Friday, April 29, 2016

Get carried away with historical fiction

Us Conductors by Sean Michaels

A couple of months ago Clara Rockmore was featured as the Google Doodle and it got me thinking about this book and how easy it is to get so swept up in historical fiction that you either A) forget that it's fiction, or B) forget that the characters in the fictional account were actually real, or perhaps some combination of A and B resulting in completely losing your grip on reality and slipping through the looking glass. Hasn't that happened to you? Anyway, historical fiction can be powerful stuff, approach with caution.

Winner of the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize, Us Conductors is the captivating fictional account of real Russian scientist, spy, and inventor of the theremin, Lev Termen (Leon Theremin) and his muse, electronic music pioneer Clara Rockmore. The story, told through correspondence and flashbacks, speculates about Termen's unrequieted love for Rockmore, and the circumstances surrounding his return to the Soviet Union. Once I finished this beautiful book I couldn't let the story go,  so I immersed myself in YouTube videos and audio recordings of Lev and Clara playing the theremin. Clara Rockmore was a classical violin prodigy from Lithuania. Suffering from tendonitis she was forced to give up her beloved instrument, but was later introduced by Termen to his invention: an electronic musical instrument controlled by gesture. She helped refine the instrument, and defined it as an art form, becoming its most prominent performer. I've included a couple of the videos to pique your curiosity.

The Anchoress 
by Robyn Cadwallader

The Anchoress is the fictional account of a (probably fictional) anchoress in 1255 named Sarah. What's an anchoress? Good question! Until a patron recommended this book to me, I admit that I didn't have a clue. Then I did some googling. In Medieval Europe, an anchorite was a religious recluse, someone who would lock themselves away, denying themselves all but the very minimum required for survival. They felt that through complete solitude and denial of all earthly pleasures they were "hanging on the cross with Christ". They would be enclosed for the rest of their lives in a tiny cell adjoined to a church and were a symbol of piety and a source of comfort for their communities, living out their days in contemplative prayer. Author Robyn Cadwallader takes the reader into Sarah's time and culture, her tiny cell, and delves deep into her mind and motivations.
An anchorites' cell in England
In an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald the author describes a point in her PhD research into the life of Saint Margaret: "I came across this word 'anchoress', wondered what it was, started to read a bit more and was absolutely horrified, fascinated, really thought it was just a terrible, terrible thing," she says. "I just kept reading and in a way, it wasn't essential to the thesis, but I was so fascinated by it that I just kept reading." That's what I'm talking about.

Looking for more? Check out Thomas Mallon's recent, well-reviewed Finale: A Novel of The Reagan Years, or The Revenant by Michael Punke (I could go on all day). You'll enjoy exploring the real people or events behind these marvelous fictional tales as much as the tales themselves.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

It's International Dublin Literary Award Time!

Behold! The Richmond Public Library Nominees for the International Dublin Literary Award!

It's time once again to nominate a few good books for the International Dublin Literary Award. Since we've already sung the praises of our three nominees for The Award on this blog, I thought I would recommend some "readalikes" for our picks to you. The thing about books like these, the books that stand out as completely outstanding, award-worthy, one-of-a-kind and all that, is that they can be tough to compare to anything else. For A Little Life, I would look for other literary novels featuring complex characters, friendship and love, haunting secrets, abuse and trauma. A search for "five-star, gut-punchingly sad, haunt-you-forever, fiction" not surprisingly does not compute, and looking under subject headings like Families--Fiction, Bildungsromans, and Domestic Fiction just doesn't quite cover it. As I mentioned in an earlier review, Yanagihara's second, and thus far most massive melancholy masterpiece, is a bit of a tough sell when people ask me for a personal recommendation, even though it is easily one of the best books I've ever read. Maybe if I just hand a box of tissues over with the book people will get the idea.
So much tissue.
Anyway, NoveList to the rescue! This neat service ties in with our OPAC to deliver you the kind of nuanced "appeal terms" normal people (read: not librarians?) might use to describe the "feel" of books, from now on referred to as BookFeel™*. Search iBistro for a favorite book, click on the entry and scroll down to see what terms NoveList uses to characterize books, and what they might suggest for you to read next. Example:
All of these things appeal to me.

While you decide whether or not you can handle the agonizing beauty that is A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, check out the much slimmer I Refuse by Per Petterson (2014), Did You Ever Have a Family (2015) by Bill Clegg, and Aquarium (2015) by David Vann. These each share much of the same BookFeel and are thematically kin, with a heavy emphasis on "heart wrenching".

While you wait for The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, try The Lowland (2013) Jhumpa Lahiri and Dust (2014) by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. NoveList uses the following BookFeel to characterize The Fishermen:

  • Character-driven
  • Haunting, Atmospheric
  • Lyrical
I would not have immediately come up with The Lowland to pair with The Fishermen but after examining the relative BookFeel I would score this comparison a 3.9 out of 5 on my completely arbitrary personal scale. 

The Sympathizer is seriously not to miss, but also be sure to pick up Dragonfish (2015) by Vu Tran, and All our Names (2014) by Dinaw Mengestu.

BookFeel for The Sympathizer:

  • Character-driven
  • Leisurely paced
  • Sardonic, Moving, Bleak
  • Stylistically Complex, Compelling 
You had me at sardonic. 

A side note, these are my personal picks for a Sympathizer readalike because NoveList recommended Purity by Jonathan Franzen and Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya, neither of which I wanted to second. (I just didn't really like them, OK?) While Dragonfish and All Our Names are quite different in style and narrator, both are highly original fiction dealing with identity and immigration, secrets, and cultural historical touchstones experienced from multiple perspectives.
Also: Whatever, Franzen.

*Bookfeel is a word (I think I might have) made up to describe the appeal of a book. See also: Mouthfeel, a word I hate because it is gross. Ew.
It's like you've known me forever, iBistro. 
Before you run off, check out the Dublin shortlist of nominees for the 2016 award. You'll see a few blog favorites on the list, and a few more you might enjoy.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Authors, R.I.P.

It’s an odd thing to say, and I don’t feel entirely comfortable saying it, but you could do a lot worse for book recommendations than the obituary page of any major newspaper. It’s hard admitting that the best thing a writer could do to get my attention is to stop writing forever, but there it is. Obituaries have introduced me to Leonard Michaels, to Muriel Spark and Beryl Bainbridge. In fact, it’s possible the New York Times obituary page has done more to populate my bookshelf than the Book Review.

Obituaries seem tailor-made to get you to start reading, including as they do not only titles but an author’s biography, their place in history, the general reception of their work, their interests and controversies, who they influenced and who influenced them. And if a writer isn’t winning awards or publishing now, or if they never wrote an instant-classic, it can be hard to stumble across them. Some writers retire, some simply go where the zeitgeist does not, and it takes an article buried in a newspaper’s obituary file to raise a flag. On October 2, 1891 New Yorkers read this over breakfast, and undoubtedly some had their curiosity piqued:

“There has died and been buried in this city, during the current week, at an advanced age, a man who is so little known, even by name, to the generation now in the vigor of life that only one newspaper contained an obituary account of him, and this was but of three or four lines. Yet forty years ago the appearance of a new book by Herman Melville was esteemed a literary event, not only throughout his own country, but so far as the English-speaking race extended.”

Obituaries are also useful for recommendations even if the writer is already world famous. Harper Lee’s obituary appeared in February this year. You may have already read To Kill a Mockingbird, but the Times obituary references William Dean Howells, Flannery O’Connor, and Truman Capote. It quotes Lee as saying, “In other words, all I want to be is the Jane Austen of South Alabama.” To understand that you’d have to go read Jane Austen. (This week the Times published obituaries on Arnold Wesker, a playwright, and James Cross Giblin, a children’s author.)

Gore Vidal called Truman Capote’s death “a good career move.” Snark aside, the author’s death is an important step in the life of her work. While a writer lives, she can take a pencil to any of her words, but after death, her work is cast and set. For the uninitiated reader stumbling upon an obituary, however, that work is only just beginning to grow and blossom.

So, if you’re looking for a good book: 1.) ask a librarian; 2.) read the obits. That might be where your librarian is getting their recommendations from in the first place.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

May the Verse Be With You: Still re-imagining the bard after 400 years

Shakespeare created timeless tales and had a great sense of humor so we think that he would appreciate these irreverent and inventive retellings of his work--and you will too.

William Shakespeare's Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope by Ian Doescher

This Quirk Books series for young adults does a clever job of retelling George Lucas' Star Wars films in the style of Shakespeare. Check out the Bard's version of the opening crawl:

YOLO Juliet

Part of the OMG Shakespeare series, YOLO Juliet is Romeo and Juliet adapted for modern teens. Its characters text with emojis, check in places, and update their relationship statuses. You'll LOL over how well the Bard translates into modern life.
The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore

A comic send-up of Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe, The Serpent of Venice features Pocket (the hero of Fool) in a mashup of Othello, Merchant of Venice, and The Cask of Amontillado. Fans of Edgar and William rejoice...or wince.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

A reimagined Hamlet set in the North Woods of Wisconsin in the 70s. Edgar, mute and speaking only in sign, is forced from his family home to survive in the wilderness.

Celebrate all things Shakespeare throughout April at RPL! Check the calendar for event and program information.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Spring Into Gardening!

Spring is here and now is the time to get dirty and grow! Whether your thumb is green or brown, Richmond Public Library has an abundance of great books to guide you on your path to a green yard, an oasis of flowers and a harvest of fresh veggies, even if you only have a porch or patio to plant.

Many city gardeners are discouraged by a lack of space, too little sun, or poor soil conditions.  Two recent publications provide excellent tips for growing in containers, improving soil and choosing plant varieties that thrive in different locations.

Small-Space Vegetable Gardens by Andrea Bellamy includes garden design, soil-building tips, plant selection and other ideas for gardening on balconies, patios, parking strips and vertically up walls.  
Grow All You Can Eat in 3 Square Feet is a DK publication that explores a variety of innovative gardening spaces.Tips cover maximizing yields from intensive planting and choosing the best varieties for containers.  

Location and climate play an important role in choosing successful plant combinations.  Here in RVA we have hot, humid summers that vary from drought to downpours.  The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast by Ira Wallace begins with Gardening 101 and moves through each month with timely suggestions.  "August:  Heat and harvest" and "September: Second spring" are just two examples found in this valuable resource.

All New Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space by Mel Bartholomew is an updated edition of one of the first books to promote the idea that it is possible to grow vegetables in very small gardens. Using a grid based system, Bartholomew promises "more produce in less space with less work."

Fresh herbs can change even the simplest recipe and most are easy to grow in containers and raised beds.  Some may even blend in with flower beds and evergreen borders.  RPL has many excellent herb titles in the collection, including The Culinary Herbal by Susan Belsinger and Arthur O. Tucker. Covering 97 "tried and true" varieties, the authors share growing tips and recipes for vinegars, butters, pastes and syrups.

No outdoor space to call your own? Greenery confined to inside?  What's Wrong with My Houseplant by David Deardorff provides organic solutions to pests and diseases that may creep into your home. Includes tips for trees, vines, perennials and more.

Bulbs are one of the hidden gems of the garden, popping up when you forget them, hibernating at different times of the year, and multiplying annually. Not just for spring, these bloomers can fill the spaces between seasons and add a burst of color to a neglected corner. They are even good in containers.  The Complete Practical Handbook of Garden Bulbs is just that, an excellent overview, with hardiness zones and planting specifications for hundreds of varieties.

For the youngest gardeners the Library is filled with a "harvest" of titles, from specific plants, habitats, and gardening tips, to beautiful picture books that celebrate life in and around the garden.  Here are just a few titles to start.  "Dig in" to your local library for more!

If You Plant a Seed by Kadir Nelson. 
These friendly animals reap an extra benefit from their garden plantings: kindness.

Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt by Kate Messner.
We can see the wonderful plants growing in the garden. This author skillfully introduces what's happening among the plants, under the leaves, and down below the dirt where many animals make their homes.

Older kids can get their hands in the dirt and create fun projects with The Nitty-Gritty Gardening Book: Fun Projects for All Seasons.  Ideas are arranged by season and include bean-pole tents, seed starting, hanging gardens, compost bins, winter terrariums and more.

Whatever your gardening pleasure, get out and get dirty and visit your local library for inspiration!

Upcoming RVA Garden Events:

Maymont Herbs Galore 
Saturday, April 30, 2016

Sunday Stroll in Dorey Park
Sunday, April 24, 2015

Virginia Native Plant Society Plant Sales
Various dates

Lewis Ginter Spring Plant Fest
Friday, May 6, and Saturday, May 7, 2016