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Author Archives: Rod Wagner
I have read many of John Grisham’s legal thrillers dating back to his second book, The Firm (1991). I didn’t read his first, A Time to Kill. I only saw the movie. It is admirable that a writer can publish a new bestseller each year, and sometimes more than one. Grisham’s novels now number 41. In addition, he has published short stories, nonfiction, and young adult books. Grisham is a creative and clever writer. His most recent book, The Reckoning, is, to me, among his best.
The book is set in 1946 in Grisham’s familiar rural Ford County, Mississippi. Grisham’s experiences there, including an early career as a criminal defense attorney and state legislator, offer informed and useful background for his writing. Pete Banning is the book’s central character – a kind and respected cotton farmer from a prominent family with deep roots in the community. Banning is a West Point graduate, a World War II infantry officer, prisoner of war escapee, and war hero decorated for his leadership and accomplishments as a guerrilla fighter in the Philippines. Thought of as killed in action, Banning’s surprise return home after the war was followed by a shocking criminal act that disrupts his family and the entire community. Banning refuses to offer an explanation for his actions. Why would someone so admired, responsible and respected do what he did? The mystery carries through the book to an unexpected and surprising conclusion.
Of the book’s more interesting chapters are those involving Banning’s wartime service with the Army in the Philippines. There is rich, well-researched, detail of the U.S. Army’s actions, the Bataan Death March, prisoner of war experiences, and guerilla warfare. Equally interesting is how Grisham creates his storylines. For The Reckoning, Grisham contends that the story came from those told among state lawmakers, gathered together for evening conversations. Grisham appears not sure whether the Banning story was based on a real or imagined incident. Either way, the story is compelling and will keep the reader turning pages to the surprising ending.
Grisham, John. The Reckoning. New York: Penguin Random House, 2018.
Kate Christensen’s The Last Cruise is not a memoir, travel guide or cruise promotion. It is a novel rich with a range of disparate, colorful and conflicted characters. The 400 some travelers are on an ocean voyage destined for unexpected and challenging adventure. While dissimilar, the book reminded me of Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, a book I read many years ago before taking a first cruise. The Last Cruise might be better likened to the Titanic, and throw in the Love Boat, too. There are elements of all with personal crises, conflict, satire, romance, and bits of comedy.
The cruise ship is the Queen Isabella, a 1950s elegant and vintage ocean liner. The voyage is the ship’s last and intended to be followed by a trip to the scrapyard. Guests board the ship at Long Beach, California, for a two-week cruise to Hawaii and back. A retro theme is planned in recognition of the ship’s origins and fate. Passengers expect to enjoy the experiences of mid-20th century luxury cruising with fine dining, cocktails, string quartets, and jazz. Central to the story is Christine Thorne. Thorne, a former journalist, joins the voyage as an escape from her Maine farm home. She meets aboard ship with her long-time friend, a journalist seeking her own escape. The story evolves with the mix of passengers, crew (notably food service workers), and musicians. Before long, the voyage is disrupted by personal conflict and ship mechanics.
The book title has a double meaning, if not more than double. The multiple meanings are revealed early and more surprisingly in the final pages. I’m curious to know how many cruise ship libraries have this book on their shelves. I hope they do.
Kate Christensen’s fourth novel, The Great Man, won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. She has also written two food themed books, Blue Plate Special and How to Cook a Moose. The latter won the 2016 Maine Literary Award for Memoir. Food elements are also prominent in The Last Cruise.
Kate Christensen. The Last Cruise: A Novel. (New York: Doubleday) 2018.
I heard Celeste Ng speak at a United for Libraries hosted author event a few years ago. At the same event, I received an advance copy of her book, Little Fires Everywhere. I enjoyed her remarks but I wasn’t especially interested in reading the book. The book has received a lot of attention since its publication. It is included on many best books of 2017 lists and it is now among three books on Lincoln City Libraries short list for One Book One Lincoln voting. During a recent and long road trip, I had a chance to listen to the audio version of Ng’s book. I wasn’t disappointed.
Little Fires Everywhere begins with a house on fire and speculation about who is to blame. At the top of the list is the youngest family member – a non-conforming teen rebel. But did she do it and, if so, why? The setting is Shaker Heights, Ohio, and the story evolves from the developing relationships among members of two families – one long rooted in the community and prosperous, and the other (a mother and daughter) impoverished and living day to day under uncertain circumstances. Central are the two mothers – Elena Richardson, a local news reporter, mother of four and a well-connected community member, and Mia Warren, a mysterious artist and single mother of one. Connections evolve and conflict emerges as a result of the attempted adoption of a Chinese-American baby and an ensuing custody battle. In the background is Elena Richardson’s effort to uncover Mia Warren’s true identity.
Lincoln’s three books selected for the all community read are all excellent choices. Celeste Ng’s book is worthy and notable. If chosen, it will make an interesting read and a great source for conversation.
Little Fires Everywhere is Celeste Ng’s second novel. Her debut book is, Everything I Never Told You, an award winning best seller.
Ng, Celeste. Little fires everywhere. (New York: Penguin Press) 2017.
A. J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window is a whodunit thriller with lots of surprises and unexpected outcomes. The book has been likened to Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and with elements of a Hitchcock movie.
Anna Fox, a psychologist in her late 30s, is the protagonist. Anna lives alone in an upscale Manhattan home. A young carpenter is a tenant who occupies the basement. The reader soon learns that Anna is agoraphobic and has not left her home during the past year. While living alone she has frequent phone conversations with her husband and 8-year-old daughter who are supposedly living elsewhere. Much of Anna’s time is spent watching black and white movie classics. Home bound, Anna observes her neighborhood and neighbors from her living room window. It is there that she witnesses, from a distance, a violent act in a home occupied by a family new to the neighborhood.
Anna’s fear of leaving her home, her aloneness and depression contribute to excessive drinking with wine as her favored drink. Her drinking, mixed with prescription drugs, compromises her credibility when she reports the incident to the police. Is she delusional? The conflict grows from there among Anna, the new and troubled neighbors, the police, and even her tenant. And there is Anna’s past – how did she become agoraphobic? What’s the story behind the absence of her husband and daughter?
The Woman in the Window is A. J. Finn’s first novel and a best seller from the get go. Though, not surprising because Finn (a pseudonym) is Dan Mallory, an experienced executive mystery fiction editor for William Morrow, the books publisher.
Finn, A J. The Woman in the Window. HarperCollins, 2018. Print.
A colleague suggested Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer for a recent road trip. She said the book was a great read and the audio version narration was excellent. I hadn’t read any of Kingsolver’s books and was glad to have this recommendation. As it turned out, it was after the road trip that I finally got around to listening to it. While not at all typical of what I usually read – I set aside the most recent Lee Child novel – it turned out to be an excellent recommendation.
Kingsolver is noted for her focus on the interaction between humans and their communities and environments. Those subjects are notable in Prodigal Summer. The book’s setting is the forested mountains and farmland of southern Appalachia. Kingsolver blends three interconnected stories – a reclusive wildlife biologist devoted to protecting the environment, a young recently widowed farmer’s wife, and two elderly feuding neighbors. The ecosystem is central and common among these stories, as is a den of coyotes. Over the course of a long summer, the stories of these characters develop and interconnect. A relationship develops between the biologist park ranger and a hunter. There are encounters and relationships between and among the young farm wife and her deceased husband’s family members, and there is the back and forth banter between the elderly neighbors – a man and a woman.
I especially enjoyed the audio narration and dialogue. Kingsolver is the narrator. Her narration enhances the book with her ability to voice the richness of the regional dialect. Kingsolver grew up in rural Kentucky. She knows what she speaks. Her well-crafted and witty dialogue further enrich the book.
Prodigal Summer was published in 2000. It is the fifth of Kingsolver’s seven novels. Her books also include essays, poetry, and nonfiction works.
Timothy Schaffert’s The Swan Gondola has been on my reading list for the past few years. I’m now glad that I finally got around to reading it. It’s a delight. From what I knew about the book – not much – I expected it to be quirky, and it is, and in a good way.
The setting is the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair (The Trans-Mississippi & International Exposition). The book is a love story populated with some of the most unusual and colorful characters imaginable. At the center is Ferret Skerritt, ventriloquist by trade, and a hopeful romantic. The object of his affection is the enigmatic and beautiful Cecily, an actress in a traveling troupe who plays Marie Antoinette in a fair horror show. And there is William Wakefield, a wealthy Omaha tycoon and fair investor who disrupts the Ferret and Cecily relationship.
Schaffert has an incredible imagination. His characters are finely developed, described as an endearing band of thieves and drunkards. Schaffert’s research for all things surrounding Omaha’s exposition in 1898 is thorough and admirable. He clearly did his homework and wrote his book with highly detailed descriptions of the society, culture, styles, and life near the end of the nineteenth century.
Schaffert’s fascination with the Wizard of Oz is notable and noted, mentioning such in the book credits.
Authors always earn my appreciation when they describe libraries and librarians in a positive light. And Schaffert does. He also gives recognition to a good number of Omaha librarians in the book credits, along with many others who contributed in one way or another to his research, writing, and eventual publication.
The Swan Gondola is Schaffert’s fifth novel. His earlier novels include the critically acclaimed Devils in the Sugar Shop and The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God. In addition to national recognition and awards, Timothy received the 2003 Nebraska Book Award (fiction) for his The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters.
The Dinner, published in 2009, involves the relationships among two brothers, their wives, and teenage children. The story centers on a dinner at an upscale Amsterdam restaurant. This dark and disturbing book unfolds steadily with unpredictable twists, pivots, and surprises. Paul Lohman, the narrator and one of the two brothers, offers caustic observations throughout the dinner. Here’s a sample:
“So when the bartender at the café put our beers down in front of us, Claire and I smiled at each other in the knowledge that we would soon be spending an entire evening in the company of the Lohmans – in the knowledge that this was the finest moment of that evening, that from here on it would all be downhill.”
The meal and conversation are frequented with disruptions and flashbacks. It is eventually realized that the purpose of the dinner is to discuss the two couples’ teenage boys and their involvement in a brutal and criminal act. The parents’ dilemma is the moral choices that must be made. The tragic incident has special consequences for one of the brothers, a popular and powerful politician with ambitions for higher political office.
Herman Koch, the author, is a Dutch writer and actor. His writing includes short stories, novels, and columns. His most recent book is Dear Mr. M: A Novel.
A movie based on the book was released in May 2017 with starring roles by Richard Gere, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall, and Laura Linney.
Koch, Herman (2017). The Dinner. New York: Hogarth.
Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, published in 2013, was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I had read reviews and commentaries about the book, looked it over in a bookstore, and considered borrowing or buying a copy. I resisted because I was daunted by its length – the hardcover edition is 760 pages. I recently found a paperback copy in a Colorado library on the books for sale shelves. For a two dollar contribution to the library’s friends group the book was mine. It’s the second longest book I’ve ever read and it was a long haul, but a good one. During the course of reading it I also borrowed from Lincoln City Libraries the excellent digital audiobook version.
The Goldfinch begins with a terrorist act – a bomb explosion in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – and the resulting tragic destruction and loss. What follows is an evolving mystery about a missing painting – a Dutch masterwork called The Goldfinch. Included are theft, drugs, the art black market, the craft of antique furniture restoration, and the complex relationships among family, friends, friends of friends, swindlers, and much more. Art, in many forms, is central to the book. The characters are vivid, the settings are rich in detail, and the plot pulls the reader along toward a surprising end. For me, it is the kind of book you don’t necessarily want to come to an end.
Stephen King, in a New York Times Book Review commentary, said “The Goldfinch is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind…..” Donna Tartt has also written the novels The Secret History and The Little Friend.
Tartt, Donna. The Goldfinch: A novel. New York: Little, Brown and Company. 2013.
I’ve been a Larry McMurtry fan since reading Lonesome Dove (1986 Pulitzer Prize Winner in Fiction), the only book I recall reading twice. Most likely, I’ll read it again someday. Since then I’ve read many of McMurtry’s books: The Last Picture Show, Comanche Moon, Dead Man’s Walk, Streets of Laredo, and more. Well known as a prolific novelist, McMurtry also has credits as an Academy Award winning screenwriter (Terms of Endearment, Brokeback Mountain and The Last Picture Show to name some), and has added nonfiction writings including Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen – a wonderful autobiographical reflection on many things – and particularly those things from his home state Texas.
McMurtry self describes as a reader, writer, and bookseller. Add teacher, book scout, dealer, business owner to those descriptors. It is his passion for books, book scouting, and book dealing that many might not know of and that is the subject of Books: A Memoir. In Books, McMurtry reflects on his life-long affinity to all things books. The reader will discover that McMurtry knows books, really knows books – all kinds of books.
It’s curious that McMurtry tells of growing up in a house without books and musing that it is perhaps his discovery of books that led to his lifelong passion for them. The absence of books in his home ended when a relative gave him a box of nineteen books, a small batch that the young McMurtry read and re-read many times. When his family moved from their Texas ranch home to Archer City he had opportunities to explore many other books, including those in the local public library.
McMurtry’s book scouting, buying and selling happened in many places, emphasis on many. And those pursuits resulted in acquaintanceships with many book stores and book dealers – a good number colorfully described in Books. I took special notice when he mentions searching, in San Francisco, for a Weldon Kees’ book, and for Wright Morris’s The Home Place.
McMurtry estimates he’s handled over a million books during his lifetime. His own collection, at the time his book was published, numbered nearly 30,000, including a few thousand reference titles.
For over 30 years McMurtry co-owned, with long-time partner Marcia Carter, the legendary Booked Up book store in Georgetown (Washington DC). Booked Up was moved in the mid ‘90s to McMurtry’s Texas hometown in Archer City, eventually growing to several stores housing some 450,000 books (a true book town somewhat on the order of the notable Welsh village of Hay-on-Wye). Sadly, several years ago, McMurtry sold many of the books in these stores – described by McMurtry as “The Last Book Sale.” Fortunately, it wasn’t and he kept Booked Up No. 1, the original store.
For those who love books and fine writing, McMurtry’s Books will be an enjoyable read. And for those who enjoy book stores there is a great adventure ahead in traveling to Archer City, Texas, to visit McMurtry’s remaining store.
McMurtry, Larry. Books: A Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008. Print.
My awareness of Patti Smith was that of a rock musician, and more specifically one influential in the punk rock genre. There wasn’t all that much awareness and not much interest. Then I heard her interviewed on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air. I learned that Smith is not only a singer-songwriter musician, she is an accomplished poet, writer and artist. That interview was from several years ago when she wrote Just Kids, the 2010 National Book Award winner for nonfiction. Just Kids is the story of Smith’s younger years (1960s and ‘70s) as a developing artist and her friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
More recently I heard Smith interviewed on another Fresh Air program following publication of her most recent book, M Train. Smith is quoted as describing M Train as “a roadmap to my life.” The book is a memoir with mixed reflections about many things including her marriage to Fred “Sonic” Smith, family life, wanderings, music, and relationships. Notable to me was her favored writing locale – a Greenwich Village café – and her passion for TV cop shows. There are commentaries about her travels, New York City life, and her fondness for hot black coffee. There is also the curiosity of her purchase of a run-down seaside bungalow timed, unfortunately, just prior to Hurricane Sandy’s arrival.
Patti Smith came across to me as an extraordinarily gifted yet down to earth person. Seeing her writing in her notebook at a corner table in her favorite café wouldn’t be all that memorable. But her reflections are memorable and M Train is a remarkable book.
Smith, Patti. M Train. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf). 2015.
As a fan of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series I was curious to find whether David Lagercrantz’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web would be a worthy continuation of Larsson’s work. Labeled as the fourth book in the series, Lagercrantz, in my view, extended the series with notable success. While a number of readers have posted comments that the book doesn’t have the suspense of Larsson’s books, among other things, I wasn’t disappointed in this one.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web includes a mix of high level intellectual property theft, corruption, Lisbeth Salander’s evil twin sister, a Mikael Blomkvist perceived as a no longer revered investigative reporter, a rogue National Security Agency security chief, the usual police suspects, and an autistic child with a genius for math and drawing. Add in a number of familiar characters from Larsson’s earlier works plus several new ones, and plenty of bad guys. Most interesting is always the girl – Lisbeth Salander – a legend among hackers, fearless, clever, fiercely independent, and unhinged.
I borrowed both hard copy and the audiobook from Lincoln City Libraries. Now I’m ready for the movie. Noomi Rapace or Rooney Mara?
Lagercrantz, David, and George Goulding. The girl in the spider’s web. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf). 2015.
Steve Sieberson is a world traveler – and a mountaineer. His law career has taken him to numerous foreign places. His expertise in international business has included lecturing and advising. In 2006 he joined the Creighton University Law School faculty. Sieberson’s writing includes a recent textbook on international business contracting. But for those of us not closely connected to international business his book on mountaineering is a much more interesting read.
I met Steve Sieberson and his wife Carmel at an Omaha Public Library book event. It was there that I picked up a copy of his book, The Naked Mountaineer: Misadventures of an Alpine Traveler (University of Nebraska Press). Outside of his years as a practicing attorney and international businessman, Sieberson developed a passion for mountaineering. A family trip one summer from his rural home in northwest Iowa to Colorado began his lifetime fascination with high elevations. From there he read books on mountaineering, books that he found at his local library. His boyhood fascination has endured through his adult years.
Sieberson’s move to Seattle and his many years there provided the proximity to enjoy his passion for the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. During his years in Seattle he was a member of Seattle Mountain Rescue and the Mountaineers organization. The Naked Mountaineer is a delightful commentary on Sieberson’s global travels and opportunities to climb many of the world’s highest and most challenging mountains – the Matterhorn, Mount Agung, Mount Fuji and many more. Especially enjoyable are his commentaries about his experiences as a climber – the places, the people, and the customs. His passion and his good humor are found throughout his book.
Anthony Doerr’s book “All the Light We Cannot See” (Simon & Schuster) won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2015. I listened to the audio version on a long road trip and read parts of the text version. I tend to avoid hyperbole but I’ll venture without reservation that this is an extraordinary book and I enjoyed it. I’ll go further and say that Doerr’s writing is exquisite. A New York Times bestseller for many months, it is deserving of the attention it has received. World War II and Nazi occupied France provide the setting for “All the Light We Cannot See.”
The book follows the lives of a blind French girl named Marie-Laure and a gifted German boy named Werner who has a special talent for radio technology. Their stories run parallel and eventually converge. Doerr devoted ten years to writing the book and wrote two others during that time. Doerr’s extensive research is notable. The book is sentimental, and in a good way. This is a lyrical and intricate book with a highly readable format. I’ll be interested in whatever he publishes next.
Along with millions of others, I am a fan of Stieg Larsson’s “Millenium” trilogy of crime novels. Seriously, is there a more compelling character than Lisbeth Salander? Those were the first novels I’d read by a Scandinavian author. Having enjoyed Larsson’s series I was curious to learn more about Jo Nesbo, a popular Norwegian author who writes crime fiction – a lot of crime fiction. Harry Hole is the main character in a series of, so far, ten crime novels written by Nesbo. Hole is described as a “classic loose cannon” in the Oslo (Norway) police force. He’s flawed, but, of course, brilliant.
Thus far I’ve read Nesbo’s Nemesis (#4) and The Devil’s Star (#5). Had I known more about the series I would have started with the first book. Even so, the books need not be read in sequence. There’s sufficient detail to fill in the pieces.
Nesbo is a prolific writer. His books have universal appeal (at least for the crime fiction crowd). His books have been translated into over 40 languages and have sold over 23 million copies.
In addition to Nesbo’s Harry Hole novels, he’s written books in series based on other characters (Doctor Proctor, for one). He’s written stand-alone works (Headhunter is another I read recently) and children’s books. He even finds time to be the lead singer for a band performing a hundred or so gigs a year.
Those who enjoy crime fiction, as I do, will find it worthwhile to give Nesbo’s books a try.
PHILADELPHIA – As part of the recent American Library Association (ALA) election, the majority of voting members of the Association of Library Trustees, Advocates, Friends and Foundations (ALTAFF) voted to change the organization’s title to “United for Libraries: the Association of Library Trustees, Advocates, Friends and Foundations.”
The name change will become official on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012. In the coming months, the new “United for Libraries” name and logo will be featured on the organization’s website and materials. United for Libraries will continue to provide its members, which include friends of the library, trustees, foundations and library advocates, with the best possible specialized resources that will empower them to support and advocate for their libraries.
The complete news release is available at the ALTAFF website which can be found at: http://www.ala.org/altaff/
Doreen Kuhlmann is retiring from her Business Manager position with the Nebraska Library Commission effective tomorrow, June 15. Doreen has served as the Commission’s Business Manager for over 25 years. We will greatly miss the many contributions that Doreen has made. Her responsibilities have included management of the Commission’s office services, budget, accounting, personnel, facilities, and more. Her extensive experience, knowledge and good judgment have served the Commission well. We thank Doreen for all her efforts in support of the Commission’s work with libraries, organizations and people across the state of Nebraska. Very best wishes to Doreen on her retirement!
The State Auditor’s office posted today an audit report concerning the Library Commission’s purchase and use of game equipment and games. The State Auditor also issued a news release to accompany the audit report posting. The news release has resulted in news stories picked up from the Associated Press (online and on the air) and other news sources.
The Library Commission has made available copies of the Attestation report and the Commission’s complete 27-page response on our Web site.
Welcome to the Nebraska Library Commission Blog!
This new addition to the Commission’s communication and publishing efforts is intended to offer timely posts about activities, events, issues and topics related to Nebraska library services. In many cases short posts will include links to further information. Comments are invited.