Blogs: Books & literature

Town in Bloom bookjacketIf you are familiar with 101 Dalmatians, then you have at the very least, crossed paths with Dodie Smith for she is the author of that much-loved children’s story. And in the not too distant past, she had a revival of sorts with I Capture the Castle being re-released and made into a film. It is an utterly sweet and charming tale of a young woman who navigates the tricky waters of love and ends up all the more independent and witty. Smith wrote a handful of plays and other novels, each one is a gem in its own right. Long out of print, some of these titles were re-released in 2012 by Corsair Publishers and Multnomah County Library has recently purchased them. They are: The Town in Bloom, The New Moon with the Old, and It Ends with Revelations.  

Of these, I have read The Town in Bloom and can highly recommend it. It is a coming of age story set in 1920s London among the fast-moving theatre crowd. Though the heroine Mouse is in her late teens when the story begins, you also hear from her older self recalling the past with a bit of perspective. And like I Capture the Castle, it is a love story, but with a more adult twist.  Nothing explicit mind you, but the themes of affairs (extramarital or otherwise), marriage, divorce, and a woman making it on her own, are topics that are only increase in appreciation if you’ve got a few years under your belt yourself. Young adult readers may well enjoy it, but it deserves a re-read later on in life. If you like historical fiction set in the jazz age, London, the life of a struggling actor, or a good love story where the heroine comes out loving herself most of all, give it a go.

 

Book Jacket: Crapalachia by Scott McClanahanSometimes it isn’t until regular life gets interrupted, that you realize you’ve been in a rut. The same goes for reading. That’s what happened to me when I came across Crapalachia by Scott McClanahan. I won’t lie, It was the title that attracted me. That and the anthropomorphic cover art (Yes, I’m an Etsy shopper). What I found inside, was a surprising and original story that kept me laughing and led me to stay up much too late, watching videos of McClanahan reading his free-form writing as rapid-fire, spoken word poetry with a distinctive regional twang.

Crapalachia is published by Two Dollar Radio; a family run, independent publisher specializing in subversive, original, and highly creative fiction.  It would all be very Portland if they weren't located in Columbus, Ohio.  Perhaps best yet, the vast majority of their books published are 200 pages or less.  I have a tall stack of books competing for my limited reading time and while I do like subversive and experimental, I like it best kept short.  Book Jacket: How to Get into the Twin Palms by Karolina Waclawiak

I’ve since enjoyed another Two Dollar Radio title, How To Get Into the Twin Palms by Karolina Waclawiak.  She takes the immigrant experience novel in an entirely unexpected direction with a second generation Polish American woman who longs to pass as Russian to gain entry into the mysterious Twin Palms nightclub. 

Up next for me is A Questionable Shape, a zombie novel by Bennett Sims. Not just yet though. I’m saving it for when I need another quick jolt to interrupt my reading rut.

 
Find Two Dollar Radio books in our library catalog.

We the animals bookjacketLet's face it - books you remember long after you've read them, the ones that make you turn your clock to the wall so you won't know that dawn is approaching and you've stayed up all night reading - those books are few and far between. That's why I am so excited to tell you about We the Animals by Justin Torres.

Having grown up with two brothers, I was sure the author was capturing the chaos, fearfulness and bravado of boyhood. And as a child surrounded by boys and living in a place where we had the autonomy to come up with haphazard schemes that often put us in real danger, I felt a real sense of returning to childhood, a world that many adults have forgotten or idealized into a safe, sweet and carefree world. 

From the very beginning, Torres establishes the feral nature of childhood:

"WE WANTED MORE. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons aginast our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping fee; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more."

The language in We the Animals is perfect for reading aloud; and it's short - short enough that maybe you won't have to stay up all night reading, but instead will go to sleep and dream of that half-remembered world of childhood.

My absolute new favorite show is Broad City. Hilarious! Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer are hysterically funny. They started out as an online phenomenon and then Amy Poehler plucked them from the internet and splat, they're now on Comedy Central. Ilana and Abbi play 2 women in their 20's living in New York. Somehow the most innocent endeavors become hysterical and surreal when Ilana and Abbi are involved.

One episode had Abbi waiting on a package to be delivered to her cute neighbor. Unfortunately she misses the delivery so she heads out to the warehouse to pick it up for him (she really wants to hook up with her neighbor!). As we all know, UPS warehouses are always far, far away in super inconvenient areas and thus, on one leg of her journey, she has to travel in a rowboat filled with twins. It's totally weird and wholly funny.

One of the things I like about Abbi and Ilana is that they're truly relatable.  How many of us still feel that we've never outgrown our awkward phase? Watching Abbi and Ilana makes me feel better about myself while I chortle loudly.David Cross bookjacet

While I'm waiting for season 2 of Broad City to begin, I'll just have to while away my time with some of my other favorite comedians.

Adam from Central is reading Beds are Burning by Mark Dodshon. 
"A book about a band so ferociously, fantastically exotic that no US library can contain it! Thanks Vancouver Public Library and MCL's ILL department!"

LolitaLolita. “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”

Do you know this book? It’s about middle-aged, European Humbert Humbert, who has had his eye on certain girls between the ages of nine and fourteen for his entire adult life. Through a mix of strategy and happenstance, Humbert gets 12-year-old Lolita completely in his power and makes her his concubine-- who also  poses as his daughter. And yes, it's as deeply disturbing as it sounds. The book was banned for years all over the world after its publication and still carries an air of scandal.

I’d been reading indiscriminately and in volume, heading every couple of weeks to a used bookstore that sold paperbacks and filling a grocery bag with books by Danielle Steele, V.C. Andrews, and Jacqueline Susann (who I still kind of love). Lolita, when I finally picked it up, grabbed me in a different way than those books. For one thing, I thought it was sexy. At 15, I wasn’t completely horrified at what I saw as Humbert’s seduction of a twelve-year-old. I knew I was sexual, and I wasn’t that much older than Lolita. At that age, I was interested in older men.  I was also seduced by the novel’s sinuous music and deep romanticism. There’s beautiful poetry in this book. “My only grudge against nature was that I could not turn my Lolita inside out and apply voracious lips to her young matrix, her unknown heart, her nacreous liver, the sea-grapes of her lungs, her comely twin kidneys.”

I read Lolita at least five or six more times in my teens and early twenties, but then I worked in bookstores and libraries for awhile. It seemed that books were flying at me all the time, so I didn’t do much rereading. Later, in the wildly hormonal years when I was having babies and dealing with being a mom to small children, I couldn’t imagine wanting to read a book about a sexual predator and didn’t even want to think about Lolita.

Recently I found out that Jeremy Irons was the voice actor for the audio book of Lolita, which the library has on CD and in downloadable audio, and I thought, “Sign me up!” Honestly? Sign me up to hear Jeremy Irons read a grocery list or the ingredients in a bottle of shampoo. After years and years, I “read” Lolita again.

At the age I am now, the book was so much more, in every way, than I remembered, both lovelier and more poignant, and more distressing. It’s genius, having Humbert narrate the book in the first person. You’re right there with him, appreciating Lolita’s beauty, remembering the shock of new love, and then he says something so devastatingly cruel and selfish, so perverted, that you’re shocked. You go in and out of sympathy like this again and again and again. He becomes a monster, then someone whose pain we understand perfectly, then a monster again. Walking home, with Jeremy Iron’s voice in my earbuds, I would sometimes have to stop and cry out, bury my head in my hands. "Hi, there, neighbors. It's not mental illness. It's literature."

Jeremy Irons reads the book with verve, showing us Humbert’s charm, his anger, his often very funny sense of humor. But at the end, as I listened on a grey, drizzly morning on my way to work, his voice grew more subdued as he tells of realizing what his love  has done to Lolita’s life. “We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night — every night, every night — the moment I feigned sleep.”

I showed up at the library in no kind of shape to help patrons, at least for a little while. But I’m glad I listened to this masterpiece again.

The Girl with the Dragon TattooI’ve been reading Scandinavian mysteries for years (even before The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo burst onto the international scene). I’ve always been drawn to the dark, murderous mayhem in these books, but I’ve also wondered about the crimes that abound in Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and Icelandic mystery books. Are there really so many violent occurrences in those cold climes? Or is it rather that all of those sunless days of winter just breed writers searching in the dark for soulless murderers?

Since I spend my days at the library, I decided to do a bit of research on this. First, looking at crime statistics in those countries, I compiled this chart from statistics in 2012:

Homicides per 100,000 people rate

population

Iceland 1 0.3 320,137
Denmark 47 0.9 5.59 million
Sweden 91 1.0 9.517 million
Finland 118 2.2 5.414 million
Norway 111 2.3 5.019 million

Okay, compared to the  U.S. (14,612 per 100,000 for the rate of 4.7!), Scandinavians are a peaceful people. In terms of sheer numbers, the United State is the ninth most murderous country. Yes, there are tons of books set in this country about horrific murders and violence but sheesh, there was only 1 murder in Iceland in 2012 (or possibly up to 3, I couldn’t find the actual number),but I counted at least 20 murders set in Iceland written by their popular authors.

I can only think that those long, dark winters create the perfect atmosphere to spin tales of violence. Here are some of the Scandinavian mysteries I’ve curled up with during Portland’s long, rainy winters. Skal!

 

Blogs tend to lend themselves as a platform for books. It is a natural forum for sharing book reviews, what you’re reading now, and learning about new books you might be interested in reading next. With that in mind, I thought I’d share a few of my favorites who all just happen to be British…

Rachel at BookSnob is a voracious and serious reader, who has thankfully been slowed slightly by her duties as a new(ish) literature teacher to a group of sometimes apathetic students. She also shares stories and pictures of her weekend explorations of her beloved England. I stumbled upon her blog through LibraryThing, which is another handy tool for the bookish crowd. I use it more as a means to catalogue my books, but there are plenty of reviews and chances to discover new titles.

Persephone Books is not a blog, rather it is a publisher of classic grey paperback novels. They re-publish neglected titles by women, for women, and about women that have gone out of print. Their claim is that “the books are guaranteed to be readable, thought-provoking, and impossible to forget.” This forum is a book club of sorts. Each month a book from the Persephone Press catalogue is chosen and discussed.  

Dove Grey Reader is another one of those insatiable consumers of the written word.  She always has a list of titles she’s currently reading and anticipating, plus what she’s watching or listening to at the moment. 

Honorable mentions go to Simon over at Stuck in a Book who has very similar reading tastes to myself but brings a male perspective to the table, Jane over at FleurFisher, and to the now defunct blog by Verity where she catalogued her read through the entire Virago Modern Classic canon.

How will you find your next book?

cover image of joy harjo books

Well, it has happened again - I have fallen in love with a fictional character who lives in a time and a place created out of real history.

Sister Pelagia bookjacketLet me explain.

Sister Pelagia is  the main character in a mystery series written by Boris Akunin.  She is an inquisitive, bespectacled, red-haired nun living in Imperial Russia, trying to observe her faith in peace and harmony with her fellow sisters and the students at the school for girls where she is a headmistress.  But her insatiable curiosity, her stubborn persistence and her penchant for seeing all the details make her a detective without equal. Somehow she always seems to find herself in the middle of a mysterious circumstance: the poisoning of a rare white bulldog, an inexplicable ghost haunting the Hermitage Abbey or a Christ-like prophet who appears to be able to come back from the dead.

Her adventures always begin in Russia but her sleuthing takes her all over the world, from the dark, thick forests of Siberia to the sun drenched land of the Middle East.

With the Sister Pelagia series you get the best of both worlds: the great philosophical questions that Russian authors have always debated: Love, Death, God, Good, Evil;  you also plunge into the depths of a world peopled with extraordinary characters, unorthodox situations and exotic places. Not the least of these is the mystery itself that is interwoven into the story as a living breathing creature.

Writing  in the style and with the plot complexity of Charles Dickens, Russian author Boris Akunin  deals unflinchingly with the attitudes of the time, especially the question of how we treat those who are different, whether by race or class or sexual preference. He doesn't try to softsoap the truth, but tempers it with humor and unusual historical details.

If you like mesmerizing mysteries set in a different time and place with a heroine who won’t give up until she finds the truth, you will love the Sister Pelegia series by Boris Akunin. Start with Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog.

 

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