mini-review · stuff I read

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
On the morning of April 28, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual fire alarm. As one fireman recounted, “Once that first stack got going, it was ‘Goodbye, Charlie.’” The fire was disastrous: it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?

Weaving her lifelong love of books and reading into an investigation of the fire, award-winning New Yorker reporter and New York Times bestselling author Susan Orlean delivers a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling book that manages to tell the broader story of libraries and librarians in a way that has never been done before.

In The Library Book, Orlean chronicles the LAPL fire and its aftermath to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives; delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from their humble beginnings as a metropolitan charitable initiative to their current status as a cornerstone of national identity; brings each department of the library to vivid life through on-the-ground reporting; studies arson and attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; reflects on her own experiences in libraries; and reexamines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the LAPL more than thirty years ago.

Along the way, Orlean introduces us to an unforgettable cast of characters from libraries past and present—from Mary Foy, who in 1880 at eighteen years old was named the head of the Los Angeles Public Library at a time when men still dominated the role, to Dr. C.J.K. Jones, a pastor, citrus farmer, and polymath known as “The Human Encyclopedia” who roamed the library dispensing information; from Charles Lummis, a wildly eccentric journalist and adventurer who was determined to make the L.A. library one of the best in the world, to the current staff, who do heroic work every day to ensure that their institution remains a vital part of the city it serves.

Brimming with her signature wit, insight, compassion, and talent for deep research, The Library Book is Susan Orlean’s thrilling journey through the stacks that reveals how these beloved institutions provide much more than just books—and why they remain an essential part of the heart, mind, and soul of our country. It is also a master journalist’s reminder that, perhaps especially in the digital era, they are more necessary than ever.

I remember reading about the Los Angeles Central Library fire in other books about libraries, chiefly Patience and Fortitude. The intriguing thing about the fire is that is was never solved – not in ignition and not in culprit, if indeed the fire was deliberately set. So I was really interested in Susan Orlean’s new book, titled The Library Book.

Now, The Library Book is three things:

  1. A reminiscence about books and reading and libraries and how Orlean had been a heavy library user as a child but grew out of it as an adult.
  2. A history of the development of the Los Angeles Central Library as an institution and what the library offers the Los Angeles area in the twenty-first century
  3. An account of the 1986 fire that gutted the Central Library and of the decidedly odd man suspected of setting the fire

Although there are some sections of the book that don’t flow together as well as they might due to the three different themes running through the book, I found Orlean’s work to be fun. The Library Book is a very readable and warm (haha) book from one library lovers to another. Orlean could have written a completely separate book about Harry Peak, the man arrested for setting the fire (never charged due to lack of evidence of arson, or even a conclusive ignition point for the fire – the building was so in need of modernization the fire could have started spontaneously). Peak is both a larger-than-life and an enigmatic character and as such is completely fascinating.

As a little bonus for library nerds, each chapter is headed by titles of several books and their associated call numbers (nerd catnip) pertaining to the subject of the chapter.

The Library Book is out October 16.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

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stuff I read

The Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
The Lost for Words Bookshop is a compelling, irresistible, and heart-rending audiobook from author Stephanie Butland

Loveday Cardew prefers books to people. If you look carefully, you might glimpse the first lines of the novels she loves most tattooed on her skin. But there are some things Loveday will never, ever show you.

Into her hiding place – the bookstore where she works – come a poet, a lover, and three suspicious deliveries.

Someone has found out about her mysterious past. Will Loveday survive her own heartbreaking secrets?

Praise for The Lost for Words Bookshop:

“The Lost for Words Bookshop pushes all my bookish buttons.”–Red (Books to Read)

“Quirky, clever and unputdownable.”–Katie Fforde

“Burns fiercely with love and hurt. A rare and beautiful novel.”–Linda Green, bestselling author of While My Eyes Were Closed

I missed The Lost for Words Bookshop when it published in June because I couldn’t get my hands on a galley. But now that it’s autumn, and good snuggle up and read weather, I sat down to read a novel set in an English bookshop (well, and the copy I borrowed from the store needed to be returned).

The novel is narrated by Loveday Cardew, a solitary and one might say “quirky” (because attitude and tattoos, you know) young woman who works at The Lost for Words Bookshop in York. One day she finds a lost book on the street, posts a notice in the shop window, and meets a poet. He’s nice enough, but invites Loveday to a weekly poetry reading at the pub…which Loveday would rather remove her own skin than attend, but she winds up going because the other option is to get stalked by her shitty ex-boyfriend. In between Loveday’s thoughts on working at the bookshop (which she’s done since the age of 15) and opinions on books and reading, there come three very strange book deliveries which lead Loveday back into her past.

Now, before you get really excited and think this is a wild mystery or Loveday is hiding from the mob or something, it’s not that. I won’t spoil it too much but Loveday lives much of her life reacting to a very traumatic event in her childhood. She herself was not physically harmed (so, no TW for harm to children) though it has caused her to keep everyone that might love or care for her at a distance. The confluence of the book deliveries, the poet, and the ex all combine to break open Loveday’s tough exterior.

The Lost for Words Bookshop was a solid one-sitting read for me full of the solace that books can bring when one is lonely. I enjoyed Loveday’s voice very much, particularly when she spoke directly to the reader. But for all the snarky humor, there is a dark center to this book. There are several scenes with domestic violence and one character suffers from mental illness (although I’m not sure that aspect was handled well). A trigger warning if you need to know in advance.

Dear FTC: I borrowed a copy of this book from my store.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Great American Read: The Book of Books: Explore America’s 100 Best-Loved Novels

38255077Summary from Goodreads:
A blockbuster illustrated book that captures what Americans love to read, The Great American Read: The Book of Books is the gorgeously-produced companion book to PBS’s ambitious summer 2018 series.
What are America’s best-loved novels? PBS will launch The Great American Read series with a 2-hour special in May 2018 revealing America’s 100 best-loved novels, determined by a rigorous national survey. Subsequent episodes will air in September and October. Celebrities and everyday Americans will champion their favorite novel and in the finale in late October, America’s #1 best-loved novel will be revealed.
The Great American Read: The Book of Books will present all 100 novels with fascinating information about each book, author profiles, a snapshot of the novel’s social relevance, film or television adaptations, other books and writings by the author, and little-known facts. Also included are themed articles about banned books, the most influential book illustrators, reading recommendations, the best first-lines in literature, and more.
Beautifully designed with rare images of the original manuscripts, first-edition covers, rejection letters, and other ephemera, The Great American Read: The Book of Books is a must-have book for all booklovers.

I really enjoyed the kickoff episode for PBS’s Great American Read so I picked up the companion book a few weeks ago. This is a very pretty book about books (heyo, genre kryptonite) so definite four solid stars as a lovely object about books.

However, there is some unbelievably lazy-arsed copy-editing where captions are laid out wrong and some seriously convoluted sentences appear. Black Dog & Leventhal editor, I’m giving you the hairy eyeball on this one.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

37457057Summary from Goodreads:
Shaun Bythell owns The Bookshop, Wigtown – Scotland’s largest second-hand bookshop. It contains 100,000 books, spread over a mile of shelving, with twisting corridors and roaring fires, and all set in a beautiful, rural town by the edge of the sea. A book-lover’s paradise? Well, almost … In these wry and hilarious diaries, Shaun provides an inside look at the trials and tribulations of life in the book trade, from struggles with eccentric customers to wrangles with his own staff, who include the ski-suit-wearing, bin-foraging Nicky. He takes us with him on buying trips to old estates and auction houses, recommends books (both lost classics and new discoveries), introduces us to the thrill of the unexpected find, and evokes the rhythms and charms of small-town life, always with a sharp and sympathetic eye.

I’ve had my eye out for Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller ever since it pubbed in the U.K. – thanks Melville House for bringing it stateside.

I loved reading Bythell’s record of a year in his life as a bookseller in Wigtown in lowland Scotland. It’s more than just a daily record of the dumb customers or the problems Amazon/the Internet has brought to the business. It’s about being a part of a community, the history of the area, and also the melancholy of going out to value and/or buy the library of a person who has died or needs to move out of their home. That said, I massively enjoyed the snark Bythell doles out on the page (also, his shop assistant Nicky is goofballs in the most amazing way). We meet his American girlfriend Anna who commutes between Wigtown and London, his ever-enlarging cat Captain, the friend who organizes the book festival yet leaves his shoes (and assorted mess) all over Bythell’s flat in the most annoying way, and go fishing with Bythell and his dad. If you’re a book-lover, you have to read this.

(I hand-sold this to a customer as “Black Books in Scotland but mostly sober and he actually sells books.” Haha.)

The Diary of a Bookseller is out now.

Dear FTC: I got access to the digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss but I’ll definitely be buying a copy.

mini-review · stuff I read

I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life by Anne Bogel

38502471Summary from Goodreads:
For so many people, reading isn’t just a hobby or a way to pass the time–it’s a lifestyle. Our books shape us, define us, enchant us, and even sometimes infuriate us. Our books are a part of who we are as people, and we can’t imagine life without them.

I’d Rather Be Reading is the perfect literary companion for everyone who feels that way. In this collection of charming and relatable reflections on the reading life, beloved blogger and author Anne Bogel leads readers to remember the book that first hooked them, the place where they first fell in love with reading, and all of the moments afterward that helped make them the reader they are today. Known as a reading tastemaker through her popular podcast What Should I Read Next?, Bogel invites book lovers into a community of like-minded people to discover new ways to approach literature, learn fascinating new things about books and publishing, and reflect on the role reading plays in their lives.

The perfect gift for the bibliophile in everyone’s life, I’d Rather Be Reading will command an honored place on the overstuffed bookshelves of any book lover.

A sweet (and very small) book about the love of books, reading, and the reading life. A book to keep in mind as a stocking stuffer for your favorite reader. I read almost the whole thing in the bath (don’t judge – Epsom soaks are most effective when very long).

Dear FTC: I bought a copy since there were no galleys to be had.

mini-review · stuff I read

Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters by Anne Boyd Rioux

Rioux_cover-TEMP_REV.inddSummary from Goodreads:
Soon after publication on September 30, 1868, Little Women became an enormous bestseller and one of America’s favorite novels. Its popularity quickly spread throughout the world, and the book has become an international classic. When Anne Boyd Rioux read the novel in her twenties, she had a powerful reaction to the story. Through teaching the book, she has seen the same effect on many others.

In Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, Rioux recounts how Louisa May Alcott came to write Little Women, drawing inspiration for it from her own life. Rioux also examines why this tale of family and community ties, set while the Civil War tore America apart, has resonated through later wars, the Depression, and times of changing opportunities for women.

Alcott’s novel has moved generations of women, many of them writers: Simone de Beauvoir, J. K. Rowling, bell hooks, Cynthia Ozick, Jane Smiley, Margo Jefferson, and Ursula K. Le Guin were inspired by Little Women, particularly its portrait of the iconoclastic young writer, Jo. Many have felt, as Anna Quindlen has declared, “Little Women changed my life.”

Today, Rioux sees the novel’s beating heart in Alcott’s portrayal of family resilience and her honest look at the struggles of girls growing into women. In gauging its current status, Rioux shows why Little Women remains a book with such power that people carry its characters and spirit throughout their lives.

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women turns 150 years old in 2018. There’s a new miniseries out (it’s…OK, given that it was largely shot in England and with English actors who have questionable American accents) and new editions of the book are popping up. Norton is also publishing Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy by Anne Boyd Rioux, which examines how Little Women came to be and why it has such staying power.

This is a lovely overview of Alcott’s life, the publication history of Little Women, and how Alcott’s most famous creation has endured as a beloved work of American literature. Unless we’re talking about the “canon” and then “ugh, girl cooties” which is the basis for almost an entire chapter about why boys don’t/aren’t expected to/can’t read “girl books” even as girls are fully expected to read “boy books.” I spent almost that whole chapter yelling PREACH SISTER at my iPad. Boyd also gets into the many different adaptations to movie and television (my favorite: the 1994 adaptation with Susan Sarandon, don’t @ me).

Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy is out August 21.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

Reader, Come Home by Maryanne Wolf

36544852Summary from Goodreads:
From the author of Proust and the Squid, a lively, ambitious, and deeply informative epistolary book that considers the future of the reading brain and our capacity for critical thinking, empathy, and reflection as we become increasingly dependent on digital technologies.

A decade ago, Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid revealed what we know about how the brain learns to read and how reading changes the way we think and feel. Since then, the ways we process written language have changed dramatically with many concerned about both their own changes and that of children. New research on the reading brain chronicles these changes in the brains of children and adults as they learn to read while immersed in a digitally dominated medium.

Drawing deeply on this research, this book comprises a series of letters Wolf writes to us—her beloved readers—to describe her concerns and her hopes about what is happening to the reading brain as it unavoidably changes to adapt to digital mediums. Wolf raises difficult questions, including:

Will children learn to incorporate the full range of “deep reading” processes that are at the core of the expert reading brain?
Will the mix of a seemingly infinite set of distractions for children’s attention and their quick access to immediate, voluminous information alter their ability to think for themselves?
With information at their fingertips, will the next generation learn to build their own storehouse of knowledge, which could impede the ability to make analogies and draw inferences from what they know?
Will all these influences, in turn, change the formation in children and the use in adults of “slower” cognitive processes like critical thinking, personal reflection, imagination, and empathy that comprise deep reading and that influence both how we think and how we live our lives?
Will the chain of digital influences ultimately influence the use of the critical analytical and empathic capacities necessary for a democratic society?
How can we preserve deep reading processes in future iterations of the reading brain?
Who are the “good readers” of every epoch?
Concerns about attention span, critical reasoning, and over-reliance on technology are never just about children—Wolf herself has found that, though she is a reading expert, her ability to read deeply has been impacted as she has become, inevitably, increasingly dependent on screens.

Wolf draws on neuroscience, literature, education, technology, and philosophy and blends historical, literary, and scientific facts with down-to-earth examples and warm anecdotes to illuminate complex ideas that culminate in a proposal for a biliterate reading brain. Provocative and intriguing, Reader, Come Home is a roadmap that provides a cautionary but hopeful perspective on the impact of technology on our brains and our most essential intellectual capacities—and what this could mean for our future.

Reader, Come Home is better than Wolf’s previous book, IMO, in how she describes the science and research into “the reading brain.” But I can’t shake the feeling that:

  1. It’s a bit Chicken Little/the-sky-is-falling at times.
  2. There’s a weirdly elitist bent to certain sections. Why choose the deepest Herman Hesse deep cut for a re-reading faux experiment? The average adult reads, what, twelve books a year? I don’t think the average adult reader has been critically reading Hesse or Proust in their spare time, either before or after the advent of digital or social media. It would be far more likely that people are reading James Patterson for pleasure. Why not try a re-reading experiment with a book that is more popular or mainstream?
  3. If we’re worried about KIDS not being able to develop “deep reading” or the ability to critically evaluate new information due to digital media maybe we should back up and worry about the ADULTS who currently have made it very clear that they lack both abilities and grew up without digital media.

That said, by the end of the book Wolf does present solutions to develop a “bi-literate” reading brain involving both digital and print reading which I find very interesting/confirms my own personal preferences.

Reader, Come Home is out now.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Victorian and the Romantic by Nell Stevens

36950013Summary from Goodreads:
History meets memoir in two irresistible true-life romances–one set in 19th century Rome, one in present-day Paris and London–linked by a bond between women writers a hundred years apart

In 1857, English novelist Elizabeth Gaskell completed her most famous work: the biography of her dear friend Charlotte Bronte. As publication loomed, Mrs. Gaskell was keen to escape the reviews. So, leaving her dull minister husband and dreary provincial city behind, she set off with her daughters to Rome. There she met a dazzling group of artists and writers, among them the American critic Charles Eliot Norton. Seventeen years her junior, Norton was her one true love. They could not be together–it would be an unthinkable breach of convention–but by his side and amidst that splendid circle, Mrs. Gaskell knew she had reached the “tip-top point of [her] life.”
In 2013, Nell Stevens is embarking on her PhD–about the community of artists and writers living in Rome in the mid-19th century–and falling head over heels for a soulful American screenwriter in another city. As her long-distance romance founders and her passion for academia never quite materializes, she is drawn to Mrs. Gaskell. Could this indomitable Victorian author rescue Nell’s pursuit of love, family and a writing career?
Lively, witty, and impossible to put down, The Victorian and the Romantic is a moving chronicle of two women each charting a way of life beyond the rules of her time.

I was interested in The Victorian and the Romantic because I liked Stevens’s previous work Bleaker House, a memoir of her summer in the Falklands while writing her thesis, and also the work of Elizabeth Gaskell (CranfordNorth and SouthWives and Daughters). Well, this is a fine book. The construction is probably more of an acquired taste. Stevens chose to use a combination of memoir and imaginative biography (biographical novella) combining Stevens’s work for her PhD about 19th century artists, her love for Gaskell’s work, and the unfulfilled love affair (?) between Gaskell and Charles Eliot Norton. The result is a strange hodge-podge of styles. The choice to use 2nd person narration for the Gaskell bio sections took a while to get used to and in the end I’m not sure it worked that well.

The Victorian and the Romantic is out August 7.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.