Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Reading Challenge Reviews: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer

Although I typically read a wide range of books, last December I decided that I really wanted to go above and beyond in 2017. I decided to participate in a few official book challenges (and set a few of my own personal mini-challenges), but my favorite so far has been the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge. I've completed several of the categories so far, and a lot of the books I've read have been ones that I might not have decided to pick up otherwise.

One such book that I read and loved is Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer. It fits two of the challenge's categories: a collection of short stories written by a woman and a book in which every point-of-view character is a person of color.

In the years since I graduated from college, I unfortunately began to identify as a reader who just doesn't like short stories. So I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. One of my objections to short stories was that it's difficult to become fully invested in the characters in the short span of time you're granted. Packer's characters feel full and real, though, largely due to her excellent dialogue. It's hard to define what makes dialogue work, but you know it does when you can almost forget that you're reading a book and "hear" the characters' conversations.

All of the stories in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere examine the experiences of black people in America, focusing on issues of gender, class, race, and religion. All of them are engaging, but I did have a few favorites:

  • "Brownies," which follows an all-black Girl Scout troop as they go to camp and clash with an all-white troop.
  • "Our Lady of Peace," in which a young teacher finds an unexpected ally in the form of a troubled student.
  • "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere," in which a college student struggles with making connections and with accepting her relationship with a classmate.
  • and "Doris Is Coming," in which a teenage girl finds the courage to begin taking part, in however small a way, in the struggle for civil rights.
One of my favorite things about each story is that it ends in an open-ended way, but not a cliffhanger. I finished each story feeling satisfied with how much information Packer gave me, and with the major threads of the plot more or less resolved, but with questions still lingering. I wondered what happened to the characters after: after conflict, after they went home, after they woke up the next morning and had to go on living their lives.

Which, I think, is the mark of great fiction: When you let yourself forget that it's not real long enough to wonder what the characters are up to now.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Patronize Me: Featuring The Pigman

This month I had the pleasure to chat with Mandy Ray-Jones. She has been a regular patron here for a little over 10 years. In the two years I have worked here I realized I had not actually talked to her. But I always enjoyed when she came in because she has a positive presence that is contagious. So, I decided due to this blog post it was time to say, "Hello." She was excited to share a book with me, which made my bookish heart happy. Through emails, Facebook messages, and conversations here, I have gotten to know her. Mandy is one of the most outgoing and passionate people I have met. She loves her family and community fiercely, which I find inspiring, and it shows in her actions. The local theater is a big part of her work here in the Boro as well as a group she started called SOAR, Seeds of Acceptance Rutherford. It is an initiative to support the LGBT community. This is the first patron I decided to ask, "Why do you like the library?" and her response was so sincere it demanded to be shared. 

"Linebaugh Public Library has been a huge part of my life for at least ten years. When I asked my dear friend Joan Hemphill if she remembered when I started coming into the library, she seemed to think it was about 10-11 years ago so we will go with that! Over the years, my relationship with the library has evolved. In the beginning, it was a place I could take my children where they could participate in story time and safely play indoors for a little while. Eventually, the librarians became friends and seeing them became a highlight of my week. When my oldest child was diagnosed with leukemia, the librarians showed up for us in a major way. From visiting Hunter at home between hospital stays to literally wiping down books with Lysol wipes so that we could still check out items, they quickly became part of our support system. None of my kids are young enough for story time any longer but that doesn't mean we don't still utilize the library's resources. We participate in programs, reserve the board room for meetings, sign up for summer and winter reading, and enjoy laughing with the librarians upon every visit. Now, that same child who had leukemia is old enough to volunteer during the summer reading program and he's looking forward to his second year. Our library is more than just an invaluable resource for our homeschool but it's also this beautiful oasis filled with wonderful people about whom I've grown to care so much. We are truly grateful for our library family.”

For many of my coworkers and myself, the above is why we love our job. For just a moment, we provided support for a friend not just a book. I believe this is why so many patrons enjoy coming here and why we enjoy working here; to share a conversation, a book, a movie, and to make connections. 

Mandy’s choice for me was Paul Zindel’s The PigmanThe story is told from two points of view. John and Lorraine alternate narrating chapters as they tell the story of how they meet and befriend a man named Angelo Pigmati. Through this retelling, we learn about John and Lorraine’s home life. Mr. Pigmati’s home becomes a place of refuge. A place of acceptance, which is not often encountered in their own homes. The intent is to honor Mr. Pigmati’s life with this story. The Pigman is still used in most middle school curricula today and has won several literary awards.

She gave me the recommendation without hesitation. Whenever she sees a copy, she purchases it to gift someone. I immediately took this book suggestion seriously after she told me that. Obviously, this book was her heart and soul (we all have that one book). I later discovered that this was a book she read in middle school. I asked her why she liked Zindel's book. Here are some of the wonderful things she had to say:

 "The Pigman, in particular, was especially beautiful because it allowed the narrators to be supremely flawed and complicated while also letting the reader feel great empathy for them. I always appreciate baddish characters who are also pitiable. John and Lorraine are just that... baddish yet pitiable.
 It's a beautiful love story but not of the traditional kind. It's a story of tragedy and of loss. A coming of age story yet no one really changes very much at the end... and you are okay with that. I never wanted to be the characters in the book. I only wanted to love like the characters in the book. To love someone else and to be loved like they are. They have such beautiful and pure hearts."

I remembered reading this (or skimming this) in junior high. I was not as serious a literary soul then as I am now. Back then I wanted anything with paranormal entities, vampires and zombies...Anything that would scare me and this book wasn’t that. However, my taste has evolved drastically since that time. I was glad to take this journey down a path that was part memory lane and part brand new. It is short and sweet but makes good points about relationships, loss and love. I agree with Mandy...It's a coming of age story where the characters don’t really change and that is okay. It defines that brief moment we all experience in our life. The moment when you experience something serious/tragic in your life; after just arriving in your teenage years. You realize the world is not as easy or simple as you thought. So you begin to stop and process your world while also trying to figure out who you are. Mandy shared this and so much more with me. I am grateful for her willingness to do so. Thank you, Mandy!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

4 Fantasy Worlds I Want to Visit (But Only Temporarily)

One of my favorite things about reading fantasy is the opportunity to get lost in rich, immersive worlds that are very different from my own. Since childhood I've been very taken with the idea of places like Narnia or Hogwarts, and the idea that lying behind any regular-looking wardrobe door or space between train platforms there could lie a portal into unknown magic and adventure.

But there are some worlds that, although I love to visit them in fiction, I might be wise to think twice before wanting to move there permanently. Here are a few that fit that category.

Night Vale (as seen in Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor)
Welcome to Night Vale started as a podcast about a friendly desert town where time doesn't work and very strange things happen, then morphed to include live stage shows, a novel, and two collections of scripts and illustrations. It's my second-favorite fictional world (after the Wizarding World in the Harry Potter series), and it's one that I've often said I would happily move to. But at the same time, there are some seriously messed-up things that happen there. Secret police are just a part of everyday life, as are hooded figures, doppelgangers, a sinister Smiling God, a desert otherworld, and, recently, a beagle puppy who might or might not be the literal devil. All that aside, Night Vale does tend to be inclusive and respectful of people's identities, and it definitely has the best local radio station ever. So, maybe it would be worth it?

London Below (as seen in Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman)
I first read Neverwhere, which continues to be my favorite of Gaiman's novels, when I was in high school. It hit every last one of my looking-for-alternate-worlds buttons in the best way, following a normal guy who gets sucked into the dangerous political intrigues occurring unbeknownst to him in the sewers and subway tunnels beneath his feet. There's a huge diversity of people down there, and a market where you can buy anything... But yeah, about those dangerous political intrigues. It seems like everything in London Below is out to kill you, and while I love the idea of stepping out of the mundane world, I have no illusions. I am soft and would not last long there at all.

Red London and White London (as seen in the Shades of Magic series by V. E. Schwab)
V. E. Schwab's Shades of Magic series--which begins with A Darker Shade of Magic and ends with A Conjuring of Light, which just came out this year--takes Neverwhere's alternate London idea and spins it out into not two, but four different Londons: Grey, Red, White, and Black. (Jessica wrote a great review of the series if you want the full run-down.) The series is full of breath-taking magic and swashbuckling adventure, but it definitely falls short of utopian. White London is, quite frankly, terrifying, between the magic-hungry citizens slaughtering anyone with a hint of magic in their blood and the constant chaos of monarchs rising to power only to be murdered by rivals. But I'm not fooled by Red London, either. It might be filled with gold and magic and the scent of flowers, but what about the people who are born without any magic at all? There's a lot of unrest between the haves and the have-nots. And don't even get me started on what happens in the final book...

Pretty much any alternate dimension from Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
Every Heart a Doorway takes a look at what happens when kids find their way into wonderful fantasy worlds and have to come back. Hint: They don't cope with it very well. In fact, all the characters in the book cope so poorly that they have found their way to a special school designed to help them out. Some of the worlds are fraught with chaos and bloodshed, but even if you go to a world completely suited to your sensibilities, there is the apparent risk of being kicked back out of it and into the mundane world, which is a trauma that I would not want to deal with. Though I would be lying if I said that reading this book didn't rekindle my desire to keep an eye out for magic lurking behind the everyday facade.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

American Gods Comes To Television

Neil Gaiman is one of the most influential writers among librarians and bibliophiles. Due to his love and support of libraries (beginning at an early age), he has become a voice for childhood literacy across the world. His stories are considered ethereal, poetic, mythological, and literary. He has won many awards for his writing in children and adult fiction. And one of them is coming to television, American Gods. The book was originally published in 2001 followed by a 10th Anniversary edition that hit shelves in 2011. During it's time it has won 9 literary awards and is considered a modern classic among bookworms. Fans of the book have been anticipating a television adaptation of the book for the past 5-6 years as rumors were always circulating. Last year it became official! The show will air on STARZ on April 30, 2017. View the trailer here. And if you would like to know more about the book, click here.

Hewitt: Mythology for me has always been kind of a window into various cultures, providing metaphors for how those cultures see their physical and spiritual world. What if people from those cultures left their place of origin? How would their assorted mythologies and by extension, their gods, be affected? This is the central question to American Gods and is the main reason it was of interest to me. I listened to it as an audiobook, which contained an interview of its author, Neil Gaiman. He talks about how at the time of writing, he had been living in the US for a while but still felt sort of like an outsider and he liked it that way. As you listen/read through the novel you can tell this is how he wants you to view the gods of the various cultures referenced within. As a "road novel," Gaiman also wants you to understand how America feels to someone from a much smaller but older country. This is best evidenced by a quote of his (I do believe he is paraphrasing someone else) in the interview, "in England, 100 miles is a long way, in America, 100 years is a long time." The mixture of distance and time has its place in the book as well, and it is used well to add more depth to assorted gods. 

On to the coming Starz network show. I am excited, for several reasons. First of which being that Bryan Fuller is running the show. My first contact with him came from several episodes he wrote for the series Heroes (RIP Season 1). He also ran Hannibal, and while the show was unfortunately canceled it had a solid story. And the visuals from a cinematography standpoint could only be described as sumptuous. To add to that, the casting is absolutely pitch-perfect. As far as my most eagerly awaited new shows of 2017 are concerned, this one is right up there with Marvel's The Defenders.

Brittney: I've read American Gods once, twelve years ago, when I had just recently discovered Neil Gaiman and was in the process of getting my greedy, sixteen-year-old hands on every word he had ever, up to that point, written. I remember that it was the first book that I kept overdue from the library, and I remember a sunny March afternoon I spent reading it, stretched out on a quilt in the front yard of my childhood home. I remember feeling pleased with myself when I could correctly identify the deities as they cropped up in the plot, and I remember the feeling of satisfied recognition when I read the description of Rock City's black-lit, subterranean hellscape. However, that was twelve years ago. Many books have come into and left my life in the meantime, and many, many details have been lost to me. So the imminent release of the miniseries is both a source of excitement and a not-so-gentle prod to reread the book and fast. I'm planning to do so soon, and I'm excited to see both how American Gods the show compares to the source material, and how American Gods the book compares to my first discovery of it.

Jessica: I originally read America Gods about 7 years ago. At that point in time, I was trying to find my place in this world. I was asking questions without fear but hesitant of the judgments surrounding them. Comfort and safety were what I was longing for and I found them in this book. Neil Gaiman was about to change my life. From that point on, he would be one of the most treasured names on my bookshelf. He had written a book that would hold my favorite quote of all time, make me ask questions about life, culture, my beliefs, and help me find peace.

Now, fast forward to present day. At the beginning of 2017, I listened to an audio version of the book (I highly recommend the 10th anniversary edition). This time the mythology was not just intriguing but I understood its importance to the story as well and my own beliefs. It made me examine myself with a painful scrutiny that shook me to the core. And I love the book for that reason. American Gods has left a mark on my soul twice now. So, while I am hesitant (most of the time) about this screen adaptation, I can't help but feel pure excitement for this show. For me it wasn't just a story but a revelation. I have no doubt that this story will, once again, leave me transformed.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Patronize Me: Featuring My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry

 My next patron is Maya Montgomery. She has been coming to the library a little under a year and has developed quite the addiction to our free services of books (Hooray). Even though she may not be able to get into the library for a book she is grateful she can still get them via Overdrive. Young adult is the genre she mostly gravitates towards (not unlike yours truly) but also enjoys mysteries and occasional chick lit. Due to our similar tastes in books, I struck up a conversation and found a kindred spirit. I got recommendations, fabulous discussions, and the desire to read the Illuminae series (it is a YA story written in a unique way and I will be adding it to our YA blog soon). Needless to say we have a lot in common when it comes to books which made me think she would be perfect for this blog post. Maya is currently reading Alice by Christina Henry. She is awaiting the much anticipated sequel to Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire.

Maya's pick for me was, My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell you She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman. (You may recognize the author's name from his other bestseller,  A Man Called Ove, which has been made into a movie.) This is the story of a 7-year-old girl named Elsa who is a precocious outsider. Lonely, bullied, and without friends, she takes refuge in three things she loves most; comic books, Granny, and Harry Potter. Granny is not only Elsa's best friend but also her superhero. She has a wide variety of superpowers but is best at giving Elsa The-Land-Of-Almost-Awake, a place where one can go on adventures. A place that gives one comfort and peace when real life becomes difficult. Because, for Elsa, life is a bit rough right now. When you are almost 8 and understand the world better than most who are 30, it isn't easy trusting adults. So, the escape Granny's stories provide is welcome. She leaves a trail of letters behind for Elsa to deliver. Each one has an intended recipient and an apology. With each letter she delivers another layer of her Granny is revealed and her stories begin to take on different shapes with unexpected meanings.

I loved this book! It was a story of compassion in the most unexpected places, a fresh look at life from every walk of it, an ode to grandparents, and a sensitive take on grief. It was an emotional journey but more of the healing kind. I think the thing I was most taken by was the view of all of life's complexities and tragedies through the eyes of an almost 8 year old. The essence of being a child is captured but the writing doesn't feel like a children's book either. His characters are flawed like many of us who have scars that aren't always visible. He says so much with (what feels like) little effort. It is natural and gives one pause.

“if you hate the one who hates, you could risk becoming like the one you hate.”  

“Having a grandmother is like having an army. This is a grandchild’s ultimate privilege: knowing that someone is on your side, always, whatever the details.”

More than anything though...This book made me miss and appreciate my grandmother. She passed away long ago but her memory floated in and wrapped around like a blanket. Because that is what grandparents do. They comfort you, protect you, love you, spoil you, and ensure that you always have an ally. It is a truly unique relationship. One I will treasure for a lifetime. 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Reading Challenge Reviews: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

 The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is one of those books that hovered on my radar for
quite some time before I finally picked it up. I knew that it was about a man who finds a child abandoned in his bookstore and decides to keep it. I imagined the man as quite elderly, and the child as a tiny baby boy. It sounded heartwarming, saccharine, and not at all the thing for my sometimes cynical reading tastes.

Fast forward to my decision to participate in the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge. One part of the challenge is to read a book about books, and when I began casting around online for something that fit the requirement, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry kept showing up on lists. It had good reviews from friends who claimed that it was a quick, even one-day, read, so I thought why not?

Guys. I was so wrong to ignore this book for as long as I did.

For one thing, I completely misconstrued the synopsis I read. A.J. Fikry is far from the curmudgeonly elderly bachelor I imagined. When we meet him, he is an emotionally shattered thirtysomething widower. He has more or less resigned to either retire early or run his bookstore into the ground, ideally by drinking himself into oblivion. His plans of self-destruction go awry when two things happen: 1. A prize rare book, the sale of which he planned to use to fund his early retirement, is stolen. And 2. He discovers an abandoned toddler in his shop and decides to keep her.

Both of these things, while they seem somewhat catastrophic to A.J. at first, end up completely transforming his life for the better.

And I could not. Stop. Reading. As years passed by in the novel and I watched the characters age, begin new relationships, and experience loss, I felt like I was getting to know them as people. I became so invested in their lives and so riveted by the book. It dragged me along at breakneck pace, buffeted in a wake of emotions, and I was powerless to extricate myself, no matter how many times it made me cry.  (Which was many.)

Although they're pretty different books, I think that The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry would appeal to fans of The Time Traveler's Wife. Both of them are favorites of mine, and both of them let the reader come along for the ride as characters' lives change over time.

If you're a lover of the written word--and I'm guessing you are, because you're reading this blog--you will also appreciate that The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is steeped in books. Not only does it take place in a bookstore, but it also features a character who works for a book publisher, and every chapter opens with a suggestion of a book or short story from A.J.

So if you want a quick but intellectually satisfying read that will make you feel things, check out The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

5 Nonfiction Books to Help You Challenge Your Assumptions and Understand the World

We are currently living in pretty confusing times. Every day we're bombarded with what feels like hundreds of breaking news stories, while the tone of discourse, both in the media and between individuals, becomes increasingly volatile and heated.

If you want to learn more about the world, make some sense of what's going on, and empower yourself to participate more effectively in challenging conversations you might find yourself in, try these great nonfiction books, all available through your local LPLS branch.

A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn
Zinn tells the story of American history from the perspective of people who are often relegated to the margins: women, Native Americans, factory workers and the working poor, and people of color.

Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen
Loewen examines the biases, omissions, and untruths taught in American history classes to create a more accurate, and often surprising, potrayal of American history. 

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein
Drawing from the crises that occurred both in Iraq and in post-Katrina Louisiana, Klein examines the ways in which tragedy, shock, and extreme violence are exploited for economic gain.

The  New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorbindness by Michelle Alexander
Alexander challenges the assumption of a post-racial America in this examination of how the prison and legal systems perpetuate racism against black people.

Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt by Sarah Jaffe
What makes regular citizens assume the role of activists and take to the streets with movements such as Occupy or Black Lives Matter? Jaffe answers this question in her examination of social movements and protest.