Friday, May 22, 2015

Short stories for a long weekend

Taft is ready.
Are you ready for a three day weekend? And by "ready" of course I mean "do you have enough books to read?" FYI: The Richmond Public Library will be closed on Monday, May 25th in observance of Memorial Day. We hope you have a safe and book-filled holiday weekend. Consider picking up some of these short story collections to read in between barbecues.

May is Short Story Month and Ellen, our blogger emeritus, has a little something to share from her reading list of the recently retired:

I'm not always sure what to make of "linked stories." Was the author trying to write a novel, but couldn't quite leave the comfort of her preferred medium? Developing a character he was particularly fond of? Sometimes the link is thematic, sometimes chronological, and sometimes so tenuous I'm not sure it's even there. But Charles Baxter was definitely on a mission when he wrote the stories that comprise "There's Something I Want You To Do." Ten stories, most of them set in Minneapolis, each with a title that suggests its theme: five named for virtues ("Bravery", "Loyalty", etc.) and five for sins ("Lust", "Sloth"). Each is written in a different voice (some of them better than others), from a different character's point of view, about different events and in different times. But dizzying connections run between the characters and the events, in addition to the central theme: what happens when someone asks something of you, and how your response affects your life and others'. The stories read well independently of one another, but you'll want to read them in one big gulp to fully grasp the links between their characters and enjoy the "Aha!" moments that come when least expected.

And then there are the nine stories all previously published elsewhere and collected in Jonathan Lethem's Lucky Alan and Other Stories. Their only link is that they all come from the same brilliant post-modernist mind, one that never does the same thing twice (as readers of his novels know), and which is afraid of nothing. The eponymous Alan of the title story is anything but lucky, his sad life recounted third-hand in a brassy New York slang. Two writing students pursue the reclusive author they idolize, "The King of Sentences," and face unexpected humiliation. "Procedure in Plain Air" is a Kafkaesque nightmare, made even more frightening by its close observation of the mundane. (It reminds me of George Saunders's "Semplica Girls Diaries" and if you've read "The Tenth of December" you definitely remember that story.) Cartoon characters are marooned on a desert island in "Their Back Pages." Lethem experiments in every story to different effect, but his humor and compassion for the human condition shine throughout.

From all of us: Congratulations, good luck, keep reading (and blogging!), Ellen!

In the spirit of the subject I will keep my two cents brief.

In Hall of Small Mammals, the debut collection by the young and talented Thomas Pierce, the stories begin and end in medias res (meaning "in the middle of things") leaving the reader to pause after each story to ponder his meaning. I can say there was something quite satisfying about the inconclusive conclusion to the first story, "Shirley Temple Three", the lonely tale of an ailing cloned miniature woolly mammoth and her reluctant host. And the guilty horror of the stories within a story in "Videos of People Falling Down" is worth checking this book out alone.

A little dark, a little funny, and a little touching, Pierce has fashioned a weird little world, not so unlike our own but slightly askew, as if we are posed incongruously in a museum as part of the taxidermy tea party implied in the cover art. That's the uneasy, giddy feeling experienced at the end of Pierce's stories: not dreamlike or surreal, but just to the left of real, perhaps frozen in an awkward state of undress.

Short stories are often creepy and fantastic, they feel experimental, as if the author is playing around with ideas, showing us all of the cool, weird things rattling around in her head. Kelly Link's fantastical, playfully dark Get in Trouble feels like this. Most of her characters are adolescents exploring adolescence in normal ways under strange circumstances. In "Summer People" Ophelia and Fran's forming friendship is funny and honest, as is their interaction with the mysterious supernatural world of the titular summer people. "The New Boyfriend" casts an eerie but humorous light on the romantic obsessions of a group of teenage girls.

A few more: Get your hands on Margaret Atwood's latest unputdownable story collection, Stone Mattress. The same goes for Dame Hilary Mantel's Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Amelia Gray's anatomy-themed collection Gutshot is sure to be deeply unsettling and just landed on library shelves.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

2016 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award

It's IMPAC Dublin time, friends. Our nominations have once again landed in Ireland in time to be considered for this prestigious literary award. After careful deliberation following a year of furiously reading every new book to cross our paths, we have selected our three favorite notable titles published for the first time in English in 2014. (Because them's the rules.) Special thanks to our committee members for all their diligence and commitment to promoting literature. All three of our choices have been featured on this blog at least once, and in the case of The Blazing World, several times. So if you haven't already read these even after all of our nagging, do it now! But no pressure. Just enjoy.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

"Because survival is insufficient": words tattooed on the arm of Kirsten, a young actress who at 8 years old survived a flu pandemic that killed millions worldwide. Years later she is part of a traveling theatre troupe at the center of this novel about a devastating turning point in human history. While the global pandemic tale is a familiar one, few others capture the human spirit's seemingly instinctual drive to prioritize and preserve art in a post-apocalyptic world. What it costs humanity to remain is not only the physical struggle for survival but the fight for what keeps us culturally connected and spiritually alive.

--Tonya and Natalie--
How to Be Both by Ali Smith

"Art makes nothing happen in a way that makes something happen" is the often tweeted message from George's mysterious mother just before her death. This simplistic tweet sums up the carefully structured novel with two unique stories: a 15th-century Italian artist's life; a modern teen, George, whose mother has a connection to the Renaissance artist. Smith ignores the safety of a linear arrangement to allow the reader to experiment with the story order; either can be read first. It takes a well grounded author to allow for experimental order and Smith's story, characters, intricacies of conflict, are so well formed that the order question becomes almost insignificant. Every page, every choice made by Smith serves as a connective tissue to other literary styles and periods.
The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

Harriet Burden is an aging artist, largely ignored and forgotten, who is convinced that were she a man her assemblages would have received the attention and acclaim they deserved. To prove it, she embarks on a trilogy of installations and presents them as the work of three different male artists, who agree to the ruse for their own purposes, with tragic results. The Blazing World itself is an assemblage of disparate materials--journal entries, critical reviews, press releases, correspondence and interviews--collected by an art historian after Harry's death. Hustvedt explores issues of gender, perception and art with piercingly intelligent prose, densely annotated with historically accurate footnotes. But it is Harry herself--her passion and rage and creativity--who is the soul of this book.


And in case you missed it, here is the 2015 shortlist.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

What's new in Selfie-help: 6 guides to better living

You know about Pinterest, right? It's the social bookmarking site with visual appeal that is so popular with people planning weddings, DIYers, and those on the never-ending quest for self improvement. Pinterest is basically just one giant crowdsourced self help book, and you know self help is already big business. Take The Life Changing Habit of Tidying Up for instance. That HUGELY popular little book with a simple premise (spoiler alert): get rid of stuff and organize what's left, is making the rounds at the library and on blogs and Facebook and probably Pinterest too.

So here's a DIY Pinterest hack from us to you: Selfie-help. You write your own self help book using Pinterest. All of your chapters are there already laid out as pinboards. You've got crafts, exercises, recipes, home improvement, life changing cleaning hacks, affirming and motivational phrases superimposed upon pleasingly filtered photos of sunsets over water...

Once you get tired of hunching over your laptop, pinning all the crafts, stretch your legs and head over to the library to begin practicing the art of better living through upcycling, organizing, cooking, and positive thinking with these picks fresh off the new books shelf. (But we think you're fine just the way you are.)

Right Size...Right Now!

Regina Leeds wants to help make your impending move not only less stressful, but STRESS-FREE as the cover text emphatically states, through an 8-week plan to organize and declutter. I can suggest right off the top without even opening this book that step one is "Check this book out at your local public library unless you want to pack and move another !@#$% book (why do you have so many books?)!" Along with helpful step-by-step guidance and many different checklists, Leeds also includes a weekly "self care tip" to keep your gears turning smoothly as you process your life and reduce your trappings, an emotionally and physically demanding process for many. So don't pack your yoga mat or smoothie blender just yet! Personally, my approach to moving has always been the "Hefty Method". If you guessed that this involves shoving my entire life into garbage bags, you would be correct. Whatever wouldn't fit in my college hatchback was already prepped for the curb!


Right Size...Right Now! is great for folks too long on the waiting list for The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, especially those confronted with a tower of stuff, stuff, and more stuff, to pack and move in 8 weeks or less.

The Little Spark: 30 Ways to Ignite Your Creativity

Don't buy it, make it. But do you feel like you lack the creativity to be part of the DIY revolution currently underway? Are you the only one on your block without a creative hobby? Do you spend hours Pinning crafts onto boards with names like "Maybe Someday!" or "If I ever find the time..." or "Maybe if I spent less time on Pinterest and more time with my glue gun I could make some of these projects"? Do you need an instructional, step-by-step, how-to, illustrated nudge to ignite your creative spark? Then this is definitely the book for you. It's like pre-crafting, with "30 ways to cultivate a creative life and fill your days with a passion for living" you're sure to come away from this book with at least one or two projects started. Feel the rush of inspiration as you "Break your own rules" (Spark # 10). Perhaps you always buy the same vegetables; try buying an eggplant if this is  unusual behavior for you, then look up a recipe on Pinterest for eggplant. The Little Spark begins with attacking your clutter too, so get ready to purge. Getting organized and clearing out your space will give your inspiration room to flourish so you can create...stuff? Well, you can sort all that out later.
Clean Slate: a Cookbook and Guide

Your body is cluttered too and that is holding you back. What is it cluttered with? The filthy toxic remnants of your terrible diet. (It's ok, me too.) Wipe your Taco Bell sullied palms on your pants before you pick up this book, then wipe your slate clean with help from the editors of Martha Stewart Living. It isn't enough to feel ok, or even well; one needs to feel their best, if such a thing is possible. How do you know what your best is? You don't. That, my friends, is the purifying Sisyphean struggle of self-actualization: better living through better living. On the surface, Clean Slate is capitalizing on the "detox" trend, but inside a Pinteresting package of attractive grapefruit arrangement and bourgeois "ancient" grains (what grain isn't ancient?) is a simple cookbook. The recipes are mercifully unfussy, the steps are few, and some of the more esoteric ingredients could easily be substituted by more abundant, and equally "clean", farmer's market finds. The emphasis is on fresh, natural, whole foods, and meals centered on vegetables and whole grains, lean meats, and variety. Special diet compatible attributes such as gluten-free, nut-free, meat-free are clearly indicated below the pictures, and there is a picture to accompany every recipe. These are simple, colorful, light dishes that seem easy to prepare, even for cooks like me. A few look to be influenced more by photogeneity than edibility but Instagram is ruining eating by turning every diner into an amateur food photographer so you can expect this trend to continue for the foreseeable future. You want the truth? Salad photos look less gross than burger photos, and your body probably agrees. #realtalk


This "domestic handbook for the digital generation" offers "1,000+ creative ideas for the home". Holy cow. That's a lot of ideas. The book cover looks like the Ikea catalog, and Brit Morin is sort of a hybrid of Hello Kitty and Martha Stewart, but with a (rainbow) sprinkling of Emily Post meets Sheryl Sandberg. Homemakers takes the "Maker" movement and applies it to acts of domesticity, so the title is to be read both ways: Homemakers and Home (space) Makers. In the dining room chapter, Morin has 3D printed napkin rings on a page facing origami napkin folding techniques, followed up by table setting tips and towel "hacks", several pages devoted to gadgets and apps related to entertaining in the home, and finally, the crafts. She's got all the hair and nail trends you need, plus duct tape organizers, egg recipes, lots of contact paper ideas, and plenty of visual charts. This book is about celebrating creativity, balancing the digital and analog, and being happy at home. If you read this and thought "Gosh, that sure sounds like the print version of Pinterest" you and I think a lot alike. She has one suitcase packing hack in there that is straight off my "D-I-Why didn't I think of that?!" pinboard (see what I did there?): Pack your dirty shoes in a shower cap! Brill. Of course she packs her cute glitter shoes in a cute polka dotted shower cap and it looks really cute in her cute vintage suitcase.

Oh Joy!

I am physically incapable of saying "Oh Joy" without sarcasm. Come to think of it, I struggle to breathe without sarcasm. I think there's probably a chapter in one of these books that will address that problem. Oh Joy! is bubbling over with bright and precious whimsical decorating ideas and earnest glittery glee. The book boasts "60 ways to create and give joy", many of which also involve contact paper. I had no idea there were so many colors and varieties of contact paper. Apparently contact paper is the new washi tape which was the duct tape of 2013. Adhesives are kind of having a moment. (Note: you're gonna need to get some contact paper in cheerful colors.) She also has washi tape crafts in case you have some of that hanging around still. Sprinkled among the crafts and decorating ideas you'll find suggestions for ways to create joy in your own life. "Visit fun and inspiring places" like candy shops, "look upside down" at things like ice cream, and "group things in clusters", things like tiny umbrellas on a cake. This books proudly declares that glitter really is forever and that is just swell.

Oh, joy, a card full of glitter. You shouldn't have.

Sustainable Happiness: Live Simply, Live Well, Make a Difference

The staff of Yes! Magazine are really excited about exploring real happiness for you. Real happiness, happiness that one can sustain for long periods, even through those times when you favorite show ends (remember how you felt when The Wire concluded?), comes from making the world a better place for everybody. This collection of short essays doles out some practical and some philosophical advice for ways to improve your existence, moving yourself in the direction of "real" happiness. Meditate on topics such as greeting strangers, meeting your neighbors, buying less and unplugging more, and see just how easy it is to make small changes that can lead to big differences. This is another book that suggests buying less and we couldn't agree more! Check this book out at the library. We bought this one already so you don't have to.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Grim Reader: harrowing new fiction that's totally worth it

Sometimes a book comes along that is so outstanding, so marvelously written, that I want to tell everybody to read it, except that it is so profoundly disturbing that I find it impossible to casually recommend. I want to gush "I just read this incredibly depressing book that you might hate but should read it anyway!" but we aren't supposed to shout in the library so instead I have been saving up my recent upsetting favorites for a special post on the bleak and the beautiful. Be warned: these are not feel-good stories with happy endings. These are only "beach reads" if you plan to do a lot of weeping alone on the beach. These are books that will disturb and challenge you, make you cry and cringe and think.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara*

To be perfectly honest, I don't know very many people who will take on A Little Life, fewer still who will finish it. It's big, and the face on the cover isn't exactly selling a happy ending. Midway through the 720 page book, fully 350 pages of serious investment, the reader has already endured what could be a full-length novel, chock-full of anguish, with another 370 pages to go. You might look up, completely exhausted at this point, and say to yourself "I don't think I can go on" much like the marathon runner at mile 18, or Jude St. Francis, the central character of Yanagihara's beautiful and painful epic second novel. "...but I have to know what happens" whispers the undaunted reader, and dives right back in. Readers will be so emotionally connected to Jude, and by page 350 so completely in love with him, that they will soldier on and reap the rewards, for this is a beautiful and terrible saga about friendship and secrets. Dark and deeply upsetting, Jude's tormented past is gradually revealed as his adult life is profoundly affected at every stage by both physical and emotional scars. While the book ostensibly centers on the adult lives of four friends living in New York City, the character we come to know inside and out is Jude, the trauma he has suffered, and how that trauma affects his adult relationships.
The author will push readers to their limits; she is bringing truth, and the truth hurts. Brutal? Yes. Difficult? Disturbing? Oh, yes. Challenging? Yes, indeed, and very worth your while.

* Loyal blog readers may recall that Hanya Yanagihara's debut novel, The People in the Trees, was nominated for a 2015 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award by none other than us, your Richmond Public Library bloggers/book nominators, so we might be a little partial to her work. Sadly, she did not make their shortlist this time but I expect to see big things for her in the future. Keep an eye on the blog for our 2016 nominations coming soon!

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

A recommendation for this book might have to come with a disclaimer about graphic content: Read only with a strong stomach for graphic, clinical descriptions of the physical horrors wrought by torture, lack of clean water and sanitation, and starvation. Especially starvation. I have to admit, as have other reviewers, that the surgery scene (you'll know what I'm referring to when you get there) had me skimming ahead with one eye closed. Oh boy, does this Man Booker prize-winning, short-listed for just about everything (including the aforementioned IMPAC award), novel get vivid. Dorrigo Evans is an Australian doctor and survivor of the Thailand Burma Death Railway POW camp haunted by a love affair with his uncle's wife. The novel moves around in time and perspective, shifting between narratives of survivor and captor. Beautiful, complex, and utterly horrific, this is a love story as much as it is a war story, and a fine example of detailed character study. Flanagan's actors are authentic, complicated, and flawed, and you will feel for each and every one of them. Read it, just maybe don't read it right before going to bed.

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Hausfrau, which is the German word for housewife, is the narrative of Anna Benz, American ex-pat, wife of Otto Benz, mother to three children, and serial cheater. Anna Benz is not a likable character. In fact, she's so unimprinted upon she's barely a character at all. However, one does not read literary fiction for likable characters. What one does look for in literary characters is depth, purpose, and truth, even if the character is a shallow, feckless liar. Anna is the physical manifestation of ennui. She leaves a trail of it in her wake, glimmering like the slime trail of a slug. Anna's apathy and self-absorption is total, and the reader is given little of her life before her marriage and subsequent affairs save for a few brief mentions of a willful blankness and malleability that could be quite interesting were it more developed, so that when her lies do "spin out of control" as the jacket copy promises it's not the least bit surprising. It feels like there is a statement in there somewhere about society's impossible expectations of women, that no matter what path women choose, be it career, motherhood, or some combination of everything, they are still not doing it right or not doing enough. Anna is urged to take on a hobby, to do something with herself outside of the home (besides the affairs of course, which she keeps a secret), to find something pleasurable or worthwhile, to learn German (she lives in Switzerland). Even her attempts to learn German end up being examined and criticized: "But she can't speak Schweizerdeutsch" to her husband's frustration. Nobody really knows Anna, except (maybe) the reader. Anna doesn't want to talk about her "hobby" with anyone; she lies to her Jungian analyst, eludes her few friends, and keeps her family at a distance. Throughout the story Anna emphasizes her own need for superficiality and secrecy, the right to define herself by her own terms, but after the inevitable plot turn her behavior appears to be more of an addiction than a hobby, thus removing the chief actor's only agency and the most interesting thing about her in the process. So what's the point? Is Anna just screwing with us all along? I liked this book but was frustrated by the final act. I wanted for her to own her decisions, which I suppose was the point after all. I ended up making the same unnecessary demands of Anna Benz, setting the same unrealistic standards for her, measuring her worth using my own yardstick, just like everyone else in her life does. Touché, Essbaum.

Aquarium by David Vann

Reading this book qualifies as a workout. It made me scrunch up on the edge of my seat, pace around the room, and squirm like crazy. It begins with foreboding, Vann weaving a sense of dread into every sentence without giving anything away. You don't know why you're so anxious for Caitlin but you are. You feel the tension in the eerie calm of the aquarium where she spends her afternoons waiting for her mother to get off work and the relationship she begins with a kindly old man there. In some ways, the young girl at the center of this grim, tense novel feels unrealistic; she's both naïve and wise, she seems alternately far too young and far too old for a lot of her behavior. But what 12-year-old doesn't seem that way much of the time? She's almost too real, which makes the psychological abuse she endures all the more terrifying. Caitlin's mother was traumatized as a child and through a very tense, agonizing chapter subjects her daughter to a reenactment of the nightmare that deprived her of a childhood as a twisted sort of lesson in empathy. At one point I just couldn't bear it anymore and I practically threw the book down, let out a "NOPE", only to run back to it moments later once I recovered. Without giving away too much about the ending I'll just say I didn't totally buy it, but after the agony Vann inflicts on Caitlin and the reader it was a relief to finally exhale. Overall Aquarium is suspenseful and scary, a finely crafted, tightly wound study in what goes on behind closed doors and the legacy of abuse.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Every Picture Tells a Story...and Guys Do Read!

Look What's New in Children's Books:

Wordless books hold a special place for children in early literacy and in early writing.  By "reading" a wordless book with a young child you open their imagination to the description and allow them to use their own words, building their vocabulary.  For older children just exploring the idea of putting words to page, a wordless book can spark a creative project. 

The Farmer and the Clown, by Marla Frazee, is a new title that wordlessly illustrates the relationship of a little clown who falls from a passing train and the lonely farmer who brings him home. Muted tones perfectly capture the wide, open prairie and without a word it is easy to see the friendship that develops.

Jerry Pinkney is a Caldecott medalist whose detailed illustrations fill many pages of well known children's titles. The Grasshopper and the Ants is the third in a series of Aesop's fables following The Lion and the Mouse and The Tortoise and the Hare. Pinkney brings these tales to life with his beautiful, detailed paintings and few words.
In this fable the lively grasshopper is always ready with a song and some fun while the ants are busy preparing for winter.  Be sure to find the pages with the ants underground and the grasshopper, outside in the snow.  

The next title, Sequoia, honors Arbor Day and Poetry Month, with words by Tony Johnston and paintings by Wendell Minor.  Simple verse gives life to this great tree and follows it throughout the year.  Additional information on the tree is given at the end with thanks to Stephen C. Sillett and Marie E. Antoine of Humboldt State University, researchers whose photos were used by the artist for illustrations.

Tall trees inspire tall structures and engineers are constantly trying to top the tallest buildings around the world.  In 1889 the Eiffel Tower was the world's tallest building.  George Ferris, a mechanical engineer from Pittsburgh, was determined to build a taller structure for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.  Mr. Ferris and His Wheel tells the story of this project and its success.  

Sidebars give details to the project and the new inventions of the time, including the use of electricity. Read this book and imagine the excitement as a new century was about to begin.

Yes, guys do read!

Often a short story is all you need, if time is limited or you don't want to get into a longer novel. Jon Scieszka is well know know for his earlier picture books, including The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, the Time Warp Trio series for older readers, and the beginning reader Trucktown series.  

Scieszka has championed reluctant readers with an emphasis on boys on his website Guys Read. He is now editing a series of books that collect short stories by well known authors, including  M.T. Anderson, Walter Dean Myers, Anthony Horowitz, Steve Sheinkin and Candace Fleming, to name a few.

These collections follow a theme, beginning with "Funny Business" and as the title implies it is loaded with stories that will keep you laughing.  "Thriller" is the second volume and includes tales of mystery and suspense. Volume 5, "True Stories" brings non-fiction to life with biographies, essays, travel stories and more by some of the best authors for youth. 

Pick one up and check out the website for links to Jon Scieszka's bio, his blog, and reviews of more great books.