Friday, February 27, 2015

Fresh Book Club suggestions for when it's your turn to pick (from a new book clubber)

I find myself tongue-tied and self-conscious when it comes to discussing books out loud; for some reason writing about them is fine but the prospect of hearing my voice talk about them is intimidating. I read a lot and I read quickly, so I tend to not get much deeper into any sort of literary analysis than "Like" or "Dislike" or "yes I read that and vaguely recall liking it but couldn't recall the plot if my life depended on it". This is perhaps why I have avoided book clubs -- until now. I now belong to a secret literary coterie of five women who love reading, and like to talk to people about the things they are reading, and to share recommendations, and so on, therefore it seemed logical to organize this somehow--for efficiency's sake?--into a monthly gathering of souls who have read the same book and vow to talk about the experience (with drinks, snacks). My hope for book club? To try to slow myself down and to savor what I read, and to really take in what others have to say about the books we read. And to have fun, of course.

Ali Smith's How to be Both

Critically-acclaimed, Booker-finalist, bicameral* How to be Both is Ali Smith's 6th novel and comes with a peculiar feature: two different versions of the book were published. Half of the books begin the story from the perspective of Francescho, a 15th century Italian painter, the other half from the POV of Georgia, a 21st century teenage girl in London. While the two versions are identical in words and page count, the only difference being that part I and part II are reversed, how their stories will intertwine is affected by the switch, giving the reader quite a different experience depending on the version they happen to end up with. (I had to compare it to those "Choose your own adventure" books so popular when I was a kid.) One couldn't do better for a discussion book really. The obvious question "which version did you get?" makes for a good ice breaker. I knew nothing about the book when I first read it based on fellow book clubber/blogger, Ellen's recommendation. I just picked it up and enjoyed the heck out of it, only to find out later that there was much more to discover, especially the real artist and artwork behind the story. It turns out that Ellen recommended it after reading the first half, which for her was George's story, but I got the version beginning with Francescho and fell in love. So there we were, both raving about two totally different books at the same time.

*having two branches or chambers!

Michel Faber's The Book of Strange New Things

People often come in to the library to ask for book club recommendations, hence this post. Picking a book club selection can be as anxiety inducing as talking about the book afterward. What if they all hate it, and me? Should it be something I have  read, or want to read? Can it be science fiction? There's really only one way to find out the answers to those questions. When I read The Book of Strange New Things I immediately wanted to talk to people about it. I felt like I missed something big in it, like I just couldn't put my finger on something the author wanted to say. I sped through it to get to find out the ending, but often the end isn't the point and you have to back up a little. So I took a chance and suggested it for book club.

This book is and isn't science fiction. It is in the sense that it's in space, there's some light space travel briefly mentioned, and there are space beings involved. ("Aliens" seems inappropriate since the humans in this case would be the aliens I suppose.) It is not really sci-fi in the sense that it doesn't involve the kind of world building and fantastic technology that the more zealous fans of the genre enjoy. Robert Heinlein he ain't. I would recommend it to people who read Kurt Vonnegut, China Miéville, and Margaret Atwood, but also say they "don't like science fiction".

The basics: Peter is a Christian missionary sent into space by a shadowy corporation to proselytize an alien civilization that is curiously receptive to his message. He lives in a human settlement with a complacent and tight-lipped group of engineers and workers and ventures off the compound by day to minister to the locals. Meanwhile, his wife is back home dealing with the catastrophic decline of human society on earth. Peter becomes dangerously absorbed in his work, physically and mentally, widening the already enormous distance between him and his wife. There is mystery surrounding the beings who have requested his presence, the purpose and presence of the USIC corporation, and what is happening back on earth.

Duplex by Kathryn Davis

This would be a good pick if you want to be difficult, or you want to make sure your group vetoes all your future picks. Just kidding!  It's terrific, but it is surreal and quite odd, with a non-linear narrative operating in multiple dimensions. Many questions, much to discuss, and one could almost guarantee somebody would hate it, somebody would love it, and everybody would have something to say about it it--whether they "got it" or not.  It's also short, which your book club will probably appreciate.

A fun challenge for your book group: everyone attempt to describe the plot from memory. Good luck!

Threats by Amelia Gray

I could say almost the exact same thing about Threats. It's also weird and non-linear, weaving in and out of reality so that the reader has to scan back a few sentences like "wait, what?" before moving on. This is a dark and creepy mystery with an abstract love story at its heart. David, a man who was recently a dentist and seems to be losing his grip on reality, may have just killed his wife, or somebody else did, maybe? But is she really even dead? And what are these strange, threatening messages he keeps finding hidden all over the house, behind the wallpaper and in bags of sugar--messages like "I will lock you in a room much like your own until it begins to fill with water"? Your group might really enjoy trying to parse out this bizarre story.

And look: Amelia Gray shouts passages from her book while riding on the back of a moped, because.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Cold enough for you? You've got plenty milk and bread, make sure you have enough books to read!

I was briefly without electricity this week so naturally I began contemplating the end of everything, up to and including me. Fortunately it was sunny enough to read so I made it through but I came up with a list of dire winter reads for those stuck indoors with a snow day who might like to compound a wintry situation.

In the Kingdom of Ice: the grand and terrible polar voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides

This was my hottest (hah!) no-fail nonfiction to recommend last year. So far everyone has raved about it. Forget "cabin fever"!  Try getting "Arctic fever" and join a team of late 19th-century Arctic explorers marooned a thousand miles north of Siberia without taking off your slipper socks.  If "grand and terrible polar voyage" doesn't grab you, well, then you might not be that into it.
The Indifferent Stars Above: the harrowing saga of a Donner Party bride by Daniel James Brown

Did you raid your neighborhood market last weekend in preparation for the snow? Hoarding bread, milk and eggs? Lock your doors and look out for hungry neighbors--you're probably tender and delicious by now! Sorry, cabin fever breeds corny cannibalism jokes. Most people are familiar with the near mythical saga of the Donner Party and their ill-fated journey over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. But how much do you really know?
Pilgrim's Wilderness: a true story of faith and madness on the Alaska frontier by Tom Kizzia

This is one of those crazy stories that stick with you. A charming, musical family with 15 children, modern homesteaders in a way, settle in tiny McCarthy, Alaska. Papa Pilgrim, as the the family's patriarch is known, begins a battle with the National Park Service, revealing his dark past and the troubled and terrifying home life of his family.
Into Thin Air: a personal account of the Mt. Everest disaster by Jon Krakauer

Adventure journalist Jon Krakauer's personal account of the ill-fated Everest climb that left eight people dead. This is one of my go-to nonfiction recommendations when asked for "something really good?", right next to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Alive: the story of the Andes survivors by Piers Paul Read

A straightforward, unsentimental account of what happened when an amateur rugby team and family and friends crash landed in the Andes mountains. Some were killed in the crash, others survived in the harsh cold and snow for 70 days, resorting to cannibalism to stay alive.

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

Ever ponder what your street would look like if everybody stopped shoveling their walks or raking the leaves, every pothole was left to reach its full potential, the weeds went unplucked, houses unpainted, roofs untended, and so on? This thoughtful puzzler explores the inexorable breaking down of the man-made world if man were to suddenly cease.

I wonder what Richmond will look like once we thaw out.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Found in Translation: new, recent, and upcoming foreign fiction to fall in love with

Recently we read this Daily Beast piece that asks "why don't Americans read more foreign fiction?" Good question! Perhaps you're now wondering the same thing. Maybe you're asking yourself "But how can I discover more literature from abroad?" If you're reading this blog you're already on the right track. You could also ask a librarian (a person? in person? Yes!). Don't run off just yet though. I've combed though my Read, Reading, and To-Read lists for a teeny tiny ten title* sampling of some of the best under-the-radar new, upcoming, and recent finds in fiction to land on US shelves. This list is by no means inclusive, and I left off more well known authors like Karl Ove Knausgaard, Aravind Adiga, Haruki Murakami, and Elena Ferranti (to name just a few recent best-sellers and award-winners) in the interest of keeping this list under control, but if you have something outstanding to suggest, please, please, contribute in the comments section!

*or eleven?
Those I've Read:

The Seventh Day by Yu Hua
English translation published 2015, originally published in Chinese 2013

I just finished this sweet novel in one big swallow and all I can say is "sigh". I smiled and/or teared up at every page turn of this tender, otherworldly tale of Yang Fei's life and afterlife in rapidly changing contemporary China. Dentist turned award-winning novelist Yu Hua is the author of a number of books, most if not all of which you can now find in English in the US.

Mr. Gwyn by Alessandro Baricco
English translation published 2014, originally published in Italian 2011

Beautiful, charming, and peculiar, this mystery about an author who makes a career change and then disappears, and his assistant who discovers the truth, was one of my absolute favorite reads in 2014. 
F: a novel by Daniel Kehlmann
English translation published 2014, originally published in German 2013

Another of my most favorite reads of 2014, F is a compelling and complicated drama about a family in crisis*.

*Right next to "multi-generational family sagas", tense, European style "family-in-crisis" dramas are often at the top of my favorites.  
Second Person Singular by Sayed Kashua
English translation published in 2012, originally published in Hebrew 2010

A suspenseful and engrossing mystery, this story of love and betrayal in a divided society has lots of twists and turns.

Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole
Originally published abroad in English in 2007, released in the US 2014

Readers of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie will also enjoy this story set in Lagos, Nigeria. Apropos to this post, the narrator longs for a woman who he sees reading a novel by Michael Ondaatje on a city bus. 

Pro-tip to our readers: Broad literary tastes make one more attractive. Just sayin'.
Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman
Originally published in Spanish in 2008, English translation published in the US in 2014

Deeply moving and unsentimental, this is a story of loss, love, and family told from three perspectives, and three ways of talking to oneself.

Still To Read:

The Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan
Indonesian, 2004, expected publication in US March 2015

A tale of two families with elements of magical realism that should appeal to fans of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

You also should read this brief piece by 2013 PEN/Heim foundation grant winning translator Annie Tucker on translating Eka Kurniawan. 

My Documents by Alejandro Zambra 
Spanish edition published in 2013, to be published 2015 in English in the US

Another offering from McSweeney's (see also Mr. Gwyn above), this collection of short stories from the Chilean author of Ways of Going Home should be a real treat.

Dendera by Yuya Sato
Japanese edition 2014, English translation to be published 2015

A utopian society of abandoned elderly women face a hungry bear. 


Jami Attenberg (The Middlesteins) said "'s as if Elena Ferrante and Stephen King collided on a Japanese mountaintop." 


Lagoon by Nnendi Okorafor
Published in Great Britain in 2014, expect to see it on US shelves in July of 2015 

This book sounds so cool: it's got aliens, it's set in Lagos, it's magical realism and hip-hop. Keep an eye out for a review in my Summer of Sci-Fi, 2015 post later this year. 

Bonita Avenue by Peter Buwalda

Just hit US shelves in January 2015, originally published in the Netherlands in 2010

This Dutch novel also features a family in crisis, and could be one for fans of Hermann Koch (The DinnerSummer House with Swimming Pool).

Monday, February 09, 2015

Celebrate African-American History with Children's Books

February is the month to spotlight the achievements of African-Americans throughout our country and within our community. Books are an excellent place to begin. Here are a few favorites, old and new, including fiction and non-fiction, to get you started. Stop by your local Richmond Public Library and check one out!

A Chair for My Mother by Vera Williams

After a fire destroys their home and possessions, Rosa, her mother, and her grandmother save their money to buy a big comfortable chair. Suffused with warmth and tenderness, A Chair for My Mother celebrates family love and determination. A Caldecott Honor book. 

Donald Crews is an African-American illustrator and writer of
children's picture books including two Caldecott Honor Books. He is the winner of the 2015 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award honoring an author or illustrator, published in the United States, whose books have made a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children.  His titles include Freight Train, Ten Black Dots, Bigmama's, and many other children's favorites. For more information on this talented author/illustrator go to         
Donald Crews, author/illustrator

The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson

Clover's mom says it isn't safe to cross the fence that segregates their African-American side of town from the white side where Anna lives.  The two girls forge their own friendship and get around the grownup's rules by sitting on top of the fence together.  This picture book could be a great conversation starter with children.

Another title by Woodson is the semi-autobiographical picture book Show Way.  "Show Ways", or quilts, once served as secret maps for freedom-seeking slaves.  This is the story of seven generations of girls and women who were quilters, artists, and freedom fighters.

Woodson has also written widely for older elementary and secondary school age readers, including series titles and other fiction. She recently received a National Book Award for brown girl dreaming.  This autobiographical fiction title for middle grade readers tells of her childhood and growing up in South Carolina and New York. 

A complete list of titles and more information about the author may be found at her website. 

For older readers, check out a new book by Kekla Magoon titled How it Went Down.  This novel, published prior to the events in Ferguson, MO, eerily reflects present day tensions and misconceptions.  When sixteen-Year-Old Tariq Johnson dies from two gunshot wounds, his community is thrown into an uproar.  Tariq was black.  The shooter, Jack Franklin, is white. The story unfolds in many voices and in the aftermath of Tariq's death, everyone has something to say, and no two accounts of the events are the same.  
For a different perspective, try The Rock and the River, published in 2009.  Fourteen-year-old Sam Childs must choose between the passive resistance of his father and the activism of his older brother whom he idolizes.  Set in 1968 Chicago, Magoon includes a compassionate and realistic perspective of the early Black Panther movement and one of their original goals of serving people in underserved communities through after-school care, food programs and free clinics.

Non-fiction titles reflecting civil rights and the African-American experience are found in all of the Richmond Public Library collections.  Some of the highlights include:

March:  Book 1 and recently published 
March:  Book 2 by Congressman John Lewis, a key figure in the civil rights movement.  These books are two thirds of a graphic novel trilogy sharing the story of Lewis and his youth in rural Alabama, his meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his participation in non-violent resistance that led to profound change.  The graphic format illustrates this story effectively for 21st century readers. Both are an excellent accompaniment to the current film Selma, which portrays Lewis' initial meeting with Dr. King.

Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges is a first-hand account of the author's experience as a
six-year-old child entering an all white elementary school in 1960s New Orleans.  Photos, news clips, and other first-hand accounts fill out the details of this brave story.

Andrea Davis Pinkney grew up in a household that was active in the Civil Rights movement and this is evident in the many books she has written and published.  Her husband is the talented artist Brian Pinkney, a prolific illustrator of children's books.  A sample of some of Ms. Pinkney's most recent titles include:

Hand in Hand:  Ten Black Men Who Changed America.  This collection of short biographies includes details about ten different individuals who played important roles in American history, from slavery to the current century.

With the Might of Angels:  The Diary of Dawnie Rae Johnson is set in Hadley, VA in 1955. This fictional diary tells the story of a young, African-American girl who excels at baseball and her studies.  She becomes the first African-American to attend an all white school and her diary outlines the triumphs and challenges.  Historical data about the time period is included in this title from the "Dear America" series.

A 2010 collaboration with her husband, Brian Pinkney, celebrates the 50th anniversary of Woolworth's lunch counter sit-in.  Sit-in:  How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down is an picture book about four college students who staged a nonviolent protest at a lunch counter for "whites only" and ignited a spark that grew.

These titles only skim the surface of her contributions to children's literature.  Stop by the library and check out other titles by this wonderful author.  For a simple profile published in the Horn Book, go to A Profile of Andrea Davis Pinkney.

Whether through historical fiction or a non-fiction title that shares exacting details, the range of titles for children and teens covering the African-American experience continues to grow. Stop by your local library and check one out!

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Art of Berkeley Williams Jr.

From 1920 to 1975 the Richmond Public Library clipped and indexed every newspaper article it could find on local art exhibitions. The library may have stopped cutting and pasting, but the clippings, in 36 binders, are still available for perusal at the main library’s reference desk. The articles provide an immediate sense of the RVA art scene of the early 20th century and can uncover fascinating, unheard of artists, sending you on a chase through the library’s collections.

After a quick thumb through one of the binders I stopped on this striking image:

The illustration--a sinister-looking dandy stalking the streets with cape and cane--is by Berkeley Williams, Jr., and it accompanied a review of Williams work shown on East Franklin Street in 1927. The write-up is glowing, almost equaling its subject in style: “whether one be artist or bootblack, poet or porter, one cannot look upon the pictures without getting the hunch that there is glamor in this living business.”

Williams, it turns out, makes a few appearances among the library’s early clippings. In 1930 Williams showed thirty of his paintings in Richmond, still-lives and landscapes painted in Southern France. A review of that show explained that Williams, a Richmond-native, studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts before spending 18 months in France. He then returned home with his work, giving Richmond one of its first tastes of modern painting. Another article just under two years later declared: “Mr. Williams has reached the point where he is convincing in everything he does.”

Portrait of Hunter Stagg (1931)
Still curious, I switched over to the library’s old file of local obituaries. With the help of a reference librarian I discovered that Williams died in 1977 at 72 years old. He attended St. Christopher’s School in Richmond and the University of Virginia. He married Alta Murdoch “Jerry” Williams, the garden columnist for the Times-Dispatch. And his creative output did not stop with the early 1930s paintings. Williams went on to work as an illustrator for children’s books, collaborating on two collections of Appalachian folk tales, both held by the library, The Jack Tales and Grandfather Tales.

So far I had learned about Williams’ drawings, paintings, and children’s book illustrations, hopping from one collection to another. But I wanted to see the artist himself, and a quick internet search retrieved not only a photo of Williams but brought me right back to First and Franklin. A 1936 Times-Dispatch article preserved online explained that Williams once kept a studio in what was then called Richmond’s Greenwich Village, four brick houses rented out to artists and standing opposite the main library.

For Richmond history, sparkling criticism, and arresting images, stop by the reference desk to see the library’s collection of exhibition clippings. And if you happen to have more information about Berkeley Williams, Jr. please drop us a line or a comment below. We’d love to keep filling in this portrait of a Richmond artist.