What we’re reading now….

Before She Knew Him by Peter Swanson

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This is a slightly twisted thriller that takes place in the suburbs of Boston.  Henrietta and her husband Llody move to a new suburb for a change of scenery.  Before they know it they are attending a dinner party at their neighbor’s house, and Hen stumbles on a suspicious clue that potentially links her neighbor to a murder in their old town.  Things quickly escalate as the story unfolds, and nothing is quite like it seems.  Beth

Silent City by Alex Segura

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Due to his drinking, Pete is barely holding on to his dead-end and unfulfilling sports editor job with the Miami Herald, and his social life is a mess.  Pete is half-in-the-bag and skipping on work when he accepts the request from the Herald’s washed-up columnist to search for his missing daughter.  Not really remembering why he agreed to help, Pete figures he will make a few calls to mutual acquaintances and ends up stumbling around and stirring up trouble as he plays detective. Silent City is Segura’s first in the Peter Fernandez series.  The recently published fourth installment, Blackout, is nominated for the Anthony Award to be announced in November. Trent

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

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I am reading this for our Classic Book Discussion on Monday, August 12, at 7pm.  I have just finished part one and started part two (there are three parts).  The novel was written in French and published in 1856 (I am reading the more recent translation into English by Lydia Davis); when it was first published, in serialized form, the government brought an action against it for immorality (!) – the charge was acquitted.  The book is absolutely marvelous – the writing is really uncanny and exquisite, almost perfect in a way, and is the first example of what is called “literary realism,” a technique that we are now habituated to experience when reading novels, but was in many ways inaugurated by Flaubert.  Put simply, the book is about a dissatisfied and romantic heroine, Emma Bovary, who seeks to escape the boredom and banality of her life through increasingly desperate acts.  If you are interested, please procure a copy of the book, read it (and hopefully enjoy it), and come on August 12 to discuss.    Andrew

 The Library of Lost and Found by Phaedra Patrick

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This is the story of Martha Storm who volunteers at her local library. She lives in her childhood home surrounded by her dead parents’ possessions along with various projects she plans to finish for others. Martha receives a mysterious book signed and dated by her grandmother, Zelda, who supposedly died years before the date of inscription. Martha is determined to understand what happened and uncover any family secrets. This is a charming story with a happy ending.  Emma

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love by Dani Shapiro

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In 2016 author, Dani Shapiro, on a lark, decided to submit her DNA for analysis at a genealogy website.  Soon after she received the stunning news that her father was not her biological father.   Dani Shapiro urgently begins a quest to unlock the story of her own identity.  She unfolds many secrets kept for a myriad of reasons.  He journey is a compelling story of paternity, identity and belonging.  This story is more a personal journey than a scientific journey.  I did find the author to be self absorbed at times, however, I am empathetic with the tremendous emotional upheaval this discovery caused the author.  A quick and interesting read.  Mary     

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep 

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This the story of the murder of Willie Maxwell, a southern preacher who was accused of murdering five people in order to collect the insurance money, the lawyer who defended the both Reverend Maxwell and the man accused of murdering him, and Harper Lee, the author seeking to write her own In Cold Blood.  This book reads like three separate stories, beginning with Willie Maxwell,  his alleged victims, and rumors of voodoo. Tim Landry, his charismatic lawyer is introduced to readers as the man who won acquittals in five murder trials. It is Harper Lee that ties these stories together. Readers are treated to a detailed biography of Nelle Harper Lee, including tales from her childhood, accounts of her friendship with Truman Capote, and details of her complicated writing career.  This is a real treat for true crime lovers and fans of Harper Lee.  Megan

Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter

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Andrea Cooper knows her mother Laura–a strong woman who has protected, loved and taken care of her for her whole life. Andrea, after an unsuccessful attempt at making it big in New York City, has come back home to her small childhood town of Belle Isle, GA to take care of her mother who has been diagnosed with breast cancer . She thinks she knows everything about the sleepy town and her never changing mother–until a mall shooter almost kills them both, and Laura takes him down like some sort of NAVY seal operative. It turns out her mother used to be someone else, and if Andrea doesn’t figure out who that person was, why her mother is in hiding or who is after her, they both may not make it. Sara

Ghost by Jason Reynolds

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This is a story about a poor teen who joins a city wide track team. He’s never been part of a team before. His mother is working and putting herself through college. He frequently gets in trouble at school because his classmates make fun of the neighborhood where he lives, his ill-fitting clothes, the fact that his mother cuts his hair, everything associated with being poor. Can he adapt to the rules at track practice with Coach and find a place among the other young runners? Reynolds writes in a way that definitely gets inside the head of this teenager. I became interested in this title when I heard the author speak as part of the PBS Great American Reads series, and it is another part of my effort to read books from more diverse voices. So far it is very relatable even though I never participated on a sports team in school myself. Byron

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Happy 200th Birth Anniversary, Walt Whitman!

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Today, May 31, 2019,  marks the 200th (!) birth anniversary of the poetic genius Walt Whitman, who in many ways invented American poetry – which is another way of saying that, if one is writing poetry today, in America or elsewhere, Whitman is utterly inescapable, and seems to hover over any poem whatsoever as a guiding and tutelary spirit.  Whitman’s poetry, in its long rolling lines and cadences, its oceanic rhythms, its “plain” (I say “plain” in quotes because Whitman’s praised plainness is kind of deceiving; it’s really more subtle, even more hermetic, than “plain” suggests), and earthy and robust manner of addressing himself and the world – there was nothing like this before him, though afterwards and up until today his imitators (including this librarian) have been legion.  Read some poetry by Ralph Waldo Emerson, another inventor of American thought and literature, and a great influence on Whitman – these poems might be moving and/or intelligent, subtle and/or intricate; you might find the rhymes or the spiritual insights surprising or interesting; but it (Emerson’s poems – his essays are another matter) really does not touch the achievement of Whitman, who was somehow able to embed within his poems the literary DNA of a large soul, a large person, Walt Whitman, one of the roughs, barbaric yawper, containing multitudes.

I wonder today, because of this birthday, how many people out there have actually read Whitman, as opposed to hearing of him, (or perhaps not even hearing of him, alas).  These particular persons might say or think, “Okay, you’ve got my attention.  Where do I start?  What should I read?”

I am not a Whitman scholar, but the best thing about Whitman is that he speaks to all of us, and one does not have to be a scholar of literature to read and appreciate Whitman.  Here is one of my favorite Whitman quotes, from “Song of Myself,” pertaining to this:

Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

 

So, if I was asked what to read, I would suggest the 1855 “Song of Myself,” and the 1865 “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” both of which are utter masterpieces.  Here are links to both of them:

https://web.archive.org/web/20110213065239/http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=Whi55LG.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=1&division=div1

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45480/when-lilacs-last-in-the-dooryard-bloomd

One of my favorite parts of the Whitman mythos is the aura that surrounds his trip to New Orleans in 1848, seven years before he self-published (and we need to think about this as well – Whitman self-published (?!) the 1855 Leaves of Grass) the first edition of his great work in 1855.  Whitman left New York as “Walter Whitman,” a hack journalist, but when he came back from New Orleans, he was different, he was “Walt.”  What happened to Whitman in New Orleans?  Some scholars have speculated that he had a transformative love affair with a man; others have argued he had some kind of life-changing spiritual experience.  We’ll probably never know what happened exactly, but there is a clear and real qualitative difference between the articles and fiction he wrote earlier in his career (Whitman wrote a serialized novel that was a potboiler about temperance; he also wrote at least around 1200 articles for many different newspapers, many about social and political issues), and the later radical experimental poetry he would dedicate his life to.  One of the most fascinating and amazing products of Whitman scholarship is the digitized manuscript drafts of some parts of the poem, where we can actually see decisions and revisions Whitman made during the process of composition (the actual original manuscript for the 1855 Leaves of Grass is lost; Whitman claimed it had been mistakenly used for a fire and burned by his printer).  Take a look at his early notebooks:

http://bailiwick.lib.uiowa.edu/whitman/index.html

My other favorite aspect of Whitman’s biography is the fact that, once the Civil War started, Whitman spent three years tending to soldiers, really like some kind of saint.  Here is an excerpt from an article about Whitman’s life during the Civil War (link to whole article is below the excerpt):

“Whitman’s routine was to rest after his office work, bathe, dress in fresh clothes, eat a good meal, and put in four to five hours touring the hospitals. He would often pack a knapsack with fruit, tobacco, paper, envelopes, and the like for individual distribution to the soldiers—materials chiefly paid for with money raised from relatives and friends. He entered the hospitals well-rested, sweet-scented, and cheerful in appearance. Though he might often break down hours after a visit, he took care to steel himself to the agonies he witnessed for as long as he was in the presence of the soldiers, to keep his spirits high. He was not so much a “wound-dresser,” as his poem of that title suggests, as a healer of the spirit, an affectionate comrade or “uncle,” whose curative abilities were nonetheless deeply respected at a time when doctor’s interventions often did more harm than good. Whitman never read his poetry to the men—in fact, he apparently never told them he was a poet—but he would recite Shakespeare or passages from the Bible. He would also hold the men’s hands, kiss them, write letters for them. Some of Whitman’s most admirable prose can be found in letters informing parents, with exquisite tact, of the exact circumstances and manner of the death of a son.”

https://whitmanarchive.org/criticism/current/encyclopedia/entry_8.html

I once read a famous critic claim that Whitman’s service during the Civil War killed him as a poet.  While I am not in a position to evaluate this contention, I think it’s fair to acknowledge that Whitman’s service during that time took its toll.  But what does that even mean?  The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “ethics and aesthetics are one.”  When I think about Whitman, I think about this apothegm, and I feel that Walt Whitman, more than any American poet in our storied history, really embodied this truth in his work and his life.  Today, on his 200th birth anniversary, let’s remember this great poet’s contribution to our ongoing lives, to our democracy, to our ways of thinking and feeling and imagining, to our hope, to our literature, to our dreams, and to our future.

Image result for 1855 leaves of grassWhitman’s name weirdly and mysteriously did not appear on the title page of the self-published first edition.

 

 

 

 

 

What we’re reading now….

Secret Historian by Justin Spring

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This the biography of Samuel Steward, a man who would go by many other names in his life. Born in Southeast Ohio, Steward would attend Ohio State University, work as a university English professor, befriend Alfred Kinsey and Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Thornton Wilder, collaborate and contribute to the work of the Kinsey Institute, begin working as a tattoo artist, be ousted from his university job, move to California, and write gay pulp novels. The story of his career is intertwined with his identity as a homosexual man and his intimate personal life. This book uses the treasure trove of personal letters and personal effects to give a frank depiction. An exploration of Pre-Stonewall and gay liberation that gives the reader a glimpse into this man’s world and life.  Greg

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

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Daisy is a girl coming of age in the late sixties.  She is a free spirited, beautiful young woman with a fantastic voice.  The Six is a band led by the  brooding Billy Dunne.  Daisy and Billy eventually cross paths in the world of music, and a producer realizes that the key to massive success is to put the two together.  What happens next is the story of rock legends.    Mary

Chapters in the Course of My Life by Rudolf Steiner

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Steiner was a 19th century Austrian philosopher and “Anthroposophist” – anthroposophy is a spiritual movement Steiner founded, that believed there was a spiritual world accessible to human experience.  Steiner was also the founder of Waldorf education, which focuses on the child as a holistic being, with an emphasis on imagination and creativity. His autobiography is absolutely fascinating, both as a chronicle of his own intellectual and spiritual development, as well as a record of the amazing thinkers, poets, and artists that Steiner associated with and learned from. Andrew

Normal People by Sally Rooney

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This book, often touted as a very Millennial love story, follows Connell and Marianne and their shifting relationship as they transition from adolescence to adulthood.  During high school, Connell is a star athlete, popular and well liked while Marianne is an aloof loner.  They begin to grow closer during the times Connell picks up his mother from her work as Marianne’s family’s housekeeper, eventually starting a secret relationship.  As time passes, so does the nature of their relationship and personal circumstances.  Both Connell and Marianne are relatable, though at times, unlikable characters, leading them to make upsettingly poor choices.   A quick read with a lasting impact. Trent

Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls

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In 2017 much was being written about the rediscovered classic Mrs. Caliban. That was the year Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water featured a similar story of love between a woman and an amphibious creature. Earlier this year the author died and I decided to add this to my reading list for something a little different. This novella moves along at a fast clip. Despite the character Dorothy’s unhappy marriage and humdrum domesticity in the suburbs, Ingalls writes with a droll voice. The creature goes by the human name Larry although the news reports warn people that he is a dangerous monster. I’ve read analysis that Larry could just be a figment of Dorothy’s imagination, a representation of an exciting liberation from her mundane mechanical life. I tend to think of Larry as real, but until I reach the end I have yet to fully make that determination. What do you think? Byron

Weight of a Piano by Chris Cander

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This is the Russian story of Katya who inherits an old Bluthner piano in 1962. She loves music and her piano. Katya marries Mikhail, who becomes a violent drunk, and eventually settles in California. Sadly, the piano is gone. Years later Clara receives a Bluthner piano from her father on her 12th birthday. At 26 years old Clara, suddenly homeless, leases her piano to photographer Greg Zeldin who uses it for a photo series in Death Valley. Greg travels to places he remembers visiting with his mother. Clara follows the adventure ultimately making a connection with Greg, his mother, her father and the piano. This is a beautiful story with lots of attention to detail. Emma

Crimson Lake  by Candice Fox

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Set in a small town in Australia, this series opener stars a disgraced former cop trying to hide from his past and start over.  On the advice of his lawyer he seeks out a local PI who has her own dark past. They make for an odd couple, but they are soon teamed up to work a case involving a missing author. As they work the case Ted and Amanda each start poking around the other’s past. One odd couple, three cases, and a box of geese all make for a fantastic series opener. Megan

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

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This book is a fictional depiction of the very real, very heinous Tennessee Children’s Home Society.   Through alternating timelines we learn about one politically powerful family’s ties to this heartbreaking institution and how so many lives would forever be changed.  Beth

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

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Marie Mitchell is working for the FBI during the 1980s Cold War when she’s recruited to travel to Burkina Faso as a spy to take-down their revolutionary leader, Thomas Sankara. Black, female, French-speaking and repeatedly snubbed in her FBI career, she’s the ideal candidate for the job. Marie chose to be an FBI agent to pay tribute to her recently deceased sister, who died mysteriously. Now, still grieving, she’s heading to Africa, knowing she’d been chosen for her looks, not her talent, and questioning whether Thomas Sankara is as destructive as the U.S. claims him to be. Told as a letter she’s writing to her two young sons, American Spy is a fascinating look at espionage, the Cold War, African politics, race, gender and imperialism, with a dose of romance and suspense thrown in for good measure. Bahni Turpin does an incredible job narrating the audiobook! Dori

I Know You Know by Gilly Macmillan

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Cody Swift is doing a podcast with his girlfriend in an attempt to re-open an investigation into the deaths of his two best friends which occurred twenty years ago when the boys were only eleven years old. As Cody interviews old detectives, parents and witnesses, he frightens someone into threatening his and his girlfriend’s safety. It seems that no one told the whole truth about everything that happened that night. Told in the present, and also through the eyes of 11-year-old Cody in flashbacks, the book is an engaging, page turning read. I felt that the ending had a good twist to it that I did not anticipate, but it was a bit too rushed which made it somewhat anticlimactic. I still would recommend it. Sara

Fiction Roundup – May 2019

Here are some interesting-looking titles of fiction coming out this month.  Note: if you liked the movie “Arrival” (I loved it and watched it twice), Ted Chiang, the science fiction author whose novella “Story of Your Life” was the basis for the movie, has a new book out called Exhalation. To secure a copy of any of these books, just click on the title, and you’ll be taken to the catalog.

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The Behavior of Love by Virginia Reeves – Working to revitalize a crumbling hospital and start a family with his artistic wife, an ambitious behavioral psychiatrist becomes fatefully involved in the case of a wrongly institutionalized patient who has fallen in love with him.

How Not to Die Alone by Richard Roper – Telling a white lie that makes his coworkers believe he has a loving family at home, a lonely man stuck in a thankless public-health job falls in love with a new coworker who challenges his secrets.

Lanny by Max Porter – A follow-up to the prizewinning Grief Is the Thing with Feathers follows the awakening of a mythical being in a London village, where he observes the domestic dramas and creative energies surrounding a mischievous, ethereal young newcomer.

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Exhalation by Ted Chiang – A long-awaited latest collection by the Arrival-inspiring author of “The Story of Your Life” explores revelatory ideas and second chances in such tales as, “In the Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” “Exhalation” and “The Lifecycle of Software Objects.”

Light From Other Stars by Erika Swyler – Decades after her grieving father, a laid-off NASA scientist, triggers chaotic changes in his pursuit of life-extending technology, an astronaut confronts dangerous family secrets to stop a world-threatening crisis. By the author of The Book of Speculation.

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire – In an alternate-reality world under the shadow of a magical government bent on transmuting the fabric of reality, two alchemical twins, one skilled with language and the other with math, become catalysts in their creator’s grab for power.