Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, October 11, 2011
From My Shelf
National Reading Group Month
October is National Reading Group Month, an occasion marked across the country by librarians, booksellers and others who regularly help tens of thousands of reading groups members find the best books to read and discuss--accompanied, in many cases, by good wine and gossip!
The Women's National Book Association, official sponsor of National Reading Group Month, has compiled the 2011 Great Group Reads, a list of 20 books--17 novels and three memoirs--that the selection committee found will "open up lively conversations about a host of timely and provocative topics." Most of the titles are lesser-known gems from smaller presses and mid-list books from larger houses. WNBA is also holding events around the country. For more information, go to NationalReadingGroupMonth.org.
Several companies help book groups get up and running, select appropriate titles, exchange ideas and more:
Bookmovement.com provides lists of best discussion books based on ratings and comments from 32,000 book clubs as well as book guides, tools for simplifying club communications, etc.
Reading Group Choices just released the 18th annual edition of its Reading Group Choices, which recommends 70 titles, with bibliographic data, book themes, information about the author and discussion starters.
Reading Group Guides offers more than 3,350 guides, has a newsletter, blog--and even a list of books about reading groups.
The American Library Association's Book Group Buzz, a Booklist blog, has tips, reading guides, news and some 130,000 book reviews.
Booksellers are also a rich resource for reading groups. Many bookstores run their own reading groups with a variety of themes or host reading groups. They also advise book groups. Some stores even have special events for book groups, setting aside an evening for book group members to mingle and learn about interesting books for discussion.
Do try any of these places either to help your reading group find more title or for information about joining a book group, one of the best places to meet others who love books and want to share and discuss what they're reading.
Happy reading! --John Mutter
'Awesome Stacks of Books'
Look around your workplace. Where are the books stacked, shelved and scattered? Buzzfeed featured some "awesome stacks of books found in offices" and observed that the "workplace is a great place for collections of literature that employees will most likely never read. Here are the books lying around the offices of media companies, from the resourceful to the ridiculous."
Bookcase of the Day: Grain Silo Chic
A photo in the New York Times showcased Radim Kralik, who lives with his wife, Barbora, and their two children "in a modern concrete house they built on top of a 1943 grain silo. The floor-to-ceiling bookshelf is filled with books inherited from his grandfather."
Further Reading: Musical Memoirs
If you've ever heard the author of My Son: A Memoir sing, you'll know why Harry Belafonte, Jr. is beloved by fans all over the world. His silken voice may be best remembered for "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)," but "Scarlet Ribbons," "The Drummer and the Cook" and "Man Smart (Woman Smarter)" were among the numbers that led to his crowning as the "King of Calypso."
The irony, of course, was that although Belafonte's ethnic heritage was Caribbean (his mother was of Jamaican descent, his father was from Martinique), he was born and raised in New York City. His knowledge and experience of the American South's segregation policies led him to choose not to perform there from 1954 to 1961. He not only participated as an activist in the civil rights movement, inspired by poet Paul Robeson, but he helped the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., with funds to support his family.
Today Belafonte is known for humanitarian activism (he has worked with UNICEF, and helped to organize 1985's "We Are the World" production) and, of course, great singing. In honor of his memoir, we've gathered three other singers' memoirs that illustrate how a particular era and particular musical style can come together in magical ways.
Sing It Pretty is by Bess Lomax Hawes, daughter of American folk music giant John Lomax, a musicologist known for archiving songs from many regions of the U.S. Lomax Hawes followed in her father's footsteps and was instrumental in establishing federally funded programs to preserve American music. A fun sidenote: she co-wrote the Kingston Trio's "MTA Song."
Edith Piaf's memoir, The Wheel of Fortune, isn't wholly revealing, which is just as this piaf, or "sparrow" in argot (her birth surname was Gassion) would have wanted it. Her life was filled with ups and downs, glories and mistakes, and she took charge of her mysterious persona, to the detriment of readers. Still, for lovers of Piaf's emotionally charged style, this testament to hanging in will be illuminating.
The 1960s British rock-and-roll scene in which Life by Keith Richards begins couldn't be more different from Harry Belafonte's 1950s segregated U.S.--but one of the best parts of the Rolling Stones' lead guitarist's memoir is his detailing of his musical influences, many of whom also could have been Belafonte's: Big Bill Broonzy, Billie Holliday, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, among others. --Bethanne Patrick
10 Rejected Bestsellers; Nine Differently Filmed Books
Flavorwire offered "10 bestselling books that were originally rejected," noting that "the success of these books shows that even people paid to evaluate the commercial potential of a work of art sometimes underestimate the most valuable titles."
While movies are seldom duplicates of the books they are adapted from, in some cases the "two works are so different that they're practically impossible to compare," Flavorwire noted in featuring nine "movies totally different from the books they were based on."
Book Festival: New York Comic Con Coming
New York Comic Con, the East Coast's largest comic, graphic novel and manga festival, opens this Thursday at the Javits Center in New York City. Day one is restricted to industry professionals, press and VIP ticket holders. Fans can purchase tickets at the door on Friday or Sunday (Saturday-only tickets are already sold out) for $45. The show features expert panels, autograph sessions, previews for upcoming releases and social events. Guests include Frank Miller, Stan Lee, David Cross, H. Jon Benjamin, Kevin Smith, Mark Hamill, Patton Oswalt, Seth Green, and many more. Full guest list and show schedule available at newyorkcomiccon.com.
The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes
Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending is a sneaky little hand grenade of a novel. Just when you've pegged it as one man's blokeish but harmless retrospective of his muddled youthful friendships and middling amours, and admired his frank confession of wounds long salved by a blameless maturity, and nodded your assent to yet another quaint warning about the malleability of time and memory, the pin falls out. The ensuing detonation reilluminates the novel's entire battlefield of characters and relationships with much deeper emotional consequences and delivers a flaying lesson in the pitfalls of overburnishing the stories we tell ourselves about the past.
For most readers, it will be difficult to resist reading the tale anew to find out if you were misled or merely seduced. The beginning is worth revisiting in any case, to admire the way Barnes presages the novel's entire narrative in a bullet list of six lyrical images. Knowing this in advance will not spoil the ending--the clues and the denouement are too subtle to be defused by even a close first reading. Parsing the revelations of the last 13 pages would make good book club fodder.
The Sense of an Ending is Barnes's fourth novel to be shortlisted for the U.K.'s Man Booker Prize, a controversial decision given its brevity and the jettisoning of longer favorites. Some have speculated that the 2011 shortlisting is a late-career consolation and argued that Barnes's hefty historical novel Arthur & George, shortlisted in 2005, is a more significant work, but the two narratives are as unalike as chalk and cheese and can be consumed without reference to each other or to literary prize politics. --Holloway McCandless, blogger at Litagogo: A Guide to Free Literary Podcasts
Discover: A short and clever novel on the nature of nostalgia that will turn the reader back to the very beginning.
River of Smoke
by Amitav Ghosh
River of Smoke, the second installment of Indian writer Amitav Ghosh's Ibis trilogy, is a sprawling historical novel that plunges readers into the secretive world of mid-19th-century China at the outset of the Opium Wars. Bahram Modi, an enterprising businessman from Bombay (and the father of Ah Fatt, a character in the previous novel, Sea of Poppies), is hell-bent on delivering one more shipload of opium to Canton before the Chinese authorities outlaw the drug for good. But when, against his wife's wishes, he sets sail, he is motivated more by a thirst for freedom than fortune and by the chance to see his Chinese mistress once again.
Ghosh's Canton is evocative; just outside the walled city, a Babel rife with greed and corruption teems with sailors, merchants and thieves of all nations. His insight into British opium smugglers is particularly brilliant. Although we re-encounter several characters from Sea of Poppies, this tale is essentially Bahram's, and he has more than enough complexity and depth to carry the story on his own. In essence, River of Smoke has everything fans of this genre could ask for--enough historic meat to sink your teeth in with just the right amount of spice to thrill the imagination. --Thomas Lavoie, former publisher
Discover: A sprawling historical novel that plunges readers into the secretive world of mid-19th-century China at the outset of the Opium Wars.
The Cat's Table
by Michael Ondaatje
The epigraph for The Cat's Table is from Joseph Conrad's Youth, a tale told by Conrad's ubiquitous character, Marlowe, to his listeners: "And this is how I see the East.... It is all in that moment when I opened up my young eyes on it. I came upon it from a tussle with sea." So, too, does Ondaatje's 11-year-old narrator, Michael, in this lovely novel, come upon "it," at sea, on a liner sailing from Sri Lanka to England, where he will join his divorced mother. Like Conrad, Ondaatje arrived as an immigrant (when 11), first to England and later to Canada, mastering a new language along the way. This novel seems autobiographical, and yet, as with his "fictionalized memoir" Running in the Family, Ondaatje blurs the line between reality and invention.
And so the young boy begins a great adventure aboard the Oronsay. For meals, he's relegated to "the cat's table"; as a woman there tells him, "the least privileged place." But there he meets the quiet and thoughtful Ramadhin and the exuberant Cassius, a past schoolmate. Together, these three musketeers explore their new world and its inhabitants and make plans from the inner sanctum of the turbine room or under the lifeboat tarps where they feast on the food stored for emergencies.
Like Chaucer with Canterbury Tales, Ondaatje tells tales about people brought together on a trip (who they are, what secrets they keep), the children thus learning about adults and life "simply by being in their midst." Here are Max Mazappa, ship musician; Sir Hector de Silva, wealthy philanthropist seeking a cure; demure Miss Lasqueti and her "laugh that hinted it rolled around once or twice in mud"; the Australian girl who roller skates along the deck at dawn; the all-knowing Hyderabad Mind who performs evenings; the shackled, mysterious prisoner who is let out for late-night walks....
The Cat's Table is a paean to life, full of stories, wonderfully told. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher
Discover: A masterfully told literary voyage, into the memories of family, friends, strangers, all living together in a great writer's imagination.
by Marcus Dunstan , Patrick Melton , Stephen Romano
Buck Carlsbad's job takes years off his life--literally. A gifted medium, Buck acts as a ghost magnet, drawing evil spirits into himself to be neutralized but losing a bit of his own life each time. In the process, the "marks" draw him into a shadowy world of the dead that Buck terms the Blacklight, where he believes the answers to his parents' disappearance 30 years ago await him. Lately, the Blacklight voices have whispered that something big is coming. Then a rich executive asks Buck to go along as a spiritual bodyguard on the inaugural run of a bullet train that will change the face of American transportation, provided it survives passage through a deadly expanse of haunted desert that almost claimed Buck's life once before. Buck knows accepting the job could mean death, but he also knows returning to the desert is his best chance to find out what happened to his family.
Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, the authors of the Saw film franchise, and Masters of Horror writer Stephen Romano pack their collaborative effort with enough psychotic spirits, bloody demises and double crosses to delight horror fans, as charismatic Buck finds himself hurtling into the maw of disaster, trapped and unable to trust any of his fellow passengers. Wry, complex and suspenseful, Black Light will keep spines tingling from the first ghoulish encounter to the final exorcism. --Jaclyn Fulwood, graduate assistant, University of Oklahoma Libraries
Discover: Readers will have a ghastly good time tagging along on an exorcist's bullet-train journey through the nexus of evil.
Mystery & Thriller
Headstone: A Jack Taylor Novel
by Ken Bruen
The Galway Tourism Office will not be using the quote that local private investigator Jack Taylor offers: "It's Galway. If you let the weather dictate your life, you'd never go out." The good people in Tourism will probably also want to downplay what happens when Taylor (in very fine form for the ninth crime novel of this rollicking, sublimely nasty series, after The Devil) goes out of an evening.
A Church reform group, the Brethren, hires Taylor to locate a certain Father Loyola Dunne who has absconded with the Brethren's sizable funds. Nothing is as it seems, Taylor discovers, although he is not surprised. When it comes to priests and their methods, he has seen it all and forgotten none of it. As he interviews people with knowledge, he finds that all Galway harbors resentment against higher authorities (bankers, police and, of course, the Church) very similar to his own. Everyone is angry, and nobody is angrier than Taylor, who freely admits, "I'm bad-tempered naturally--my mother's legacy. Fear makes me dangerous." Some forces are so foolish as to try to scare him.
Rival private investigators, his employers in the Brethren and a lunatic cult dubbed Headstone act to push Taylor over the edge, and they suffer grave consequences. But readers will relish the nonstop mayhem unleashed through Galway streets as much as the dark-dark-dark humor of Ken Bruen who testifies, "Jack persisted with his philosophy of the law being for courtrooms and justice being for alleyways." --John McFarland, author
Discover: A nonstop rampage of intrigue, mayhem, lunacy and dark-dark-dark humor in private investigator Jack Taylor's non-touristy Galway.
Blood Daughters: A Romilia Chacón Novel
by Marcos M. Villatoro
Marcos Villatoro's first book in the Romilia series, Home Killings, was a Los Angeles Times Best Book of 2001. Blood Daughters, the fourth in a series, picks up where A Venom Beneath the Skin left off. FBI agent Romilia Chacón has been through a lot--the loss of her sister, the loss of her lover and the loss of a partner's trust--so she drinks and smokes and apologizes for none of it.
A young woman is brutally mutilated and murdered on the California-Mexico border, and Chacón wants nothing to do with it until an old friend asks for help. So begins a rapid, well-written thriller whose heroine makes it worthwhile. Without Chacón, a Salvadoran-American, this would be a stereotypical whodunnit. With her, it's a cultural study of Mexican cops versus American law. It's an investigation of the child sex trade through the eyes of an angry, honest woman who will stop at nothing to beat the crap out of a murderer. Sound brutal? It is brutal--just like Chacón, whose crime scene observations rival Sherlock Holmes.
Blood Daughters is entertaining and well-written, with a vivacious heroine at the helm and action that doesn't stop. Villatoro has created a truly original lawwoman in Romilia Chacón; let's hope she's around for many books to come. --Sara Dobie, blogger at Wordpress
Discover: A thrilling heroine who makes this brutal mystery less a commentary on the child sex trade and more a look into one woman's relentless pursuit of justice.
Everything I Know About Love I Learned from Romance Novels
by Sarah Wendell
FACT: Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is considered by many to be the epitome of the romance novel genre. So, are contemporary romance novels gross bastardizations of their forebear? Maybe. Are they so much fun to read that we just don't care? Abso-damn-lutely. But in Everything I Know About Love I Learned from Romance Novels, her follow-up to 2009's Beyond Heaving Bosoms: the Smart Bitch's Guide to Romance Novels, Sarah Wendell suggests that it's not just about fun: reading romances is good for you.
Wendell's argument revolves around the idea that reading romance novels offers women (and some men) a safe zone in which to explore their own sexuality. Even more important, reading about fictional women who discover their value instills readers with a sense of their own self-worth. She backs this point up with quotes from scores of readers, novelists and even some fictional characters explaining how their years of reading romance have made them smarter, stronger and braver. At the same time, she doesn't ignore the genre's flaws; as any lover of romance novels will tell you, they can be a bit over the top. Sometimes the plots are unrealistic, sometimes they're frankly ludicrous--and we get that. In fact, we revel in it. More than just propaganda, Wendell's book is an irreverent celebration of the romance genre and the women who write it and read it. --Judie Evans, librarian
A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown
by Julia Scheeres
After Jesus Land, her memoir of growing up with fundamentalist parents who sent her and her brother to a brutal Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic, Julia Scheeres started a novel about a charismatic Indiana preacher, basing the character on Rev. Jim Jones. But when she learned the FBI had released documents and audiotapes found in Jonestown, she began A Thousand Lives--a meticulously researched history of Jones's Peoples Temple and those who entrusted their lives to its maniacal leader.
More than three decades after Jones orchestrated the murder/suicide at his Guyana compound that claimed 978 lives, his fervent desire is realized: he is still remembered. But the power of this telling is in Scheeres's chronological description of how others came to believe; how Jones seduced not only church members but elected leaders; how threats and violence kept his followers subdued. "While the phrase 'drinking the Kool-Aid' has entered the cultural lexicon, its reference to gullibility and blind faith is a slap in the face of the Jonestown residents who were goaded into dying by the likes of Jim Jones," she writes. Besides the FBI files, she cites journal entries, letters and interviews with survivors and families to flesh out the lives of Jones's followers, "idealists [who] believed in a dream." We come to know and care for these victims, including Hyacinth Thrash, who was originally drawn to Jones in 1955 by his integrated choir; 23 years later, she followed him to Jonestown and was one of the few who survived.
Julia Scheeres's sensitive and detailed account of the Jonestown horror is compelling nonfiction and a significant contribution to understanding "Why?" --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, bookseller
Discover: Why Jim Jones's followers were drawn to the charismatic leader, and how their faith was turned into the suppression that led to their deaths in Jonestown, Guyana.
Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life
by James Martin
Why is God often viewed as a joyless judge? Why does the aim of religion sometimes seem like one of gloom and seriousness? Issues like these are what Jesuit priest James Martin (author of My Life with the Saints and culture editor of America magazine) addresses in the compelling and extremely entertaining Between Heaven and Mirth. Martin fully understands that some religious organizations seem more concerned with sin than with virtue--in Catholic culture, for instance, suffering is more often linked to spirituality than is joy. But he believes that God wants us to experience a joy-filled life, and thus his book becomes "an invitation, a challenge... to rethink the importance of humor and laughter in the life of believers" who seek to live out their spirituality in the modern world.
Martin refreshingly veers away from dogma and scholarly arguments to present an accessible historical examination of humor via the Bible (notably the Psalms and the Gospels), the lives of the saints and biographies of other notable spiritualists. He illustrates how the parables contain bursts of the absurd and "comedic hooks," and how numerous Biblical passages portray the playfulness of Christ and those who encountered Him. Between Heaven and Mirth is an enriching, inspiring read, leavened with humorous personal stories, jokes and anecdotes that give believers strategies to deepen their faith by cultivating a sense of delight and good humor in their own lives and church communities. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines
Discover: An uplifting, affirming examination of how joy is the foundation of the spiritual life.
Children's & Young Adult
Liesl & Po
by Lauren Oliver , illus. by Kei Acedera
Lauren Oliver (Before I Fall; Delirium) transports readers to a Dickensian world and introduces orphans Liesl and Will, a touch of magic, some delectable coincidences and friendship that stretches from the Living Side to the Other Side.
On the third night after her father's death, Liesl meets a ghost named Po (neither boy nor girl), who crosses from the Other Side with a pet called Bundle (neither cat nor dog). Po has come to ask Liesl a question: "Why did you stop drawing?" The girl tells Po that she didn't get to say goodbye to her father, and asks Po to carry a message to him on the Other Side. Po agrees to try, but in return, Liesl must make Po a drawing. Will, the alchemist's apprentice who stands unseen beneath Liesl's window most nights, has also noted Liesl's absence. But on this night, he is rewarded for his efforts. Seeing the girl back at the window, Will "vowed suddenly that he would never let anything bad happen to [her].... He had some vague idea that it would be terrible for himself."
This kind of tantalizing foreshadowing is just one way that Oliver skillfully emulates Dickens. She also uses coincidence masterfully: secondary characters with an overlapping past, near misses between villains and heroes, and the unwitting switch of two bread loaf–shaped wooden boxes that leads to Will and Liesl's eventual meeting. This book's healing message will offer comfort to children living with the absence of a loved one, and its swift plotting will sweep them up in the adventure. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: A Dickensian adventure featuring two orphans, a web of brilliant coincidences, and an alliance that transcends from the material to the spiritual world.
by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant, editors
This anthology of original stories by many of the best of today's fantasy and science fiction writers gives teens 14 stories that will spark a new way of looking at the steampunk subgenre.
In their introduction, Grant and Link claim that as they edited these submissions, they found that "makers and artists have taken the romance and adventure of steampunk and remixed, reinvented, and remade the genre from whole cloth--and, yes, brass widgets." They don't mention that all the stories are of consistent excellence, with surprises galore. Since it's difficult to point to a "best" story, here are a few favorites. Elizabeth Knox (Dreamhunter; Dreamquake) sets her "Gethsemene" on a volcanic island near the eponymous town, where engineers plan to harness the power of the quiescent Mount Magdalene in a process one character describes as "poking at beehives." Australian newcomer Kathleen Jennings's entry, "Finishing School," relates the stories of two women whose love for science leads them in very different directions. Told in graphic format, this tale does it all in 17 pages--humor, suspense and fully realized characters. M.T. Anderson (Feed) gives readers "The Oracle Engine," which the author claims is "translated from 'Mendacius's True History of the Roman Inventors' " and features a device inspired by a need to stick it to greedy Crassus.
Steampunk! will appeal to teen--and adults--for its originality of execution, variety of settings and the pure panache displayed by its 14 authors and artists. --Ellen Loughran, adjunct professor of the Pratt Institute
Discover: Fourteen original short narratives, each one as good as the last.
by Homer , trans. by Stephen Mitchell
From the moment Stephen Mitchell opens with the ancient invocation of "the rage of Achilles," the reader is captivated by his rendition of Homer's epic poem of Greek and Trojan heroes in victory and defeat. Mitchell's translation is the first one based on the Greek text prepared by the eminent scholar Martin Litchfield West. West's text, published in two volumes between 1998 and 2000, addresses many authenticity issues raised since the 1920 publication of the Oxford Classical Texts edition. Based on West's work to rectify the text and the textual scholarship of other experts, Mitchell has removed many questionable passages; no removal is more obvious than the fearless omission of Book 10 in its entirety.
Remarkably, the absence of these passages does not hinder the path of the narrative merely to preserve the text's ür-form. Instead, Mitchell's exclusions facilitate the story's flow while avoiding the redundancy of some previous translations. Mitchell also diverges significantly from earlier Iliads through his careful use of language. By abandoning traditional Homeric epithets such as "swift-footed Achilles" in favor of a more laconic, yet equally correct "Achilles," Mitchell returns the epic poem to a simpler form with clear, robust language that is not augmented for meter. All in all, this handsome hardcover edition breaks through centuries of accumulated cultural weight and restores the Iliad to its rightful legacy as a gripping epic that will keep the reader up long past the appearance of the rosy-fingered dawn. --Sarah Borders, librarian, Houston Public Library
Discover: A powerful new translation of Homer's Iliad that gracefully captures the true poetry of its enduring spirit.