The August Online Book Choice Is:

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

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A book about water and the sea, drowning and not drowning, this book had enough entertainment and mystery to keep me going. And it’s leading character is a librarian, so how could I resist? Good summer read; enjoy.

This in reference to Amos, the character abandoned by his family and adopted by a traveling show:

People may live for a century without discovering the secret of vanishing. The boy found it because he was free to listen to the ground humming, the subtle moving of soil, and the breathing of water – a whisper barely discernible over the sound of a heartbeat. Water was the key. If he listened to its depth and measure and matched his breath to it, slowing his heart until it barely thumped, his slight brown frame would fade into the surrounding world. Had any watched, they would have seen a grubby boy turn sideways and vanish into the trees, becoming like a grain of sand – impossible to differentiate from the larger shore. Hunger, his enduring companion, was all that kept him certain that he lived.

And this, on the naming of the character Enola:

Once I learned about the atomic bomb I was never able to think of parents or my sister in quite the same light. I asked Dad about it once. His response was that Mom had ideas about reclaiming painful things; that if something terrible was made out of a beautiful thing there was an obligation to restore beauty; to reinstate meaning. The attempt with my sister failed; she exists like an explosion.

The July Online Book Choice Is:

This House of Sky by Ivan Doig

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This is Doig’s memoir about growing up in Montana with his widowed father. They kept their living by ranching cattle and sheep and there are many vivid scenes of the Montana landscape. It was hard living. Doig’s dad spent a lot of time in bars, and so, Doig did as well. Luckily, Doig’s grandmother came to live with them and kept them both sorted out.

The book reminded me a lot of Faulkner’s sketches of Yoknapatawpha County and there is actually a definition (fairly new) that describes this type of writing. James Shortridge called it ‘place-defining.’ These are ‘regional novels (that) provide concise statements of perceived regional values. As a group they suggest that the West has been dominated by the single, enduring image of youthful self-reliance; the Northeast by a set of small-scale characterizations; and the Midwest and South by more complex depictions of egalitarian pastoralism and cavalier society, respectively.’ Doig proves this. He and his family are strong and self-reliant, raised in and by Montana.

Ivan Doig died April 9th of this year.

Shortridge, J. (1991). The Concept of the Place-Defining Novel in American Popular Culture. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.0033-0124.1991.00280.x?journalCode=rtpg20

The June Online Book Choice Is:

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald

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Don’t let the primer title fool you. This is really well-written, and it will stay with you for a long time.  It is one of those books that are worthy of being in your home library. Here are some passages:

I sat down, tired and content. The goshawks were gone, the sky blank. Time passed. The wavelength of light around me shortened. The day built itself. A sparrowhawk, light as a toy of balsa-wood and doped tissue-paper, zipped past at knee-level, kiting up over a bank of brambles and away into the trees. I watched it go, lost in recollection. This memory was candescent, irresistible.

She disappeared over a hedge slant-wise into nothing. It was as if she’d found a rent in the damp Gloucestershire air and slipped through it. That was the moment I kept replaying, over and over. That was the recurring dream. From then on, the hawk was inevitable.

What is she looking at? What is she thinking? I hear the click of the nictitating membrane that crosses her eyes as she blinks, and now I see them closely her eyes begin to disturb me. They look like discs of pale paper stuck to the side of her head, each with a hole-punched black pupil housed under a transparent dome like a bubble of water. The hawk is stranger than I’d thought.

And wisdom from a fellow falconer:

‘It’s simple. If you want a well-behaved goshawk, you just have to do one thing. Give ’em the opportunity to kill things. Kill as much as possible. Murder sorts them out.’

There is a hawk that has been breakfasting upon the birds that throng in our backyard. I’ve come to terms with it. It is a beautiful bird.

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The May Online Book Choice Is:

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

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Though Hero and Claudio’s story is the main plot of the play, Beatrice and Benedick steal the show with their lively bantering, engaging in a war of words with each other. It’s elevated language, used by the master of all writers.

Beatrice: I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick. Nobody marks you.

Benedick: What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?

Beatrice: Is it possible Disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to Disdain if you come in her presence.

Benedick: Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted; and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart, for truly I love none.

Beatrice: A dear happiness to women! They would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of a humor for that. I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.

One of the better editions to read is the Pelican Shakespeare. It’s annotated well, with nicely written essays. And the library’s Overdrive digital catalog offers an audio copy of BBC Radio Shakespeare’s production of the play. Playwrights prefer their plays to be seen rather than read, but, in our time, it’s nice to read the play first to get the gist of the story, then watch (or listen) to the play being performed.

BBC radio Much Ado

Reading What Is Forbidden

Sherman Alexie with the most banned book of 2014
the author with his book

This week is National Library Week and the American Library Association has released its annual 2015 report on the state of American libraries. The top 10 frequently challenged books are listed in the report and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian gets the top honor of most challenged book in 2014. Included in the list are Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Satrapi’s Persepolis, Dugard’s A Stolen Life, and Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

If there is one truth about humans, we all want the forbidden fruit. Adults who try to ban books create that forbidden fruit. In the immortal words of Evelyn Carnahan, ‘No harm ever came from reading a book.’ Happy National Library Week!

Want more? Here’s a partial listing from Books Under Fire by Pat R. Scales:

The Fighting Ground, by Avi
My Brother Sam is Dead, by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis
Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George
Summer of My German Soldier, by Bette Greene
Dead Man in Indian Creek, by Mary Downing Hahn
Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, by Jeff Kinney
The Giver, by Lois Lowry
Shiloh, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson
Harris and Me: A Summer Remembered, by Gary Paulsen
Mexican WhiteBoy, by Matt de la Pena
In Our Mothers’ House, by Patricia Polacco
Harry Potter series, by J. K. Rowling
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor
The Dirty Cowboy, by Amy Timberlake and illustrated by Adam Rex
Stuck in Neutral, by Terry Trueman

The April Online Book Choice Is:

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Adichie was born in Nigeria in 1977 and divides her time nowadays between Nigeria and the U.S.

Americanah centers on Ifemelu, a young Nigerian immigrant to the U.S. After living in America for some years, she learns what it is to be American and how to be American without losing her Nigerian identity. Race and racism (both subtle and obvious) are dominant themes in the book. The book is filled with great insights but what were particularly nice were Ifemelu’s blog postings, filled with sharp truths:

Understanding America for the Non-American Black: American Tribalism
In America, tribalism is alive and well, There are four kinds—class, ideology, region, and race.  First, class. Pretty easy. Rich folk and poor folk.
Second, ideology, Liberals and conservatives. They don’t merely disagree on political issue, each side believes the other is evil. Intermarriage is discouraged and on the rare occasion that it happens, is considered remarkable.
Third, region. The North and the South. The two sides fought a civil war and tough stains from that war remain. The North looks down on the South while the South resents the North.
Finally, race. There’s a ladder of racial hierarchy in America. White is always on top, specifically White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, otherwise known as WASP, and the American Black is always on the bottom, and what’s in the middle depends on time and place…Americans assume that everyone will get their tribalism. But it takes a while to figure it all out. So in undergrad, we a had a visiting speaker and a classmate whispers to another, ‘Oh my God, he looks so Jewish,’ with a shudder…like Jewish was a bad thing. I didn’t get it. As far as I could see, the man was white, not much different from the classmate herself. Jewish to me was something vague, something biblical. You see, in America’s ladder of races, Jewish is white but also some rungs below white. A bit confusing…How can Americans tell who is Jewish?
The longer you are here, the more you start to get it.

For all the stern subject matter, it’s a funny book and easy to read. Enjoy it. And: Adichie’s book Half of a Yellow Sun is a Judy’s Shelf choice.

The March Online Book Choice Is:

The Falcon : a narrative of the captivity and adventures of John Tanner

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John Tanner was kidnapped by the Shawnee when he was 9 years old and was subsequently raised in an Ojibwe family. His narrative was published in 1830.

The book is straightforward, diary-fashion of day-to-day life. It could be a little banal but for the fact that his life was completely difficult. Tanner and his Ojibwe family were survivors and many, many days were spent looking for food and protecting themselves from the elements. And the struggles of alcoholism are present. When Tanner would bring in pelts to sell for goods, his mother, Net-no-kwa would inevitably sell some for alcohol to escape her situation.

Tanner became a guide in later years, which is how his story gained interest. He mysteriously disappeared in 1846.

The following scene is Tanner nearly succumbing to freezing weather:

‘Early one morning about mid-winter, I started an elk. I pursued until night, and almost overtaken him, but hope and strength failed me at the same time. What clothing I had on me, notwithstanding the extreme coldness of the weather, was drenched with sweat. It was not long after I turned towards home that I felt it stiffening about me…I was conscious I was somewhat frozen, before I arrived at the place where I had left our lodge standing in the morning, and it was now midnight. I knew it had been the old woman’s (Net-no-kwa) intention to move, and I knew where she would go, but I had not been informed she would go on that day. As I followed on their path, I soon ceased to suffer from cold, and felt that sleepy sensation which I knew preceded the last stage of weakness in such as die of cold. I redoubled my efforts, but with an entire consciousness of the danger of my situation, it was with no small difficulty that I could prevent myself from lying down. At length I lost all consciousness for some time, how long I cannot tell, and awaking as from a dream, I found I had been walking round and round in a small circle…After the return of my senses, I looked about to try to discover my path, but while I was looking, I discovered a light at a distance by which I directed my course. Once more, I lost my senses, but I did not fall down. If I had, I should never have got up again…’

This book is available for loan through Prospector.

The February Online Book Choice Is:

Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia

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This book was written in 1992 and feels an appropriate choice given the new revolution happening in Cuba right now. There are nice doses in the novel of Cuban life juxtaposed with American life, and typical of much Middle American writing, there are instances of magical realism.

Here are a couple of examples of Garcia fashioning her words:

‘If she had a son, she would leave Jorge and sail to Spain, to Granada. She would dance flamenco, her skirts whipping a thousand crimson lights. Her hands would be hummingbirds of hard black sounds, her feet supple against the floorboards of the night. She would drink whiskey with tourists, embroider histories flagrant with peril, stride through the darkness with nothing but a tambourine and too many carnations. One night, Gustavo Sierra de Armas would enter her club, walk onstage, and kiss her deeply to violent guitars.’

‘Celia remembers Felicia in another bathing suit, a tiny lemon-yellow one she wore the year the sea retreated beyond the horizon, the year the archaeology of the ocean floor revealed itself – catacombs of ancient coral, lunar rocks exposed to the sun. Felicia squatted, examining the shells as if they were unexpected gems, then rearranged them on the sand. Around her, neighbors scrambled with wooden buckets, looting the beach for stranded fish and crabs. The sun baked their footsteps hard as fossils. Then the tidal wave hit, wiping their traces from shore.’

The January Online Book Choice Is:

The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell

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William Maxwell, long-time editor at the New Yorker, wrote part time and did it well. He won numerous awards for his writing.

The Folded Leaf follows Lymie and Spud as they grow into men. Maxwell said, ‘the whole of my youth is in (The Folded Leaf).’ It is a nice account of the pain of growing up, the monotony of school, and the grating nature of living with one’s parents.

Maxwell’s concise language hits all the right notes and he places strategic little maxims throughout the book. Here is one:
‘to live in the world at all is to be committed to some kind of a journey’
and another:
‘It is always disturbing to pick up an acquaintance after several years. The person is bound to have changed, so that (in one way or another) you will have to deal with a stranger.’

and another great passage, in reference to the small talk that occurs at a cocktail party:
‘Everyone knew everyone else and it was a good deal like progressive whist, or some game like that, since it involved a frequent change of partners. You went to any group you felt like talking to. They opened automatically and amiably, and there you were, allowed to pick up the threads of the old conversation or start a new one.’

William Maxwell died in 2000.

link here to interview that includes Maxwell’s quote

The December Online Book Choice Is:

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

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Of the 3 principal authors of American Lit in the 19th century (Hawthorne, Melville, Poe), Melville was the writer for everyman; Poe, the father of the mystery/horror, Hawthorne, the chronicler of puritanical America.

Some of the best writing in the entire book takes place in chapter 9, Father Mapple’s sermon. The book is worth the read, even if you only make it to chapter 9. You will feel like you have been churched.

‘Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters- four yarns- is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul Jonah’s deep sealine sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us, we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us! But what is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God.

The book turns through typical subject matter at times, characteristic of epic literature; the biology of whales, usage of oil, history of ships, sailing, whaling, among other points, while weaving in the storyline of Captain Ahab’s mental illness and his taking of the ship’s crew with him into his madness.

‘They think me mad–Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened!’

And how the whiteness of the whale can contribute to that madness:

And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues- every stately or lovely emblazoning- the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge- pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

The hunt and gore of the whale slaughter can be a little intense. The anthropomorphization of whales in general (in the sense of practicing good or evil, rather than just exhibiting their whale nature) is an archaic tendency of writers back then, which may have been justification for some of the indiscriminate slaughter. The 19th c. reader would more readily relate to this book than a reader of our age, though it seems that Melville gives consideration to a future reader’s more sensitive ears.

Melville on the justification of the slaughter:

Though refusing, from conscientious scruples, to bear arms against land invaders, yet himself had illimitably invaded the Atlantic and Pacfic; and though a sworn foe to human bloodshed, yet had he in his straight-bodied coat, spilled tuns upon tuns of leviathan gore, How now in the contemplative evening of his days, the pious Bildad reconciled these things in the reminiscence, I do not know; but it did not seem to concern him much, and very probably he had long since come to the sage and sensible conclusion that a man’s religion is one thing, and this practical world quite another, This world pays dividends.

but then writing of the whale:

…how nobly it raises our conceit of the mighty, misty monster, to behold him solemly sailing through a calm tropical sea; his vast, mild head overhung by a canopy of vapour, engendered by his incommunicable contemplations, and that vapour–as you will sometimes see it–glorified by a rainbow, as if heaven itself had put its seal upon his thought.

You can download this amazing book from gutenberg.org here