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Staff Picks: Books

Siege Winter

I am a fan of historical fiction, so when Ariana Franklin’s newest title Siege Winter arrived, I looked forward to reading it. And with good reason, as it turns out.

The story takes place in 12th century England, around 1140, when King Stephen and his cousin, the Empress Matilda, are fighting over control of the country. Their armies and supporters battle it out, and a castle located on the Thames is considered to be a strategic location for both Stephen and Matilda. The castle, Kenilworth, belongs to 15 year old Maud, married against her wishes to a much older man. The story revolves around a long, brutal winter of siege, when mercenaries, soldiers, and a truly evil monk all scheme to achieve their own ends.

Sadly, author Ariana Franklin died while writing Siege Winter; the book was completed by her daughter. Franklin is also the author of a wonderful series set in medieval Cambridge, where an Italian woman doctor acts as a sort of medical sleuth. The first in that series is Mistress of the Art of Death, and I highly recommend that series.


Trigger Warning

In the introduction to this short story collection, Neil Gaiman wonders, “Are fictions a safe place?” and then, “Should they be safe places?” Certainly, many of his works explore dark and upsetting themes, and this collection is no different. However, there is also kindness inherent in these stories and some characters even have happy endings. I see this as a reflection of the real world, where there is always a mix of good and bad.  

As a storyteller, Gaiman’s mastery lies in his ability to create an immersive world, which then opens for the reader, encouraging them to follow along on an adventure within that world. His short stories deliver all of that depth and engagement in bite-sized pieces, and can be enjoyed in the little bits of free time life offers, or in one satisfying binge session on a lazy Saturday. This book also includes the background of how each story came to be, what inspired it, and perhaps Gaiman’s underlying purpose or intention. Some readers may prefer to imagine that great works are created by geniuses far removed from society, but I take comfort in the idea that even great authors are just people too.


Citizen: An American Lyric

Citizen: An American Lyric is a powerful meditation on race from author Claudia Rankine. It adorned many ‘best of’ lists in 2014 and was nominated for several literary awards. The slender book is an intense yet lyrical portrait of American racism in 2015 that explores both the veiled and unambiguous manifestations of this most insidious fact of life. Rankine possesses a spirited voice and expresses audacious candor in linking everyday racism with its corrosive impact upon the marginalized and powerless. Rankine’s book, characterized by a hybrid form that mixes prose, essay, memoir, and the occasional image investigates the relationship between race, invisibility and the notion of citizenship. April is National Poetry Month and for those who have not read this powerful, timely book, place it on your future reading list.


For Lizzie freedom means learning

 In Lesa Cline-Ransome's book Freedom's School, one day mama told Lizzie and her brother Paul that they “went to sleep ‘slaves’ and woke up free”. Mama said that being free means you have to work harder. “Real freedom means ‘rithmetic and writing.”

Lizzie was eager to learn but it was hard for her and Paul to leave their mama and daddy working so hard in the crop fields. Getting to school was not easy and sometimes they had rocks thrown at them. The first school was burned down. Daddy remarked that “at least they got a little learnin”. Lizzie and mama didn’t answer “Cause they knew that halfway to freedom feels like no freedom”.

Well, Lizzie got her wish. One day mama woke them up and said hurry up and get dressed and we’ll go check on Mizz Howard. They got there to see men working on rebuilding the school and Mizz Howard was ready to start lessons. 


The Invention of Wings

One of my favorite reads during the long winter was Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings, which follows the relationship between Hetty "Handful" Grimke, a Charleston slave, and Sarah, the Grimke daughter who is given ownership of Handful for her 11th birthday. Told in alternating points of view between the two, the book follows each girl's individual growth into adulthood as well as their ever-changing relationships with each other and with their families, all in the setting of the 19th century South. Both antislavery and women's rights movements play prominently in this fast-moving but captivating narrative that chronicles an important time (and an important figure) in our country's history. 


West of Sunset

It has been many years since I have read one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books but I have read several historical novels in the past few years about him and/or his wife, Zelda. The most recent one, West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan, was published in January.

O’Nan focuses on the last three years of Fitzgerald’s life, 1937 – 1940, as he is trying to make it as a Hollywood screenwriter. These were troubled years; his literary success is well behind him, he was abusing drugs and alcohol, Zelda was in and out of a hospital being treated for mental health issues, his finances were in ruins, and the world was on the brink of World War II.

Although the focus is on Fitzgerald, there is also the romance of Hollywood and the movies, the relationship with Ernest Hemingway and movie stars of the times, and his affair with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham.

One reviewer referred to it as a “bittersweet portrait of the once-great novelist.” In the end it is almost heartbreaking to see Fitzgerald slip away.

This is a strong addition to the Fitzgerald historical fiction literature.

 


A Thirst For Home: A Story of Water Across the World

Imagine our water supply and how easy it is for us to go to any of our faucets at home and get clear, cool drinking water. We don’t even think about it. I was reminded of this ease or lack of it several months ago. I needed to have a new washing machine installed. Easy enough said the salesman, when it is delivered, they’ll just hook it right up. Nothing is ever that easy – the deliveryman was not able to install the washer and that evening as my husband was tinkering with it, I heard a gush of running water – never a good sound! As my husband ran to the basement to shut off the water I realized this meant no running water until we could schedule the plumber. No shower, No flushing the toilet, no making a pot of coffee, no drinking water – we were lucky and it was only for 1 day – but I really missed running water for that day. Reading A Thirst For Home made me realize how we much we expect to have water.

A Thirst For Home is the story of Alemitu and her mama who live in a small village in Ethiopia. They often walk all morning in the blazing sun to the watering hole. Her mother told her that the watering hole gives them something even more precious than gold! She said they could live a lifetime without gold but not a day without a drink of water. Water is life and it connects everyone and everywhere.

One day Alemitu’s mama takes her to a place where she will find out what is on the other side, but mama cannot go with her. Her mama cries like raindrops and Alemitu catches the tears in the scarf she gave her. Alemitu waits for mama to return. Many weeks later a lady comes and the nannies tell Alemitu that this woman is her new mama. The new mama speaks words she does not understand but stays with her until she falls asleep. Alemitu feels safe again.

Now her name is Eva – it means life. She has a new family with a sister, 2 brothers , a mom and a dad. Every morning when she wakes, she has a glass of cold, clean water. Eva drinks every drop. One night a rain storm makes raindrops bang on the roof and Eva crawls into bed between mom and dad. She feels safe.

In the morning she finds a large puddle outside and cups her hand to take a drink. In that moment Eva realizes she is on the other side of the watering hole. She sees her mama smiling down at her and she knows she is connected to both worlds.

Christine Leronimo wrote this powerful story after she found her newly adopted daughter drinking from a puddle in her family’s driveway. Eva’s story is truly thought provoking. 

 


Monopoly and Musicals and Mysteries Oh My

Here are some books that have caught my eye over the past two months as I read reviews to decide what to purchase for the library:

The Monopolists by Mary Pilon
When an economics professor, Ralph Anspach, in the 1970s invented an anti-monopoly game, he is threatened by Parker Brothers, which leads to a lawsuit and research into the origins of the game. Anspach uncovers that the game goes back to the early 1900s and that it was invented by a woman, not the traditional story of the inventor being an unemployed man during the Great Depression. The reviewer in Booklist states, “The book abounds with interesting tidbits for board-game buffs but treats its subject seriously. After reading The Monopolists —part parable on the perils facing inventors, part legal odyssey, and part detective story —you'll never look at spry Mr. Monopoly in the same way again.”

Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully by Allen Kurzweil
Kurzweil was bullied while at a Swiss boarding school by a twelve year old native of Manila named Cesar Augustus; once being whipped to the soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar. Yes, truth is stranger than fiction. The reviewer in Library Journal wrote, “It moves like a thriller, is very funny, and in the right hands, would make a great movie.”

By Book or By Crook by Eva Gates
Former Harvard librarian, Lucy, finds her dream job in a lighthouse library on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and can’t believe her luck, until a priceless Jane Austen first edition is stolen and people start getting murdered. For some, I’m sure combining libraries and lighthouses in a mystery is like combining horses and mermaids in an adventure tale for my daughter. Can it get any better?


Another One from Anne Tyler

I always look forward to a new novel from Anne Tyler and put it on hold as soon as announced. Spool of Blue Thread, her 20th novel and published in early February, has received strong reviews. I agree.

Once again, the setting is Baltimore and the characters are an ordinary family. Like most families though, there are back stories, history, celebrations, family dynamics.

The overarching theme is the uncomfortable shift that occurs in families as the parents decline and the grown children and parents begin to exchange roles. The story follows three generations of the Whitshank family centering on the stately home which has become part of the family lore.

Tyler’s manner of storytelling and her insight into the ordinariness of family life always results in a satisfying read for me.


Do Bears and Libraries Mix? Silly Question. Of Course, They Do!

 A Library Book For Bear by Bonny Becker with illustrations by Kady MacDonald Denton is a humorous picture book about a bear who had never been to the library.

 

One morning, Bear hears a tapping at his door. He sees the bright-eyed face of his fervent  friend Mouse who is excited to take Bear to the library to show him around, and because he thinks that it’s just a doggone fun place to visit. While previously Bear did promise to accompany Mouse, today he thinks that this expedition will be a complete waste of his very precious time. After all, he already owned a grand total of seven books and believed that this private collection would more than adequately cover his needs for the foreseeable future. But a promise is a promise, so off they go.

 

Upon their arrival, a very grumpy Bear is once again quick to criticize. In his estimation, the library building is much too big and contains “far too many books”. All this, he declares, is nothing more than pure excess.

 

But enthusiastic Mouse persists with positives, pointing out that the library is quite exciting and declares that he will find Bear a perfect book about pickles, since pickles is the one topic that Bear seems to find most intellectually stimulating. But no matter which title Mouse suggests, Bear is dismissive of the selections and voices his displeasure in a very loud and disruptive manner.

 

Before long, he is shushed into quiet by two mothers (one squirrel, the other raccoon), whose youngsters are gathered around a smiling librarian conducting story time. Bear is upset at being told to quiet down and wants to leave the library pronto.

 

However, on his way to the exit, he overhears the librarian read a story about a very brave bear and a treasure chest filled with very special pickle slices. Oh my, Bear becomes entranced, and it is now he who quickly tells Mouse to quiet down!

 

After story time, Bear checks out a number of new books including one titled “The Very Brave Bear and the Treasure of Pickle Island”, which Bear reads to Mouse back at his home that very same day.

 

Wonderfully expressive illustrations compliment this top notch choice for young children, that gently promotes libraries and all that they offer!

 

And it’s a great selection to celebrate “Read Across America Day”, March 2nd, 2015.