Book About Books

Love letters and Dear John letters comprise this collection where a librarian waxes poetic about books she loves and hates and some to which she has to bid a fond farewell. The librarian in question, author Annie Spence, covers a broad range of titles in her collection of letters. As she explains, librarians are always working those books shelves for personal reading, recommendations for others or checking condition and use of each title for a final withdrawal from the collection. Spence singles out certain titles or authors and then writes personal letters to them that include anecdotes from library interactions, personal reflections, and always entertaining dialog on the pros and cons of popular selections.

The letters are funny and not remorseful at all of the books she doesn’t like or has never read. For example, Spence takes home Anna Karenina for a month, never reading a page of it. It sits around her home, waiting for The Bachelor to be over or for Rainbow Rowell and Dolly Parton’s biography to vacate her bed. Sadly, Anna Karenina is not to be and Spence’s letter apologetically relegates the tome back to the stacks.

As an example, The Time Travelers Wife is a personal favorite of hers, partly due to the main character working at the same library she did at the time. However, her reflection on the book goes much deeper and she discusses how reading and re-reading the book at different ages gave it a different but no less significant meaning to her life. This could be true of many favorites you read and re-read throughout our lives; different ages give different perspectives. You pick up nuances you missed before or passages that didn’t matter that much on the first reading take on a new life when read again. The Virgin Suicides is a 15-year favorite book of hers and the most perfectly written book in her opinion which affected her deeply. 50 Shades of Grey takes a beating (rightly so, imho) as does Twilight and Bill O’Reilly, and Spence shares her woe about the constant requests for these books (50 Shades made her say the word erotica to an old lady!) while they are surrounded by much better choices.

I chose the audiobook for this one and I was not disappointed. Spence and I actually share a lot of favorite titles and opinions on books (although we disappointingly disagree on The Hobbit), so it was an entertaining list to go back and revisit, comparing my feelings and thoughts to hers. There is even some book shelf envy in the passages, which is a real thing when you’re trying to organize a personal collection. The struggle is real, people. There are also titles I haven’t read, so it was nice to have something like a conversational book talk about several things that are now on my TBR list. There is humor, yes, but also a poignancy about the books that helped raise her, saw her through adulthood and the single years, marriage, childbirth, and post-partum depression.

I won’t lie, there are some spoilers throughout the letters. The book is organized in a way that you could skip the ones you don’t want to read just yet, and then go back later and pick them up once you’ve read the book. This book reminds me of Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust series, Bibliotherapy, and other reading guides but with more personal anecdotes. not necessarily a book you want to read or listen to in one setting, but it’s a great book to browse as your mood suits you and one you will probably refer to over and over again. NPR’s article about the book is here. It’s a great choice for book lovers, either yourself or a friend. I’m betting you’ll find some as yet undiscovered gems!

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Book Made Into A Movie

It’s 1962, and England is in the midst of losing its status as the center of the world to America and Russia. The dashing young President Kennedy shines his influence across the ocean and youth and exuberance are the coin of the day. The Pill is emerging in polite society, but just barely. On Chesil Beach, however, innocence prevails. Two young newlyweds are facing the daunting prospect of consummating their marriage. Both are virgins, and both are anxious about the impending event for their own reasons. Edward, apparently having experienced some degree of fooling around, is worried that he will again be overexcited and disappoint his bride (and embarrass himself) by arriving too soon as they say. Edward’s fears are the normal jitters of a naive virgin – you know there is an act to perform but you aren’t quite sure how to go about it.

Florence, on the other hand, has a real dread and disgust for what she knows of the sexual act. She loves the idea of being pregnant by Edward, but the act of becoming that way seems thoroughly offensive to her. Florence’s only frame of reference is a handbook for young brides that uses the terms engorged and penetration quite often, which sounds painful and uncomfortable and makes her not at all look forward to a lifetime of this activity. Florence’s mother is not open to a more enlightening discussion, her sister is too young, and her friends are too gossipy to ask. As author Ian McEwan writes, “…her whole being was in revolt against a prospect of entanglement and flesh; her composure and essential happiness were about to be violated.” Florence wants a life with Edward, but sex with him would not be “the summation of her joy, but was the price she must pay for it.”

Of course, neither has expressed their fears to the other. Especially not Florence, who was certainly okay with the engagement, the wedding, the excitement of married life…but not actual sex. This was never a conversation she had with Edward. As far as he’s concerned, she’s a nervous bride and he mistakes her rising nausea at the thought of consummation as her excitement for the unknown act to come. So, what’s a young, newly married couple to do?

It’s hard to imagine in this day and age when everything (and I mean everything) is exposed in film, television and reality shows. To go back to a time of such innocence in the first few pages of this book is both refreshing and cringe-worthy. You feel for the unenlightened couple, but it’s also sweet that they still have the most intimate things to discover about each other.

The book as a whole takes place on this wedding night. The nervousness and apprehension are interwoven with both their own thoughts and the memories of how the two met and courted. You see the signs, the two people who love each other but maybe love the idea of each other more. Edward, the history major, is truly smitten with Florence; the only thing Florence is truly passionate about is her music. While Florence loves Edward, her emotion is more familial. Not exactly what a young groom hopes from his bride.

McEwan hints at reasons for Florence’s revulsion, and the early 1960s are before the height of psychoanalysis, which Florence even mentions she might need at one point in the book. The “Will they or won’t they” question lingers in the air throughout the book and the ending still leaves me pondering the decisions made by the couple. I’m including a review from The Guardian here that I really enjoyed.

Since this is a ‘book to movie’ selection, I’ll give you my quick thoughts on the film. Not everything translates well to the big screen. The book immerses you into the conversations and minds of Florence and Edward, making the short novel a more intimate experience than you get from watching the film. While well acted, the film is just this side of boring. The inevitable changes that ruin most book to movie adaptations are there, of course, and it doesn’t help endear the movie to the audience. I can’t say a lot more about it without giving away the book plots, but it’s at least worth a look after you read the book!

You can see a trailer for the movie here. I found many articles bemoaning the film adaptation. One review from The Spectator can be found here and one from Roger Elbert’s site here.

Book with A Number in the Title

I’m sure many of you have taken one of the DNA tests out there through something like Ancestry.com or 23 and Me, right? You’ve at least heard of them. You can find out your familial regions, your predisposed tendencies for certain illnesses, and police are using them to solve crimes. What if you could also use it to improve your love life? Even more, what if you could use it to obliterate the dating and second guessing altogether? What if you could use DNA testing to find The One?

Imagine the possibilities! Think of the stresses and heartbreak of the dating scene, the crappy pick-up lines, the creepy dudes, the shadows of exes lurking in the background. Ugh! I’m over it. Take one simple test and your DNA will match you through legit science with the one person in the entire world who is just right for you. That’s it. No more dating, just start your life together and be happy forever!

There are downsides, of course. Who cares if you’re engaged already or have been married and had kids with someone else? The DNA match is who you are meant to be with. What if your match is living across the world or has age/race/religion differences? Would you take the test anyway, even if it meant that your current happy relationship with someone might be upended? You could always choose not to take the test, or just ignore the results if you aren’t matched with your current partner. Some people take the test but never get matched for one reason or another. Do you wait the rest of your life for the hope of a match? Ignore the science and choose your mate with the random waves of the universe the way humans have done for thousands of years?With the niggling doubt in the back of your mind that someone else might be out there waiting for you…?

Would you do it?

In The One, we follow the stories of several characters who have taken this DNA matching test that has become a worldwide sensation. It’s made divorce rates skyrocket, but is more promising for an almost zero divorce rate with future generations. Plus, it’s no scam – there is actual (fictionalized) science explained in the book about how the DNA is extrapolated into finding the other person in the world who best suits you. Online dating sites are going by the wayside and why wouldn’t they? You can pay only 9.99 (pounds sterling) and find The One. We meet a young engaged couple who decide to take the DNA test just to see what happens (never a good idea); a divorcee whose husband has left her for his own DNA match (that has to hurt); a young Scottish woman who has a match in Australia whom she’s never met (red flags); and a serial killer who is looking for true love (but finding victims on the remaining dating sites left open). Oh, and a female billionaire who’s notoriety keeps her out of any normal dating pools (how do you hide that secret?).

It’s an interesting concept and the story is a mix of British chick lit, sci fi, and thriller all rolled into one. Some of the plot points are easy to see coming but the story is compelling and keeps the reader interested throughout. There are also some compelling twists and turns that come with such a genre mash-up. Let’s just say that the serial killer may not be the creepiest person in the book! There are definitely the warm and fuzzy feelings, as well. It’s a good mix of sweet and sinister.

I’ve included a link here to some book club questions and other tidbits about author John Marrs and a link to the Kirkus Review if you still need to be convinced to read it!

Book You Love and Want To Read Again

One of my favorites, Griffin & Sabine captured my imagination when it was first published. I was working in a book store at the time and I recommended this book to everyone. Everyone. If you are not one of the seemingly thousands of people I preached to about this book and it’s new to you, let me explain…

Griffin Moss is an artist living in London. He has his own postcard company, as in he’s the sole artist for his creations and works out of his apartment. He leads a solitary life. One day, he receives a mysterious postcard in the mail from an a woman named Sabine Strohem who lives in the South Pacific. She seems to know him, but he does not know her. Throughout their correspondence, Sabine reveals that she has been able to see his drawings as he creates them but never knew who he was or why she could see his creations but nothing else about him. This seeing of visions has gone on for 15 years and she finally read an article in a publication about an artist and recognized the featured drawing as one from her visions. Voila! She tracked him down and sent a postcard by way of introduction.

The book text is actually a series of postcards and letters (enclosed in envelopes attached to the book pages). It reads as though you’re going through someone else’s mail, so you get a voyeuristic kick if that’s your thing. The pair reveal each one’s life growing up and what their daily lives are like now. Griffin admits to Sabine that he struggles with a deep depression, and he seems to become obsessed with this paper-only relationship. Early on, he signs his correspondence with “love, Griffin” whereas Sabine is more careful in her signing-off wording. There is a definite attachment on both sides, but Griffin seems to become more depressed by his daily life and more focused on Sabine and her letters as the only bright point he has. Sabine asks him to come visit, and Griffin responds that he has become too attached to the whole correspondence and declines to visit. He also states that he is breaking off the communication because he’s not completely sure the whole thing isn’t in his head. The last letter is from Sabine stating that she will come visit him since he won’t come to her. The book ends as a mystery. Was Sabine ever real? Was Griffin so mentally broken that he created his own escape? Did he get catfished by a serial killer? Did Sabine come to visit and the two lived happily ever after?

Written in 1991, Griffin & Sabine was almost pre-internet but certainly pre-social media. People were still writing letters and putting stamps on them, and you waited and waited for the mail to come so you could get news from far away. Letters and long-distance (expensive) calls were how you kept up with folks in the not-so-distant past. There was no friending, no ghosting and no catfishing. I mean, there was, but it was not so public and certainly there weren’t television shows about it. Griffin & Sabine takes place over the course of a year as the reader can tell from the dates on the letters, so there is more time between correspondence for the two to daydream about each other and, especially for Sabine, to put a context behind the pictures she sees in her head.

Upon re-reading this book, I was glad that it still held up after all these years. It’s beautiful and intriguing and romantic and a little tragic, too. It also caught my attention at the time it was published because I had a pen pal from Canada I had written to for something like 13 years. He and I never met and gradually stopped corresponding, but I still think about him and actually had sent him a copy of this book back in the day. This book gives me all the feels for a variety of reasons, and I’m so happy to be able to share it with you! (Spoiler alert – there’s a whole series of these books with the final one published just two years ago, so you can become completely immersed yourself! There are lots of links out in the World Wide Web on author Nick Bantock and the whole series, but I don’t want to give away any real spoilers, so I’ll let you search those at your own peril…)

Historical Biography/Memoir

Imagine if you will that you are walking along the streets of your town. You’re young, healthy, able to work. You show up for a job each day, hang out with your friends on the weekends, maybe go see your mom on Sundays to get your laundry done and have a home cooked meal. You run your errands after work, drop off your Amazon returns at the post office, hit the liquor store, stop to buy some milk and bread. Life is normal, right? Just as you’re paying for your groceries, you and everybody around you is jumped by unknown assailants. The healthy and young are sorted out. The children, the females of breeding age, and the males who can do manual labor are separated from the aged and sick. You may very well being standing there with your family or your friends, and suddenly strangers appear and start picking out the best of the gathered prospects. Your children are ripped from your arms, your spouse is taken one way and you are taken another. Some people are killed outright in front of your very eyes. Off you go to parts unknown, and who knows where the rest of the people you know will end up. You are allowed no communication and have no way to ever find the ones you love or even know what happened to them. Most likely, you’ll never see them or your homeland again. You are forced into permanent cuffs and made to work as a slave for the rest of your life. Just like that. I can’t even wrap my mind around it.

This is the story we all think we know, but most of us think about it in the abstract. We know groups of people were enslaved, that slavery was a horrible blight on the history of humanity, and that it was fairly recent in American history when you compare us to the thousands of years of other civilizations. We know that slaves influenced music and food and other parts of American culture, especially in the Deep South. There are, of course, existing slave narratives telling the stories of the individuals who lived through such a horrific experience and lived to see themselves set free, but few are as engaging and personal as Hurston’s account in Barracoon.

Cudjo Lewis shared his story with Zora Neale Hurston in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Hurston was a fledgling anthropologist at the beginning of her career, an unknown name sent to interview Lewis by famed anthropologist Frank Boas. Lewis was 86-years-old and living in Alabama.

Look at this man’s face and imagine him as a young man, living his daily life. Kossula, the real name of Cudjo Lewis, was in his village admiring the young women and going about his daily routine on the day before his life was changed forever. He had been training as a warrior, his father was an officer to the King, his village had laws and traditions and a rich culture. He had a good and full life. The next day, another tribe raided his village, massacred many, and sold the survivors to slave traders. Kossula, about 19 at the time, watched as his village was overrun by the men of the neighboring King. This King dealt in slavery with white traders. Kossula was in the midst of terror, watching as people’s heads were ripped off, faces were ripped off, his own King was beheaded and much of this was done by women warriors. Kossula never saw his family again and was taken away, marched for days, and taken to a barracoon which was a holding area for slaves. Kossula had never slept on the ground before, he cried for his parents, and watched as the other villages either fought or surrendered to the King who conquered his people. Kossula boarded the last slave trading ship, the Clotilda, and headed for a strange land called America. His clothes were stripped off, and he was displayed to prospective buyers. He had never gone without clothing before and was aghast that he was assumed to be a savage because of a nakedness that was not his choice.

It’s an incredible story, and Hurston writes in the vernacular that was common practice at the time. She didn’t just interview Lewis, she built a relationship with him by taking him peaches or watermelon, insecticide for mosquitoes, or helped him clean his church. Sometimes Lewis didn’t feel like talking about his past, and he and Hurston either sat in companionable silence or talked of other things. I recommend the audiobook because I think the flow of language is wonderful – you’re right there on his porch, eating sweet, cold melon and hearing his stories of an incredible life.

If they are any blessings to take away, Lewis at least seemed to have happy memories for his first two decades of life. As much as Lewis suffered once he came to America, his remembrances of his old life and the life he should have had were still hard for him to bear when he had his conversations with Hurston. As this NPR article mentions, “That pain stayed with Lewis for his whole life… So often in the interview process, he would weep, or he would be so lost in the memories of what happened to him, he could not speak.” Lewis was a slave for five and a half years before slaves were freed. He worked hard to build a life for himself afterwards, married and had children, suffered indignities and slights, and had the grievous misfortune to suffer the loss of four of his children. His story breaks your soul and then heals it again with the humbleness of his own.

There’s a link to a news story on Lewis’s legacy here and another article on the history of Barracoon’s publication here. Do yourself a favor and read this book.

Book About A Superhero

Ever give any thought to what your superhero name would be? If you woke up one morning with incredible powers or superhuman abilities, would you use your power for good or evil? Would you want to save the world or rule it? Oddly enough, I have given this some thought. I can’t decide what I would prefer my powers to be, but I definitely have a name. Glitter Bomb. I would walk that line between good and evil, choosing sides at random and leaving smoky, shimmery destruction in my wake.

I’m not weird. You’re weird.

Meanwhile, back to the book we’re here for. Karen Hashimoto is fresh out of maximum security Federal prison. She’s served her time and been released on parole for being a model prisoner. She’s having a hard time getting back on her feet, going through several menial jobs and cheap lodgings. Being fired and evicted repeatedly has done nothing for her parole agreement, and she ends up pressured into sleeping with her sleazy parole officer on a regular basis to avoid him turning her in for parole violation. After her latest bout of “serving time” underneath the creepy bastard, Karen gathers her meager belongings and heads out to find a place to sleep for the night and, hopefully, another job the next day. She stumbles across a brawl of epic proportions and finds herself helping one a superhero, Manpower, apprehend a gang of villains. Karen was trying to keep a low profile since her release from prison, but the fight reveals her as the former villain Crushette, partner and girlfriend to Doctor Maniac, the villain of all villains.

Karen isn’t able to fade back into the shadows without being approached by Manpower. He tells her how much he appreciates her help and invites her to apply for a job with Good Guys the next day. The Good Guys is real-deal the name of the good guys, a group Crushette used to terrorize on a regular basis when she worked with Doctor Maniac. Manpower does, of course, know who she is but he sees a good side to Karen and believes she can find redemption by fighting the good fight for a change.

Events transpire (you know I hate giving spoilers!), and Karen is reinvented as Kayo, a mashup of ‘knockout’ or K.O. and Karen’s Japanese heritage. In this world, people are activated and become enhanced in a somewhat random manner. To avoid duplicates of names, people have to register the name of their enhanced persona so there aren’t 10,000 Hulks running rampant. However, a new superhero name doesn’t erase Karen’s past as Crushette and she has an uphill battle to convince the world and herself that she can fight for the Good Guys.

Mostly, I liked this book and will read the sequel. There were several small plot points that were left unresolved, which I don’t mind. Not everything needs to be neatly tied with a bow. The story overall was good and held my interest all the way through. What I did have a problem with was the sex scene early on between Karen and her parole officer; it was a creepy Harvey Weinstein move that almost made me quit the story altogether. I’m glad I didn’t, so push through if it gives you the same reaction. Also, there was quite a bit of Karen fighting villains in either ripped clothing that revealed her underwear or fighting in just her underwear. It was funny in a couple of places in the story but was definitely pre-pubescent humor that went on a little too long. Overall, I would recommend this despite the minor flaws. You can read more about author S. J. Delos here.

Another book about superheroes that I’ve read a couple of times is Soon I Will Be Invincible, a story with a viewpoint split between a new superhero joining an existing group and the evil villain who feels very misunderstood. The author, Austin Grossman, is the twin brother of Lev Grossman of The Magicians fame. I had the pleasure of chatting with Austin Grossman through a Skype interview one time and he was delightful! Invincible is a great story and a little known gem that I think you’ll enjoy! This book was made into a musical, if you can believe that! You’ll find a clip here, and a book review here.

Book From Your Childhood

If you asked me who my spirit animal would be in children’s literature, one of the contenders would definitely be Ramona Quimby. She is fearless and creative and just totally full of…imagination. Not the word you thought I would use! (And that word would also fit.) Anywho, Ramona was hilarious and I admired her ingenuity in problem solving. Like that one time she lost her shoe and used paper and tape and a stapler, I think, to make another one so she could get through the school day. Who would think of that? She was the bane of her big sister, Beezus, and her parents were often at a loss to understand her, but they all loved her and everything was okay in the end.

Really, I also would have said that I read all of the Ramona books as a kid but looking back, I think I might have just read the same one over and over – Ramona the Brave. Apparently, I was unaware that there were more? Or, maybe I just couldn’t tear myself away from the book I loved for something I might not like as well? I was that kid who read the same books over and over if I loved them, so who knows.

Regardless, I decided to go back and read through the series from beginning to end and that’s when I started to realize that my Ramona experience was limited. I also realized that I might not have loved Ramona as much if I had started with Beezus and Ramona, because little 4-year-old Ramona was a terror!

If you haven’t been exposed to Ramona before, have patience. Beezus and Ramona may not endear her to you but stick with the series! Beezus is the central character in this book, not Ramona. Beezus is really named Beatrice, but Ramona couldn’t say that, so Beezus became the go to moniker for her. Beezus was named after her mother’s younger sister, the cool aunt who teaches fourth grade and drives a yellow convertible. Beezus is almost 10 years old. Ramona is four. (You can imagine some of the trouble right there.) Beezus and Ramona’s mom is a homemaker and dad works – pretty typical for the day when this was published back in 1955.

Being nine, Beezus has a lot more maturity than Ramona. She is quiet and responsible and aware of how to act in polite society. Ramona is the opposite in every way. Beezus does some basic sewing and likes to read and enjoys playing checkers with her neighbor, Henry Huggins, who comes over for the occasional visit. Ramona can’t stand to not be the center of attention and she especially wants the attention of big sis Beezus. Ramona goes out of her way to do the most outrageous things she can think of, like coloring on every page of a library book so she can keep it forever (unconcerned that her mother has to actually pay for the book); invites a bunch of kids over for a party (without asking her mom first); and eating exactly one bite out of half a crate of apples (without a care that she’s wasting the food). Again, she’s four and any attention seems like good attention. Poor Beezus, though. She always seems to be the most affected by Ramona’s behavior and Ramona is never regretful of what she does. She’s regretful when she’s sent to her room or ignored by her family, but not seemingly regretful of her actions.

Beezus is feeling guilty for not liking or even loving her sister when Ramona acts bad but she does also have times when she enjoys doing activities with Ramona. The big denouement comes on the day of Beezus’s tenth birthday. Ramona ruins not one, but two birthday cakes and Beezus has reached her limit. Beezus confesses to her mom and aunt that sometimes she doesn’t love Ramona. Beezus is ready for a shocked lecture from her two favorite women, and is shocked herself when the adult sisters laugh and laugh and confess that they had many times growing up where they didn’t love each other either and that it’s a perfectly normal part of growing up with a sibling. Beezus is so relieved and enjoys being regaled with stories of her mom and her aunt as children and the irritating things they used to do to each other. Beezus has hope that she and Ramona will grow up and be able to look back on their own childhood with the same love and laughter she sees from her aunt and mother. (Spoiler alert – the third birthday cake survives!)

From the three different covers shown, you can tell that the story of these two siblings remains relevant to generations of audiences. Ramona craves attention from her beloved big sister and Beezus admires and is jealous of Ramona’s free spirit and imagination. After Beezus and Ramona, author Beverly Cleary changes the focus of the series from Beezus to Ramona. As the character grows up, she doesn’t slow down any but she does mature as most children do. Cleary is still hailed as one of America’s most loved children’s authors and her series about the Quimby girls and Henry Huggins cross over frequently.

Cleary tuned 100 a couple of years ago and you can watch an interview here. She is still delightful and you can see the impish Ramona peeking through in her personality. For Cleary’s 102nd birthday, Vox took a look at Ramona’s “enduring appeal.” Cleary’s website lists her books, and many of them may be favorites of yours. If you. notice the image at the top of the post, you’ll see that it’s the cover of an audio book. Not surprising since I mention that I listen to audio books a lot, and this one does not disappoint. It’s read by the fabulous Stockard Channing which is an extra special treat because I’m a huge fan of hers, too!

Ramona and company are literature legends and I would highly recommend them to you and yours. There’s a great article from NPR here that lauds Ramona (during a publicity blitz for the feature film based on the books) and Mental Floss has some fun facts on Ramona here.