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Author Archives: Lynda Clause
I have started reading too many books to write about just one, so for this post, this time, I’m writing about four books. A debut novel with Nebraska connections getting national critical attention, a poet often overlooked in favor of more famous compatriots, another Nebraskan of cinematic mystique, and a brand new non-fiction book about tech that will make you want to put down your phone camera. Let’s go!
Longlisted for a National Book Award, and written by an author born in Nebraska, Eliot Duncan’s Ponyboy is a globetrotting story with a trans, addicted protagonist—but the story is about relationships: between parent and child, within friend groups, and also the relationships we have with ourselves–and with our pasts and our futures. This is the first novel from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop alumnus. More about the book, the author, and recent press can be found at the author’s website .
I recently read about Gabriela Mistral, the first Latin American writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945, and I want to read more of her work. I checked out this enormous book, The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry, because it shows each work in its original language as well as its translation into English. Being able to read Mistral’s poems in Spanish and English helps me appreciate her intentions and the beauty of her work. Mistral wrote about unexpected things in unpopular ways. You can read some of her work here.
Weldon Kees is a fascinating character, born in Beatrice in 1914. He had a colorful and exciting life in Nebraska and neighboring states, eventually moving to California, where he disappeared in 1955. He produced art in many forms, and also worked as a librarian, among other interesting jobs. After seeing a recent story about new acquisitions related to Weldon Kees at University of Nebraska Libraries, I picked up a used copy of The Ceremony & Other Stories. I am still waiting for the movie of his life. Check this link for a photo from Kees’ diary in 1954 to see a list of books and movies he enjoyed that year.
Your Face Belongs to Us is an important story about what happens when technology moves faster than ethics or the law. Kashmir Hill writes about the tech company that best optimized facial recognition software, and the various motives of the people involved with the project. If you think they don’t have your best interests at heart, you are correct. No matter your opinion of facial recognition software, if you’re interested in the technology and its effects, this is some old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting that will surprise and disturb you.
Duncan, Eliot. 2023. Ponyboy : A Novel First ed. New York NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Hill, Kashmir. 2023. Your Face Belongs to Us : A Secretive Startup’s Quest to End Privacy As We Know It First ed. New York: Random House an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Kees, Weldon and Dana Gioia (ed.). 1984. The Ceremony & Other Stories. Port Townsend Wash: Graywolf Press.
Stavans, Ilan. 2011. The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry : An Anthology. 1st ed. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.
This Is How You Lose the Time War came out in 2019 and won several awards, but there was a resurgence of interest in the novella last month, when the book was a main character on a social media platform for a few days. Suddenly it was sold out everywhere, and libraries that had it in their collections were racking up long reserves lists on it. I’m here to tell you that this book lives up to the hype. Any time is a good time to pick up a good book—when it’s new, when it’s old, when it’s neglected, when it’s all the rage.
This time-traveling, epistolary novella is written by Amal El-Mothar and Max Gladstone. Each author wrote the letters of one character, who was writing to the other character, written by the other author. They had agreed to a general storyline before they started writing the letters to each other’s characters, but each author found the tale grew, delightfully, in the collaborative process.
This Is How You Lose the Time War is a quick and dazzling read, and it’s best if you know as little as possible before you start in on it. It won a Hugo Award in 2020, and a Nebula Award in 2019, and a British Science Fiction Award in 2019 as well. And it’s one of the social media “It” books of 2023. Everyone seems to like it—chances are good you might enjoy it, too.
El-Mohtar Amal and Max Gladstone. This Is How You Lose the Time War. First ed. Saga Press an Imprint of Simon & Schuster 2019.
Sometimes, when authors narrate their own audiobooks, it turns out well. Even more rarely, it turns out amazingly well. I checked out The Sentence, the latest book from Louise Erdrich, from the audiobook shelf at the public library without looking at the narrator credit. I’m not sure what the hurry was—it came out in 2021 and I hadn’t read it yet. Once I was ready to listen, I saw that it was narrated by the author. This can be a real hit or miss situation, as any audiobook fan can tell you—narration is generally best left to professionals. I’m happy to share that Erdrich’s narration of her own book is fantastic, and brings new levels of appreciation for the text.
If you’re familiar with Erdrich’s work, you know that she understands her characters and their motivations deeply, and knows more about them than she puts on the page in black and white. Her narration of the dialogue in The Sentence illustrates this skill even further—each character speaks in their own distinctive way, with their own cadence and bluster or hesitation, with their own honesty and their own secrets.
The narration is so on point that I’m leading with that in this review, instead of where I would’ve expected to start: there is so much about books in this book. After a wild and tragic beginning in 2005, most of the story takes place in a bookstore starting in 2019, and that bookstore happens to be the bookstore Louise Erdrich owns in Minneapolis in real life. Erdrich herself is a character in the book—but she’s not one of the main characters. Her appearances in the bookstore, and the way patrons look for her there, are handled with comedic humility, and told through the eyes of our protagonist, Tookie, who works in the bookstore. (There’s also a ghost in the bookstore, but you should hear about that from Tookie.)
Tookie has a history, and a future, and a rich and nuanced love of books and authors and reading. Books have helped her through some hard times, and help her connect with other people, and find a way of living. (I ended up checking out the print book, also, so I could refer easily to all her book recommendations to bookstore customers.) The candid descriptions of customer interactions are refreshing, surprising—and validating. We are rooting for Tookie, and all her co-workers, especially since we know what’s ahead for the world and especially for Minneapolis.
Readers new to Erdrich may have heard that she handles heavy topics—she does! And no one handles the heaviest of topics in a more readable, listenable way. The Sentence deftly, compellingly, tackles every subject that one book-selling indigenous woman in Minneapolis might find in her life or her history—including her experiences in the summer of 2020.
Erdrich, Louise. The Sentence: A Novel. HarperCollins. 2021.
Before the pandemic, Emma Donoghue took a boat trip around Skellig Michael, an island off the Southwest coast of Ireland. Also known as Sceilg Mhichíl, the island became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996—but you might more likely know it from a little film called The Force Awakens, episode seven of the Star Wars franchise. Before Donoghue could actually set foot on the island on her second trip, travel restrictions went into effect, and she finished her research and wrote this book before visiting it again.
Haven is a fictionalized account of an early attempt to set up a monastery on the island. Three Irish monastics, who all had different paths to the religious life, set out on a boat from the Irish mainland around the year 600 to found a new holy order on the skellig. The island is both abundant and sparse, an allegory for the faith of the travelers. Donoghue goes into fascinating detail of the natural world of the island, especially the bird life, and fans of nature writing will appreciate this immersion into the physical world of the island. While the monks have different ideas about how to interact with the natural world, two of the monks, Cormac and Trian, have vowed to obey Artt, whose vision has brought them to the island. Artt’s faith, more educated and intellectual, is served well by a monastic life—but not by a natural life.
The struggle for survival, both physical and spiritual, is heart-wrenching and transformative. The narrative is both claustrophobic and expansive, which might sound like a familiar feeling to fans of Donoghue’s most famous work, Room. There are lessons for the characters, and so for the readers, about faith, about stewardship, about vulnerability and acceptance—as well as about which freedoms and responsibilities we embrace, and turn over, and perhaps wrestle back.
Here’s a fun article about how there are so many birds on the island, that when filming that Star Wars movie, it was easier to create a new monster to CGI over the birds: Porgs!
Donoghue Emma. Haven : A Novel. First ed. Little Brown and Company 2022.
I picked up The Long Weekend from the new audiobook display at the library, and I got what I wanted: a fast-paced, engrossing thriller to listen to on a long drive. The cover boasts “Three couples, two bodies, one secret,” and by the end of the first disc, I had counted way more secrets than that. Also, one of my favorite ingredients in thrillers—is there something supernatural happening, or is one of the characters just trying to make it seem like there is? (Is that a shapeshifter lurking near the barrows, or is it just someone who’s not happy to see you?)
The Long Weekend is a story about well-off people being not that nice to each other, except it is British, so I guess I’d call them posh people. A group of friends plans a weekend getaway to the North of England, but some of them are planning more than others are, and betrayals overlap like a dense fog. There are enough twists and turns to keep me guessing, and enough humor to keep the story popping along. I appreciate Macmillan’s storytelling strategy, like how we know pretty quickly who committed a murder—but not who their victim is. The character newest to the friend group is jealous of the closeness of the others, but then we learn how the original friends in the group also feel estranged from each other. One character is shown to be quite ruthless and cunning—and then they are manipulated by another party outside of the friend group.
There are multiple characters narrating the action, and I wish the audio tracks had been edited to indicate that. The audio is all recorded by Olivia Poulet, who has a fantastic reading voice, but it would have been helpful to not have the character narration switch within tracks, because the listener regularly has to figure out which character is narrating, and a new track starting would have been a good way to indicate that switch in character narration. This is not as much of a problem as it sounds like it would be—as clever and twisty as the story is, there is a formula here, and nothing remains indecipherable. Macmillan knows how to give us information about the characters and their relationships in a paced way that keeps us interested in learning more.
Macmillan, G. (2022). The long weekend: A novel.
Do you ever go outside? Are you going to have to make small talk sometime in the near future? Do you have any curiosity about the natural world? Then Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, by Mary Roach, is the book for you.
Of course, the law in question here is human law, and you can be sure that plants, animals and birds don’t really care about breaking these laws. (Which recalls the story Roach tells us, of the person complaining about the placement of a deer crossing sign on a busy stretch of road—wondering why the local authorities were encouraging deer to cross there.) This book is about how humans react and adapt to nature’s lawbreakers—and how we try to get nature to adapt to us. With varying degrees of success.
You’ll read about bears getting really clever about getting to human food (like opening refrigerators and moving egg cartons, without breaking eggs, to get to the good stuff behind them). There’s also the Australian army’s losing battle against farm-foraging emus. Do you have a guess what creature the FAA says is the most dangerous to aircraft? Chances are that you’re wrong, but this book will explain it. You’ll find out why scarecrows don’t work and why macaques will pickpocket your cell phone. (It’s because they know you will bribe them with food to get it back. Roach purposely gets mugged by a monkey to make sure.)
Mary Roach writes popular science texts on a variety of subjects, and she does hands-on, in-person research and interviews with colorful characters and experts in the field of the book topic. In this book, she rides along with scientists who point out eagle nests and hand her badger droppings, among other activities. She relates to and sympathizes with the real people she uses as resources for her books, understanding where they are at in the big picture she is trying to paint for the reader. She handles their human concerns with grace and respect. And she has a healthy respect for every other creature we humans share the natural world with. All of these stories are interjected with many humorous observations–and plenty of anecdotes to amaze your family and friends.
I’m listening to the audiobook on CD in my car as I commute and run errands. There are some things I appreciate about this audiobook and some things I don’t like as much. The author reads the book, and she does a great job. Her vocal delivery is clear, and personable, and a good choice for a book so full of one-liners that another narrator might not realize are supposed to be funny. I didn’t like that the audio tracks were over twenty minutes long. Sometimes I wanted to rewind and hear a part again, which is not unusual for a book I’m listening to while I’m driving, especially in a book so dense with facts and information. While it would be easy to rewind within tracks on a digital audio book, it’s not as easy to rewind within tracks on a CD heard on a car stereo. I do realize most audiobook listening isn’t happening on car stereo CD players these days.
(I also checked the print book out of the library so I could check some facts against my memory of what I heard. Isn’t it great to be able to get both formats from my public library? Yes, yes it is.)
Roach, M. (2021). Fuzz: When nature breaks the law.
Friday Reads: Dangerous Ideas: A Brief History of Censorship in the West, from the Ancients to Fake News, by Eric Berkowitz
I didn’t know what to expect from Dangerous Ideas: A Brief History of Censorship in the West, from the Ancients to Fake News, by Eric Berkowitz. It was on the new audiobook display at the public library when I went in to grab some holds. I hadn’t heard any advance press, and didn’t know anything about the author. And of course I have some strong opinions about the subject matter—what library worker doesn’t? I decided to give it a chance, and I’m glad I did.
Berkowitz is a lawyer and a journalist, and there is impressive scholarship here, with new angles on histories you think you might already know. It’s refreshing to read these new insights on familiar chronicles. It’s also interesting to see the long narrative arc of censorship through the centuries, and how there are periods of progress and regression, and how technology changes the conversation.
The historical insight on the use of censorship in Ancient Greece and Rome helps inform the history I’ve already learned, and I also think it would be interesting for someone without that previous grounding. The section on medieval England definitely draws some clear lines from then to now, and the evolution of the “marketplace of ideas.”
The section on WWII is especially interesting, and it gave me many anecdotes to share with others. I read about how censors in many countries changed standards quickly, as feelings about involvement in war changed—and how when alliances changed, censorship followed. And how changes in censorship informed the public’s feelings about the war.
The author’s observations of the modern era are clear-eyed, and he doesn’t pretend to have answers he can’t have. This might frustrate some readers, but I found it honest, and without the stridence that usually underlies discussions of censorship today. The author does note how censorship is changing with new media, and I think anyone interested in this topic would benefit from engaging with this discussion.
Berkowitz, Eric. Dangerous Ideas: A Brief History of Censorship in the West, from the Ancients to Fake News. 2021.
I’m reading the new WWII novel, I’m reading the new perfume novel, I’m reading the new WWII perfume novel, and it’s delightful and I don’t want it to end.
I’ve been looking forward to reading The Perfume Thief by Timothy Schaffert, and it’s finally here! The publisher describes the book as “A Gentleman in Moscow meets Moulin Rouge.” I’m ready to follow Clementine, a raconteur in tailored suits, who’s spent her seventy plus years living life her way—while happening to break all of society’s rules. Now she’s facing a big change in her life—the Nazis are threatening to destroy Paris, including the vibrant underground scene she loves. It turns out she has some very exceptional skills, honed over decades of her refined and indecent life, that can help hand defeat to the Nazis. She just has to thread the needle carefully, with the finest silk, of course.
I imagine a few agents in Hollywood are getting calls about playing the part of Clem in the movie that must happen. I can see Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep fighting over the part, but I can see Jamie Lee Curtis owning it. Of course Cate Blanchett or Tilda Swinton, although they are a bit young for the part—isn’t that refreshing? Casting suggestions are welcome in the comments, of course. (Not just for Clem, but also for Zoe St. Angel, and also the villain, Oskar Voss.)
Did I mention Clem is from Nebraska? Did I mention Schaffert painstakingly researched Paris life, down to the weather reports on every day in the book? Did I mention it’s a page-turner? Excuse me while I get back to enjoying The Perfume Thief.
(We did write about The Perfume Thief here as well–yes, we’re fans! And yes, our Book Club Kit is available for Nebraska libraries to check out, and details are at that link.)
Schaffert, T. (2021). The Perfume Thief.
Killers of the Flower Moon is about the investigation of a crime, but as it tells that story, we learn about the different worlds of all the involved parties. Careful and enthusiastic research helps Grann tell us an interwoven story, and we want to keep reading because the story is so compelling.
I don’t want to give too much away, but if you are interested in American history, this book is full of history you didn’t learn in school, and it is fascinating and shocking. I listened to the audiobook, and there were three different narrators for the three different sections. This was an effective choice, and each narrator was an engaging reader, and a good match, for their section.
The first section lays the groundwork for the story, about the Osage Nation in Oklahoma, when they were the richest population on earth (per capita) in the early 1900s. The second section is about the different investigations of a series of murders, and how diligent those investigations were, or were not. (This section also includes a lot of information about the structure of the FBI and the influence of J. Edgar Hoover on changes in the FBI.) The third section pulls back the camera even further, to observe more about the context and meaning of the crimes being investigated, and to illustrate the personal cost to families in the Osage Nation.
When I say “pulls back the camera,” that brings up another point of interest. I missed the original buzz about this book when it came out in 2017, and I checked it out recently, after hearing that Martin Scorsese was involved in a film adaptation. You might want to read it before you see the movie, or even just to get the references you will see online. Like this joke from Twitter this week.
Grann, David, Ann M. Lee, Will Patton, and Danny Campbell. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, 2017. Sound recording.
I just started The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, and I’m so glad I did. Over a foot of snow on the ground outside calls for some entertainment set in warm climes. Summer in India reads really well right now.
I bought this book a few years ago, when it was required for a class I was taking, and then the school changed the professor for the class, and that new professor changed the books. This book was the one from the original slate that I was looking forward to the most. I was happy to take it off the shelf this week. It’s the story of twin boys and their connection to each other, as their family, which is already going through some things, welcomes visiting relatives who have their own problems. It’s lush and full of surprises from the beginning, and yet never goes out of rhythm.
This is Roy’s first novel, and it follows her training as an architect and her work as a production designer. There’s a lot going on in this book, but we’re in good hands. Roy knows her details and characters and shares them with us luxuriously, but never overwhelms us. Her vision is clear, and her characters are wonderfully flawed, and their relationships are familiar, yet unexpected, in their complexity.
And of course, The God of Small Things won the Booker Prize, which is always a good recommendation. If you like well-planned sprawling stories about families full of interesting characters, and not a snowdrift in sight, you will want to check it out.
Roy, Arundhati. The God of Small Things. New York: Random House, 1997. Print.
Birding, or bird-watching, has grown in popularity as an enjoyable activity that allows for social distancing. Birding also lets us re-center ourselves while connecting with the natural world. Of course, birding was a popular pastime even before 2020, and there are lots of books on the topic. Ted Floyd’s book, How to Know the Birds, takes a refreshing and elegant approach that will intrigue new and seasoned birders alike.
Floyd structures the book in a new way. He takes the stages of interest in birding, and lays them over the natural seasons and how those affect birds and birding, and then explores those themes by discussing one bird at a time, in a personal way. It reads much more easily than that description might lead you to believe! Each section is a bite-sized chunk that can be devoured quickly. A reader could jump around in the book, as one might with a traditional bird field guide, or read it beginning to end. This book is a good resource for the new or the experienced birder, and it would also be a great gift for the seasoned birder that thinks they’ve read all the bird books.
Floyd, Ted, and N J. Schmitt. How to Know the Birds: The Art & Adventure of Birding. , 2019. Print.
Hello, Library People. I can pretend I’m writing this Friday Reads for the whole world, but I know my likely audience, and I’m writing it for library people. So, hi there, library people!
Today I walked into my public library for the first time in months, and I went to the shelf to look for a book (that I looked up in the online catalog before I went into the building), and the book was where it was supposed to be, and I got to check it out and take it home, and I am excited to read it. I appreciated every step of this process so much. I know and love people who work in libraries, and I care about their safety—and I even care about the safety of library people I don’t know (or love?)—so I understand why I wasn’t able to go into my public library’s physical space like this last month, or the month before that. I will understand if circumstances require that it happens again, that I can’t soup-to-nuts my whole borrow for myself. I just want to emphasize that I appreciate being able to go into my local public library, and I won’t take it for granted.
Now, that book I’m excited to read (or, at this point, to keep reading). I was looking online to see what Octavia E. Butler works were available to check out at my local branch, and I saw they had this book that I was surprised I didn’t already know about: a graphic novel adaptation of Butler’s novel, Kindred.
Speculative fiction gets a bad rap for being escapist, which is a hard argument to fight because it presupposes there’s something wrong with escapism in entertainment. And graphic novels get a bad rap for being comic books, which again is a hard argument to fight because it presupposes there’s something wrong with comic books. For this reader, though, I saw the recipe for a great read.
If you want a story that lets you leave your world completely, yet teaches you more about the world you eventually have to go back to, then Octavia E. Butler is a writer for you. Butler writes literary speculative fiction, or speculative literary fiction, whichever word arrangement makes you more comfortable. Library people, since I’m writing this for you, I will tell you why you’ll like Kindred in particular. As a library person, you have strong views about genealogy. Whether you love or hate genealogical research, that familiarity facilitates an instant interest in this plot: A young Black author in the living in 1970s California meets her White slaveholder progenitor—and her safety and her very existence depends on his survival in the antebellum South.
Kindred is available as a novel, and an audiobook, and a graphic novel. (A movie is in post-production, but theatrical releases are all messed up right now, so no telling when that’s coming out, but it stars Janelle Monae, so you’ll be hearing good things about it.)
Duffy, Damian, John Jennings, Nnedi Okorafor, and Octavia E. Butler. Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation. , 2018. Print.
I was ready for a book of short stories, for compelling characters in intriguing situations, and I found that in a book I’d been meaning to pick up for a while: Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat.
Danticat manages to touch on all aspects of life—births and beginnings, deaths and ends, and all in between—while telling stories about the unexpectedly small parts of life.
And it is obvious Danticat knows everything about her characters, even if she doesn’t tell us everything. She knows what they think about when they fall asleep and which sock they put on first. That’s how she knows what details to share with the reader. She’s just telling us what we need to know to tell the story the characters inhabit. So we have a sort of intimacy with them, like we’re right next to them in Port-Au-Prince, in Miami, in an unnamed Caribbean country, or even falling through the air.
Danticat, Edwidge. Everything Inside. New York. Alfred A. Knopf, 2019
The Lady From the Black Lagoon is a biography, but it’s also not a biography. Sure, it’s the compelling life story of Milicent Patrick, a woman on both sides of the Old Hollywood camera. Milicent was a striking figure in front of the camera, but she was a real trailblazer in the world of make-up and design—specifically monster design, most notably, the Creature from The Black Lagoon. It’s also the story of her biggest fan, author Mallory O’Meara, and her quest to find out Milicent’s story, and her determination that Milicent get the credit she deserves for her work.
Along the way, O’Meara faces challenges. Milicent reinvented her identity many times, and used variations of her name personally and professionally–which was not unusual in Hollywood by any means, but it still poses research challenges. Luckily, O’Meara was already knowledgeable about Old Hollywood, and it was her voracious interest in old monster movies that led her to Milicent in the first place. O’Meara also gets some good research advice from some helpful librarians and archivists, which warmed this library worker’s heart.
This book is full of amazing stories. We get Milicent’s childhood years spent growing up on the Hearst Castle grounds, because her father was an engineer on that never-ending project. We also get the complicated family relationships that shaped Milicent’s life. We learn a lot about the behind-the-scenes production of Old Hollywood movies—and what a tough place it was for a woman to work, and how easy it was for Milicent’s labor to be exploited and almost erased. What really brings it all together, though, are the parallels that O’Meara is able to draw between her own career in movie production, with Milicent’s experience. O’Meara understands why Milicent chose to fight some battles and chose to walk away from others, and shares her own stories—some inspiring, some frustrating. (I have a guess who the unnamed voiceover jerk actor is, so let me know if you do, too.)
I listened to this book, and the author read it. That’s a risk—and in this case, it’s one that paid off! The author has a pleasant and clear voice, and her passion for her subject comes through loud and clear. After listening, I learned that it’s on many best-of lists for 2019, and I’m not surprised one bit.
O’Meara, Mallory. The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick. , 2019. Print.
Sissy: A Coming of Gender Story is a comic memoir by Jacob Tobia. I recommend the audiobook, read by the author, whose voice is a like a comfortable but sparkly sweater. Tobia is a vegetarian, gender-nonconforming, Syrian-American from North Carolina who got into (but didn’t go to) Harvard, and who grew up loving Sunday School; and if you don’t already know that you have a lot in common with our author, you will realize it quickly.
Tobia tells their story in an irreverent and authentic way, focusing on recognizing human needs, understanding human impulses, acknowledging human discomfort and pain, and just simply being a living and learning person. You might expect the book to be sad or “heavy,” and Tobia does not shy away from frank discussion and language about serious and emotional topics and events. But the book is funny, even while addressing all of that with respect (and did I mention frank language?). As Tobia told Salon in an interview about the book, “I don’t want to talk about what being trans means so much as I want to talk about how being trans feels.” Tobia is not trying to tell the one trans narrative that speaks for all trans people—they are telling one person’s story, their own, and we can all relate.
In the introduction, Tobia discusses gender identity in the context of physical and emotional health that’s especially illuminating. We all have a relationship with our bodies and our genders, relationships that are dynamic over our lifetimes. And we don’t stop growing and learning when we become adults. If anything, that’s when the truly informed growth and awareness can start. The book goes on to tell an engaging story that is far from being over.
Tobia, Jacob. Sissy : A Coming-of-Gender Story. Penguin Publishing Group, 2019.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean is a necessary and fascinating read for anyone who has used a library—even more so for anyone who works in a library. Orlean tells the story of the Los Angeles Central Library, its founding and its operation, and about a dramatic 1986 fire and the following investigation. Of special interest to Nebraskans, the building itself was designed by Bertram Goodhue, who was also the architect for another building you might be more familiar with: the Nebraska State Capitol building.
The way Orlean tells the story is as interesting as the investigation itself. The book is true crime, history, biography, and homage. She describes her own emotional connection to visiting her hometown library with her mother as a child, and then returning to libraries much later, after having a child of her own, and she begins to appreciate what an incredible societal wonder the modern library is.
Orlean also tells the stories of pioneers, free thinkers, and risk takers who made the Los Angeles Central Library possible, like Mary Foy, who became the head librarian of the Los Angeles Central Library in 1880, when men still dominated the field—and when she was only eighteen years old. With thoughtfulness and sensitivity, she talks about the emotional aftermath of the 1986 fire, for the workers and patrons of the Central Library, with personalized detail. She addresses the realities of the twenty-first century public library with respect and without sentimentality.
I dragged my feet finishing this book, because I didn’t want it to end. I knew from the formatting of the first page—I won’t give away how each chapter is introduced—that I was reading a book about libraries by someone who knew them and loved them.
If you’re old enough to remember 1986, but you don’t remember the Los Angeles Central Library fire, it might be because another catastrophic event happened a few days before in Chernobyl, which overshadowed the fire in the news. After you read the book, you might want to watch news clips and video of the time—and view other reactions to the book. The story told by the book has encouraged a reckoning and remembering by those affected, and it is powerful.
I took my copy of the book on a field trip to another library designed by Goodhue—in the aforementioned Nebraska State Capitol building. Pretty library photos will be on social media soon, and I will add a link here when that happens.
Orlean, S. (2018). The library book.
Horrorstor is a fun, quick read, perfect for the holiday shopping season. It’s a horror story, set in a big box store, formatted to look like a catalog. Author Grady Hendrix has seen a lot of horror movies, and if you have too, there are references aplenty for you to enjoy. He’s also spent a lot of time in Ikea (and does name-check them, as the superstore Orsk is knockoff of the Swedish retail giant) and has a lot of fun with the names of products accordingly. The book has just enough digs about consumer capitalism to make you feel smart, and enough broadly-drawn but relatable characters to make you not dwell on anything too downbeat.
The book would make a good gift, for the reader with a sense of humor on your list. (Or a library book to check out and have in the house, for the family introvert during a holiday gathering.) Are there plot holes? Yes! Is it a masterpiece? No! Is it enjoyable? Definitely. Can you read it surrounded by family being loud, with every TV and speaker in the house on a different channel, while full of sugar? Yes. You’ll still be able to follow the story. You’ll root for the employee character of your choice to make it through the single overnight shift in the possibly haunted, definitely scary Orsk location in Cuyahoga, Ohio, built on the site of an abandoned experimental prison, the Cuyahoga Panopticon. The narrative design is a lot more straightforward than any big box store design. The author is having a good time, and he wants the reader to have one, too.
Hendrix, Grady. Horrorstör: A Novel. Philadelphia, Pa: Quirk, 2014. Print.
I started reading Sharp Objects after I started watching the HBO show. Gillian Flynn, the author, helped adapt the book for television, and I find more similarities than differences—though some of my friends who have been longtime fans of the book don’t agree with me. I think it’s the same story, told in different ways—like having a different relative go through a photo album with you, and hearing different details than you heard last time. This book and show illustrate effectively how there are different ways to tell stories, and some work better on the page, and some work better on the screen.
I could discuss the similarities and differences at length, but to focus on one aspect that won’t give too many spoilers—let’s talk about the roller skating. There are no roller skates in the book, but there is Camille’s first person narration (that, wisely, was not brought over to the show). Camille’s first person narration in the book tells us things that the roller skating shows us on the screen. The first episode opens with a flashback of Camille and her first younger sister skating outside of their small Missouri town. We can see Camille’s zest for life and freedom, her sister Marian trying to keep up, Camille keeping an eye on her. We see the setting is quiet enough for these girls to explore their environment in this innocent, edge of reckless, way.
By the time we get to the present-day of the story, the roller skates are on Camille’s second younger sister, Amma, and her two friends. (Trivia time: the actors playing her friends are sisters in real life, with a background in figure skating.) As viewers, we still align our point of view with Camille, as we do as readers—even though the show adds some scenes that aren’t from Camille’s point of view, the show is still from her worldview. Now the roller skates, on tween girls that aren’t Camille, serve a different purpose: these girls don’t stay in place long enough for most people to figure them out. They zip around their little town, risking their life (as the town police officer once points out) in traffic and without helmets, with all the vulnerability and invulnerability of the middle-schooler. From a strictly cinematic point of view, it’s uncanny: these characters are moving in a way that is out of pace with the other characters. The sound editing here is fantastic as well. Even if the dialogue was sometimes so quiet that mumbles and drawls had to replayed, the sound of the skates was rhythmic and insistent and yet natural—almost like the bugs would have sounded, in summertime Missouri, if the show had gone for real over surreal.
In later episodes, we see the roller skates one more time on Camille and once on another character—and each time we understand more about the wearer of the skates just because they’re wearing them.
We have this title in the Library Commission’s book club kits, and I’m surprised it’s not checked out right now. (Get on that, readers in Nebraska!) This would be a great book for a book club—lots of unexpected twists and turns, and unexpected and important topics, in a quick read. And your book group could discuss the show as well.
If you’re ready for more book vs. movie/television discussion, don’t miss our upcoming NCompass Live, Book vs. Movie: The Ultimate Showdown! online Wednesday September 12 at 10AM. (The archived session will be online, if that time doesn’t work for you.)
Flynn, Gillian. Sharp Objects: A Novel. , 2006. Print.
Noxon, Marti, creator. Sharp Objects. Crazyrose, Fourth Born, Blumhouse Television, Tiny Pyro, Entertainment One, 2018.
(This show is full of wonderful performances and film-making decisions that didn’t fall under the the topic of my blog post–Full cast and crew for Sharp Objects on IMDB)
Sometimes a book in your read-me-next list jumps to the front of the pack. I read the news reports like everyone else, a month ago, April 25, 2018—the Golden State Killer had finally been arrested. Over thirty years since his last likely murder, authorities arrested a suspect, 72-year-old Sacramento resident Joseph James DeAngelo, a former police officer, based on DNA evidence. I thought to myself: it’s time to read that book by Michelle McNamara, before I read anything else.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer chronicles McNamara’s tireless research into the then-cold case of the serial killer (and rapist and burglar) that she dubbed the Golden State Killer, a moniker now solidified by recent media attention. While I’m not a true-crime buff, I am a lover of research and storytelling and problem-solving, and McNamara’s journey is thoughtfully told, somehow incredibly informative without ever being lurid or sensational. She never exploits or re-victimizes the people who had the misfortune to experience the mystifying, seemingly random violence of the Golden State Killer. The events in the book are not detailed chronologically from the Killer’s perspective, either, which would be more expected. This structure of the presentation of events seems to de-center and deflate the Killer, which is poetic, considering his need for control. Truly, this book is not really about him.
We read about his crimes in different geographic areas of law enforcement, between 1974 and 1986, and how different agencies put together that the crimes in their area might be committed by one offender. And then, occurring much later, we read how investigators realized how all these offenders (the East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker, the Visalia Ransacker, etc.) might be one extremely prolific criminal, that we now know as the Golden State Killer. McNamara details the protocols of investigations, and how they were changing, especially related to DNA collection and testing. She also did copious research herself, and interviews other researchers, amateur and professional, for a fascinating look into the minds of those who try to solve crimes.
McNamara died before she could complete the book. I didn’t know much about her or her writing career before she died. I was familiar with the work of her husband, Patton Oswalt, having enjoyed reading his books and watching his stand-up routines. McNamara was well-known in true crime circles for her blog TrueCrimeDiary, which focused on—you guessed it—true crime and cold cases, an interest she had ever since the unsolved murder of a teenager in her neighborhood as a child. When she died unexpectedly in 2016, McNamara had mostly completed the book, and had written many articles about the case and made extensive notes. The book was completed, faithful to its original intent, by a true crime writer she had worked with previously (Paul Haynes) and Oswalt. The editors have made it very clear what was written by her, what was transcribed from her notes and recordings, what was adapted from her published articles, and so on.
The book was released in February 2018, and it was the story of its posthumous publication that attracted me to it at first. Then HBO purchased the rights, and I was even more interested. And you already know what happened on April 25, 2018.
The title sounds like an odd choice, but when you read the chapter it comes from—a letter McNamara wrote to the Killer, about his eventual capture that she was certain would occur, written long before April 25,, 2018—you’ll understand why it was chosen for the title.
Of interest to library workers: using WorldCat as a research tool, on p 269, in a chapter called “The One.” In this engrossing chapter, we read about the “one” suspect on which various investigators each fixated, how they were each sure they had finally figured out who their suspect was, and then how all the different “ones” were ruled out. (Sidney, Nebraska is also mentioned on p 269—but don’t worry, just read the chapter.)
Also of interest to Nebraskans: the epigraph is a poem by Weldon Kees, “Crime Club.” It helps set an eerie tone for a book as much about the people solving a crime as it is about crime or a criminal. Sure, after you finish the book, you’ll probably want to dive into the news reports about Joseph James DeAngelo. (There’s plenty to read about him already, and more will come out when we get closer to a trial.)
But you might also take a little time to appreciate Weldon Kees. And look into the mystery of his disappearance, if you choose. Or just enjoy some of his poetry.