on the "can't go home again" trope.  It also makes the assumption that readers already know and love Mockingbird, and I'm sure most do, so that all the character, plot and setting development that Lee did so splendidly before is an unnecessary trifle, and you won't find any of that in Watchman. The basics: Scout comes home, has some flashbacks to her childhood, argues with her father, forgives him. 

A far better pick, in my humble opinion, from the "long awaited sequels to beloved classics" list: The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud which follows up with the events of The Stranger, Nobel prize-winner Albert Camus's novel about a young French man allegedly so confused by heat stroke that he shot and killed an unarmed man, an "unnamed Arab", on the beach in Algeria. Daoud's novel names the victim Musa, and tells the story of his murder and the terrible aftermath from the perspective of his brother, Harun. After years of living in the shadow of his brother's murder, Harun opens up to a journalist in a bar about the tragedy that shaped his life, his story of isolation, suffering and violence, revealing the troubled legacy of colonialism in Algeria.

The Meursault Investigation is a tremendous complement that may even surpass the original, and a poignant criticism of The Stranger. They should be read and discussed side by side from now on.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Looking to get the most out of your travels this summer? Try a taking a literary tour!

Often the setting of a novel is as important to the story as any of the characters. This is quite true in the case of the Chicago of The Jungle.Years ago, just for grins, I went on a self-guided tour of Upton Sinclair's Chicago--specifically through the meat packing district. The idea of immersing myself in the setting of a book that was so richly detailed in the text was a thrill. It wasn't a long tour as it isn't a big area but even as it has clearly been cleaned up (one would not want to spend much time in Sinclair's meat packing district at the turn of the last century) one can still see the streets and buildings, smell the smells, and hear the activity of Chicago's still functioning meat packing district...though maybe that experience isn't for everybody.

Let's journey a few thousand miles further to Istanbul, Turkey, the setting of, and major character in, Orhan Pamuk's romantic and deeply immersive literary and art experience:

The Museum of Innocence and The Innocence of Objects by Orhan Pamuk

The golden ticket!
Kemal, the wealthy scion of a prominent Istanbul family and engaged to marry the similarly wealthy Sibel, unexpectedly reunites with his childhood friend Füsun while she is working in a shop. Though from different classes and different worlds, of course they embark on a devastating love affair. Over the course of his decades long obsession, Kemal collects thousands of small objects that remind him of moments he spent with Füsun and assembles them into a museum. Many of the objects are stolen from her, many are simply discarded waste that he pockets (over 4,000 carefully documented cigarette butts make up the first exhibit in the museum), and many items are donated by her family to his museum.
Sunset on the posh streets of Beyoğlu, where Kemal roamed

In the ultimate blurring of fact and fiction, author Orhan Pamuk built a really real museum, based on the novel, in the really real neighborhood where fictional Füsun's family lived. He built the museum faithfully to his own description in the book which was written as if by fictional Orhan Pamuk, supporting character, friend and confidant of fictional Kemal. Lost yet? Good!  Get lost in the book and cross over into the surreal and awesome experience of walking in a beloved fictional character's footsteps. Think Harry Potter world, only instead of wizards and magic we have a bittersweet love story for grown-ups. At the museum one can examine Füsun's dresses, butterfly earrings (even buy a pair in the gift shop!), her movie ticket stubs, dozens of small ceramic dogs (my favorite case), other pilfered trinkets, and the aforementioned lovingly described 4,213 cigarette butts in a giant wall case--complete with her shade of lipstick dotting the ends. The Innocence of Objects, a third work in this experience is the gorgeously photographed and beautifully written exhibit catalog. Once you fall in love with The Museum of Innocence, check out the exhibit catalog, The Innocence of Objects, and fall in love again. Then plan your trip to Istanbul and prepare to be amazed.

For the full experience I recommend reading both of these books and then going to the museum. (The only thing possibly missing is a film version of the book but I have no idea if one is on the way.) When you go, bring The Innocence of Objects with you, or pay the extra 10 Turkish Lira for the audio tour--otherwise you will have to rely on memory as there is very little text in the museum to remind you of what the assembled items in each case represent. Though they are an impressive collection of Turkish culture and do stand on their own as a work of art one can enjoy without even having read the novel. Photography is absolutely NOT allowed in the museum, so here are some pictures I took:
The line between fact and fiction delightfully blurred in Kemal's bedroom installation
The cigarettes! I borrowed this photo from the internet because the guard could see me trying to sneak a photo. First rule of literary traveling: Don't get kicked out!
For a little background on why he did this, click here for Orhan Pamuk's Manifesto for Museums.

From the city we journey to the countryside with Memed, My Hawk by Yaşar Kemal.

Published in 1951, Yaşar Kemal's debut novel set in a remote mountain village in Eastern Turkey follows the life of Slim Memed from abused and exploited child working for a cruel landlord to legendary avenging brigand. The novel describes in great detail the setting--the mountains, small villages, and the eerily beautiful but brutal thistle fields of rural Anatolia are essential to the development and actions of the characters. I bought this book in the airport in anticipation of an excruciatingly long layover and selected it for the contrast of hiking rural Anatolia after the very urban experience of reading Pamuk in Istanbul. Books have a way of taking you there, and taking you back. Before Istanbul we rented a car and drove through the countryside to an inn near Midas City (Midas Han, if you find yourself off the beaten path, is pretty much the best thing ever) to hike around the remains of the Phrygian kingdom, which lasted from about 1200 to 700 BC and was home to the Gordias and King Midas. The mountains, the villages, and the brutal fields of thistles, were there just as described in Memed, My Hawk, as well as some amazing hiking around really cool tombs and monuments.

The Ataturk airport bookstore's "Turkish Interest" section
A monument 
Phyrigian traffic jam
So just for fun in the comments, tell us your vacation destination (real or wishful thinking) and we will reply with a book recommendation to round out the experience. Bon Voyage!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Richmond’s Hidden History is Just Beginning to Be Told

Guest blog by Benjamin Campbell, author of Richmond's Unhealed History. 

The received history of Virginia, as taught in our public and private schools, our museums, our public sites and monuments, and even in our universities, has had a strange, orthodox, doctrinal quality to it. Sometimes – often – it seems comprised of a few great men, a few great ideals, a few great monuments, a lot of street signs, and some commemorative stamps, repeated over and over. Everything else is seen as a footnote, if mentioned at all.

The theft of native lands and decimation of 90% of the population of pre-European Tsenacomoco is taught as an exciting colonial adventure. The enslavement, torture, sale, and resale of 90% of the first white Europeans brought to the colony from 1607 to 1650 is unmentioned. The exportation of all of London’s convicted felons to Virginia and Maryland during the 18th Century is unknown. The revolution which sent 50% of the population into slave labor is described as a successful birth of freedom. And the second largest slave market in America, from which 300,000 or more African Virginians were ripped from their families and shipped into slave labor camps, is buried underground, not even a footnote in approved textbooks.

It is not that the untold stories are completely unknown. They are just not known in Virginia, and never have been. Richmond’s slave market was well described in the London Illustrated News in the mid-19th century. It was described in an excellent chapter in Frederic Bancroft’s classic Slave Trading in the Old South, first published in 1931; in William Still’s The Underground Rail Road, published in 1872; in Eyre Crowe’s With Thackeray in America, published in 1892; and in Charles Emery Stevens’ Anthony Burns: A History, published in 1856. The stories of the earlier Virginia Colony are well-documented – everybody has the same documents – but they are told in a triumphant European way, devoid of balance or historical perspective.

The work of Ed Ayers and Philip Schwarz, some good work at the Virginia Historical Society, and the recent exhibition on slavery at the Library of Virginia, along with a lot of unpublished work on the Burial Ground and Slave Trail in Richmond, are just beginning to unsettle the mythology of our city and state. The tarnishing of the fantasy has been supported by several national publications of note, including the movie version of Twelve Years a Slave and Edward Baptist’s recently published The Half has Never Been Told, a powerful description of the downriver slave trade.

We may, paradoxically, be obsessed with history in Virginia, not because it is wonderful, but to prevent difficult truths from being admitted. Otherwise, the complicated histories of injustice and conflict might rise to the surface, and we could, at last, move on to complete the task of healing our deep wounds.

-- by Rev. Benjamin P. Campbell, author of Richmond’s Unhealed History and Pastoral Director of Richmond Hill, an ecumenical Christian community and retreat center in Richmond, Virginia’s Church Hill.

Join Rev. Ben Campbell at Richmond Public Library’s Ginter Park Branch on Wednesday, July 8, from 6:00 - 7:30 PM as he reads and presents themes from his book, Richmond’s Unhealed History. Book signing will follow.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Need a beach read? Take a dip in these novels set on, in, or near the water

(But keep the books out of the water. It's bad for them!)

The Gracekeepers
Kirsty Logan

Scottish author Kirsty Logan's folklore-inspired dystopian future fantasy about a world mostly submerged in the sea is atmospheric and captivating. Land is scarce and there are two classes of people: landlockers who are the wealthier landowners, and damplings who make their lives at sea, essentially working for the landlockers and suffering their scorn. Callanish is something of an other in this equation--a landlocker who is considered an outsider for reasons we find out as her story develops. She is a gracekeeper, one who performs "restings" (ritual sea burial) and maintains a "graceyard" (think graveyard, only wetter). Callanish's lonely, hungry and damp existence is forever altered one day when a dampling circus ship arrives at her graceyard for an impromptu resting after one of their acrobats drowns.  She becomes fascinated by North, the circus's bear girl, and the feeling is mutual. Told from multiple viewpoints, Callanish's and North's stories unfold and intertwine as Logan creates a surprisingly believable, completely haunting and enchanting future world shaped by a rising sea.

This is an oddball recommendation from me; I hate the circus and I don't typically go in for fantasy. I find the cute nomenclature a bit heavy handed and cringe-worthy to be honest. I mean, are dystopias created by committee? Do the arbiters of the future sit down together and say "OK, we need to place everybody left after [insert whatever humanity crippling event, crisis, plague here] into two categories, preferably with goofy names implying how single-minded and one-dimensional society will be"? In this case I forgave it because this book was just so darn compelling I could hardly put it down to come up for air. Ahem.

Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness
Jennifer Tseng

Lifelong islander Mayumi Saito is a librarian and an unhappily married mother. Hers is a small, quiet world interrupted when she becomes fixated on a shy 17 year old male patron at her library, eventually striking up a secret affair with him and also a friendship with his mother. Her obsessions with mother and son drastically alter her carefully ordered life. Mayumi's narrative is a confessional, but she isn't apologizing for anything. Her peculiarities and wry observations on people and life make for a highly engaging read.

A little note on the text: I love Europa Editions and get pretty excited when a new one comes in. There is something about the sturdy matte paperbacks with flaps, uniform title text and pretty cover designs, and I haven't met one I didn't like.

The Shore
Sara Taylor

Sara Taylor's debut novel The Shore starts off with a bang! The first chapter seriously  knocked me out of my seat and I nearly called off sick to finish the book that morning (just kidding, Library!) There is a complicated family tree in the front of the book for reference, which I admit I flipped to a few times to orient myself. The narratives moving around over a 150 year span seem disconnected at first, sharing only geography and the loose associations of multiple generations of two Eastern Shore families. Powerful and affecting, this is an intense multi-generational family saga if there ever was one (my favorite), so I couldn't be happier. This novel was so well-crafted I could hardly believe this was a first. Five stars and two thumbs way up.