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Tag Archives: good reads

Finally! “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

Saturday was gloriously free of obligations, so I spent much of the day finishing up “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson. I’d begun to think that I was the only reader in America who hadn’t read it yet. (I’d felt the same way about “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett, which I also recently completed.)

Set in Sweden, it’s a suspenseful telling of a business reporter tracking down the secrets of a prominent industrial family, helped out by an unusual young woman who is remarkably adept at finding information. What they discover together includes some harrowing bits.

I enjoyed feeling myself in the hands of a master plotter. I tried to pay close attention to those characters who were just barely introduced, thinking that surely they will return later with a bigger role to play. Certain relationships seemed entirely predictable, others surprising.

I wish that I could say it was better written, perhaps some of the clumsiness was due to the translation.  I tend to believe that “it’s better to show than to say” in a novel. It seemed to me that often Larsson just got inside someone’s head and flat-out said what he or she was thinking instead of going to the work of showing us through that person’s actions and words.

Even so, like many others, I found myself compelled, reading for hours, looking forward to seeing the loose ends nicely tied–or horrifically tied, as the case may be. I appreciate its look at one of the world’s compelling questions–how do people overcome the remarkable evil done to them?

“One Good Turn”

Over the weekend, I finished “One Good Turn” by Kate Atkinson. Enjoyed it immensely–a novel of several braided lives, woven around an initial road rage incident.  Contemporary. Set in Edinburgh. The second book about Jackson Brodie.

What I loved about it at first was that the action begins immediately–the road rage incident. I wasn’t quite so excited when the next half-dozen or so people were introduced into the action, slowing things down. But it picked up again. I love this kind of fiction, love feeling in the hands of someone who’s crafted a series of events that will eventually make sense.

I appreciated the various characters–a man who writes cozy mysteries and is hiding a hideous secret of his own, a hitman who seems to get very little attention, the wife of a crooked financier, a Russian woman who keeps turning up at unlikely times, Jackson Brodie the former policeman, and many more.

I realize that when I read a “braided lives” novel, I usually prefer one or two of the story lines over others. In this case, I especially liked Jackson Brodie, a good sign since Atkinson is crafting a series around him. As the story progressed, a few times I realized that I should have paid better attention earlier on, as someone who was introduced and then fell to the background was brought back to the spotlight.

All in all, a well-written and well-crafted mystery.

I found it by looking back at past “New York Times best of the year” lists, in this case, the list from 2006.  These lists of 100 titles have enough to include a wide variety of potential books.  I’ve found some of my favorite books by fishing through those lists–I recommend that you take a look for your own next read.

A Great Evening at Eastmont

Last night I had a great time at Eastmont Towers, a retirement community here in Lincoln.

I’d been invited to talk about books, and so I chose to present six of my favorite books from recent years’ American Library Association Notable Books lists. From time to time when I’m asked to talk about books, I’ll review recent Notables lists and pull out those that seem most broadly appealing, and that I found especially rewarding. As a reader, I enjoy reviewing those titles, going back to mark an excerpt or two to sample the flavor of the book. As a librarian, I hope that I’ll persuade someone in the audience to try a new book…from the library.

What a great group! I recognized several people with whom I’d worked before on library or literacy projects. While one or two people may have checked out from time to time (it happens in every crowd!), I appreciated their engagement, their interest, and their follow-up questions.

When I talk about books, I emphasize how much we get from talking to each other about books (or the newspaper or magazines or blogs….). I point out the role that our libraries play in promoting the community conversation about reading. I always hope that these presentations lead to conversations based on books and reading. My goal for the Eastmont group was that within the week, they’d each start a conversation that began, “I’ve got to tell you about something I just read….”

And even though it isn’t about books specificially, here’s the Big Question that I’ve inserted into my presentations recently–Why Are Some People Engaged?  Its corrollary is–What Can the Library Do to Promote Engagement in Lincoln and Lancaster County? Behind my questions is my belief that it’s better to be engaged than disengaged. Better for people, better for communities. There’s been interesting research that links reading to other forms of civic engagement. Our Eastmont group didn’t come to any hard-and-fast conclusions last night. We did agree, though, that being among people who are engaged, and having even just one person invite you to participate, likely makes a person more likely to engage.

Even in this time of great change in the technology of reading, I’m committed to the human connection, the human engagement, that reading creates. Our time together at Eastmont demonstrated how people come together through reading. That’s some great energy. Let’s tap it.

And Now I Can Read What I Want!

I just finished my big reading project of the year–reading all (well, nearly all of all) of the titles on the American Library Association Notable Books list.  And a good list it was. I’ve made two presentations on the books, with high hopes that some readers in those audiences will try a few of my favorites. I’d be happy to speak to additional groups, so contact me if you’re interested.

I’m always trying to convince readers to take on a reading discipline–it doesn’t have to be a whole list, but maybe just the Pulitzer Prize novel each year, or the Hugo Award winner, or the Newbery Medal winner. I’ve loved the over-the-years perspective that I’ve gained from the Notable Books project.

I also LOVE having free choice. That’s where I am now–I can read whatever I want!

I started with “mennonite in a little black dress” by Rhoda Janzen. I’m a huge fan of memoir, and hoped for something a little quirky here. I scored on both counts. Janzen grew up in a Mennonite family in California. After her 15-year marriage came to an end and she was injured seriously in a car accident, Janzen returned home for a while. This is the story of her picking up the pieces and returning to the fold, sort of.

I’m not Mennonite, and can’t evaluate this as if I were. Janzen clearly loves her parents, loved her upbringing, and is in a position to poke a lot of fun. I don’t believe she’s disrepectful, though she is irreverent.  I haven’t laughed out loud so much reading a book in a long time.

Janzen’s reports of her conversations with her mother are drop-dead funny.

There’s also a maturation process at work. For instance, she describes how she once avoided serving the classic Mennonite foods of her youth…and then how she scored big at an English department potluck with a big pan of Hollapse. In many places she notes how she’s grown into a sense of herself that embraces her Mennonite heritage. She begins to find peace regarding her broken marriage.

This book works because Janzen is an excellent storyteller who laughs at herself as well as others. She’s got a great eye for the details that make a difference. She doesn’t shirk from the more ribald and absurd aspects of her life.

I’ll recommend this to my many friends who enjoy memoir, to people who enjoy a funny book, and to those who appreciate a great story.

And now that I’m free to read whatever I want…send suggestions my way, please.

Another Notable–“In the Year of the Flood” by Margaret Atwood

As many of you know, each year I read most of the books on the American Library Association Notable Books List. The list is typically announced in January–about 25 books including fiction and nonfiction, with a couple of poetry added in. I do the reading, and then in October, November, and December, I give presentations around and about, describing this year’s books.  The books tend to be fairly literary and serious, although each year’s list has a few gems even for a reader looking for something frivolous or easy or funny.

In my reading calendar around September, I get to the Notable titles that I have put off reading, usually because they’ve struck me as likely downers, or too thick and slow, or too serious (which for me is often the same as thick and slow).

So, here it is, late September, and I finally picked up Margaret Atwood’s “The Year of the Flood.” It’s a sequel to her earlier, “Oryx and Crake.” I put it off because I knew it was set in a dystopian future, and since I’ve read Margaret Atwood before, I know that when she writes about hopeless…well, it’s hopeless.

I got up early and finished it this morning before going to work, I was that taken with the story. It’s set in a future where chaos and corporations reign, where pharmaceutical research creates crazy animals, plagues, and sexual explosion, and where bodies are dumped for scavengers to process. The story itself revolves around a group of people called The Gardeners who nurture rooftop gardens, who’ve created a religious world based on nature and vegetarianism.

As the story opens, it seems that only a few people have survived a plague. Two of them are former Gardeners. Their stories of survival eventually wend them back to The Gardeners. Through flashbacks, Atwood shows us the back story on two women, Ren and Toby.  They work their way through the wreck of the world that remains, not trusting the health or intentions of other people, watching their supplies run low, and being forced out of the places that offer refuge.

I tend to think that most novels set in other times are really about our present, and I believe that of “The Year of the Flood.” Atwood writes a ripping good story, but the questions she raises are of our time. How are we taking care of the world? What DO we worship? What will be the outcome of scientific advances that are mostly about money? What price will people pay to be attractive? Where does materialism get us? Those are addressed even as the reader soldiers on, hoping that Toby and Ren survive to create a new life among their old friends.

I wasn’t ready for the ending. I turned the final page, expecting another chapter.

I’ll recommend this to people who appreciate good writing–Atwood places people carefully, and she uses dialogue so well, allowing people to reveal much about themselves as they seem to describe others. Toby and Ren are imperfect characters, yet I found myself caring what happened to them. In the plain old-fashioned sense, I wanted to know how the story ended.

I’ll probably also recommend this to people who are concerned about the environment, since that is a major aspect of this book.

And I’ll recommend it to people who say that they don’t care for dystopian novels or science fiction or books set in the future…I would have said that, too, but I enjoyed “The Year of the Flood” immensely.