Thursday, November 19, 2015

THE STORIED LIFE OF A.J. FIKRY – GABRIELLE ZEVIN

When was the last time you picked up a book and absolutely could not stop reading except to eat or do other necessaries? Thank goodness my sister-in-law came over the other day and handed me this book saying, “You have got to read this and tell me if you like it.” With a big sigh I finished it today after starting right before bed yesterday. Two o'clock this morning I decided to get up and finish. That has happened to me I don't think since I read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry or maybe The Last Stand of Major Pettigrew and to be sure this book evoked those same feelings. Now, if only I can put my finger on what exactly it is that makes me so avid about finishing a book. Is it that the story is so enchanting, is it the unusual relationships portrayed, or perhaps the way the characters touch ones heart? All of those I surmise. In the first chapter it began to feel a little Silas Marner-ish as in - lonely man loses something prized and it its place finds a perfect child. Silas Marner was always a favorite of mine since Senior English in 1969, and the hook was too strong to resist.

A.J. Fikry is a lonely, depressed, middle-aged brown skinned widower running a not-too-prosperous bookstore on Alice island. Since Fikry is a book snob, the store is stocked only with those titles he sees as “literary.” Book lovers often feel a need to educate others about literature (witness this blog) and so it is with Fikry. He buys not what people ask for but what he thinks they should read, and by golly he does get some to read out of their preferred genre. The shingle hanging over the shop door is priceless and reads as follows:

ISLAND BOOKS
Alice Island's Exclusive Provider of Fine Literary Content Since 1999
No Man is an Island Every Book is a World

When Fikry's prized possession, a rare book of Poe poetry, that was supposed to ensure his retirement is stolen and a baby, Maya, is abandoned in his store, his life is transformed. Enter also a new book sales rep and a potential romance. Then there is his persistent sister-in-law who wants to save him from himself, the local policeman who reads crime novels, and a philandering brother-in-law. They all become newly interested in Fikry's life with child. He in turn enters the world of the community from which he has always kept himself apart. Once he adopts Maya the community sets out to help him raise her and so the reader gets to know a whole village of surrogate parents. Underlying the plot are the questions of Maya's parentage and the whereabouts of the Poe.

Fikry's fiction of choice is the short story and each chapter begins with a review by him of one and within a few chapters the reader realizes he is writing these reviews to Maya. Interspersed in the chapters also are references to many notable books and writers. How could I not like a book about books and the power of stories to change lives? But also what a great book for character development.


It is always a must for me to examine a book. Check out the cover, smell it, read the dedications and the notes at the end. It is all good with this one. Come to think of it, it just may be that a book full of people who have so much empathy in this world where we see so little of that anymore, may be why I loved it so much. 

THE WORLD'S STRONGEST LIBRARIAN – JOSH HANAGARNE

Apparently there is a gigantic man working as a librarian at the Salt Lake City Public Library and this is the first of his memoirs. Written humorously with much banter interspersed with seriousness, it was a delight. We read it for Jay County Public Library Book Club but I worked that day and forgot to go! Oh horrors. I really wanted to have that discussion. However, three friends came through for me and showed up the next week for a breakfast discussion at my house. We all enjoyed the read and had a lot to mull over about Mr. Hanagarne's book.

The book is a jaunt between vignettes of library work-life, autobiographical narratives of Mormon childhood, and his excursions into body-building and strength training to combat the effects of Tourette Syndrome on his life. There are so many insightful quotations that my book is full of sticky notes that I keep looking at. My favorites of course are those about being a librarian and working with patrons since that is what I just spent 30+ years doing. Too many to reiterate in a short review I'll just give you one as follows: 
“The purpose of libraries – to organize and provide information – hasn't changed. They're billed as the Poor Man's University. (Many librarians also bill them as the Poor Man's Day Care or the Poor Man's Urinal.) I love working here because the reasons behind libraries are important to me.”

Hanagarne's love of books and libraries began in childhood and served him well. He remembers his first book love as Charlotte's Web and how it affected his first years at school. He remembers also how important books and trips to the library were and how this shaped his psyche. You can tell that Josh enjoys being a generalist librarian knowing a little about a lot of things and being able to assist his patrons well.

His dealings with Tourette's is fascinating and heart-wrenching. While he was on a drug program at times what worked the best for him was working out and keeping on a strenuous regiment of weight training and a bit of mind over matter. His descriptions of his struggles are often hard to read and very poignant. Several programs and some very unusual people help him to find a pathway not to perfect health, but to compromises and acceptance of his condition.

His descriptions of Mormonism is respectful and eye-opening. While his mother was very devout his father just kind of went along with everything but didn't seem to really buy in to the whole doctrine. His father taught Josh that they basically belonged to “the church of Don't be a Dick,” or in other words be respectful, be kind, serve others, and do good deeds. It is clear that Josh subscribes to that today even though he has left his church.

The reader of this book sees an unusual man with a lot to contend with but who loves much. He loves his job, his family, and himself. He has remarkable strength of body and character. His writing style is upbeat, never maudlin, and very clever. He writes lovingly about his wife, marriage, and becoming a father. At discussion we investigated his website and see that he has since divorced which made us sad but we know with his determination he will make it OK. Great book.


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

HOMAGE TO A BROKEN MAN – PETER MOMMSEN

To condense this whole book into one thought I would say that it is a story about a humble, spiritual man, who creates a life of love and beauty only to be stalled by men of ambition and manipulation. And yet his vision is carried on over generations and decades. This true story of a devoted Christian man and his family establishing, and trying to maintain, communal life is fascinating and often heart-wrenching. J. Heinrich Arnold is the main focus of the story even thought the dedication to communal living and the original commune was begun by his father Eberhard Arnold in Germany in 1919. The author is the grandson of J. Heinrich, and though he speculates on much of the dialog and of course must rely on the memories and writings of his elders, the story holds together as a spiritual journey and a look into a type of living that deserves respect.

I have always been in wonder about how a commune is established and how so many people can make it work. The Arnold's community was originally, and continued to be, organized around farming and publishing. The founders were college educated theologians and they accepted everyone not just Christians but Hindu, Jews, and atheists as well. No one was turned away who truthfully wanted to live humbly and spiritually if willing to contribute to the community. The society was based on the concept of religious socialism which they patterned after the Quakers. Page 145 probably has the best description of who it was that flocked to the Arnold communities, “communists, socialists, agnostics, atheists, and others who were fed up with the empty promises of the churchianity.”

There are many stories of working faith, but also the trials of fund raising, the complexities of governing a flock, organizing a working village, and of human failings and power struggles. The Commune had to leave Germany out of fear for their members lives and threats of arrest of the leaders in the 1930s. The scenes of the Nazi raids and arrests were frighteningly portrayed. When they fled Germany they eventually had successful communities in England, Paraguay, and New York. Always the goal was to be inclusive, show the love of God, help your neighbor, and instill in the children reverence for nature, honesty, chivalry, bravery, and generosity. The love stories of Eberhard and Heinrich with their wives and families are wonderful also. Never did I imagine that living and and running a commune would be so complicated and I had to wonder if every commune whether political or religious suffers the same problems. My guess would be “yes” or there would be more surviving communes today.


This is a great book to see inside the workings of a such a community but also to feel how groups of like-minded people can be committed to a different way of life. The titles of the chapters are delightfully related to the content such as “On the Road” when the community is moving and “Liberation” when in the 1960s Heiner is in the United States and falls in love with the country's fight for civil rights. He marches with Martin Luther King and yet is alarmed by some things he sees that had been the downfall of Germany such as militarism, economic oppression, and racism. As I thought about that chapter I had to think about how we have come so far since the 60s and yet in some respects things are still the same.  It is apparent that this beloved grandson reveres his family and his book is a true loving portrait of an extended faithful group. I am not sure why Mommsen calls his grandfather "broken" for it seemed he was at times but not most of the time and not by the end of his life. It was a good excursion with the Arnolds over nine decades and several continents.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

LIBRIOMANCER – JIM C. HINES

Libriomancer is one of those books that drops you into the middle of the action without any back story or character setting. Often that can be unsettling and cause for rereading once you catch on. Granted, at about the second chapter and after a series of characters had been introduced, I did go back and reread the first chapter. However, this short (300 page) book was just what I was craving and I didn't mind. Being a librarian myself it is a rare treat to find a book about loving books, and one where the hero is himself a librarian. It actually had a Neil Gaimen (a favorite author of mine) feel to it with a world of magic and sorcery overlapping our reality. I guess that aspect is a little Harry Potter-ish too. Anyway, what librarian doesn't want to read about a librarian who is kind of a “bad-ass” who slays evil creatures to save the world?

A Libriomancer is a rare magical person who can reach inside of a book and bring into this world objects and creatures from the story. Of course they can't stay and must go back into the book, but while in this world they can be most helpful. Haven't you thought on occasion it would be useful to have Alice's elixir to make you small, or Luke Skywalker's light saber to slay your enemy? In this “Magic Ex Libris” book one the world of magic is guarded and kept secret from mortals by those called Porters. Porters monitor and guard the world from supernatural threats. Isaac Vainio is such a Porter and also a Libriomancer. He also is a librarian in a public library in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

When vampires attack Isaac in his library he knows evil is afoot and someone must stop it. He teams up with Lena Greenwood, a Dryad, to find out why the vampires are revolting and where the missing Johannes Gutenberg has gone. As the first Libriomancer, Gutenberg is still alive these hundreds of years and someone is using his knowledge of automatons to destroy the vampire nests, frame the Porters, and turning the magical world against them.

Lena is a creature that grew from a graphic fantasy novel written by a twenty something man so you can guess what she looks like. Right, voluptuous, muscular, glistening skin, intense eyes, very sexy. Every young man's dream. The book is full of both traditional and contemporary vampires from Sanguinarius Stokerus (human blood-drinking vampires as written by Bram Stoker), the Meyerii (glistening creatures who have evolved from the writing of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series), and the Sanguinarius Henricus (those incapable of acting against their masters as written in the books by Charlaine Harris in “Sookie Stackhouse” books). There is magic, adventure, danger, and even romance in this fast paced fantasy book.


On the job, a working porter Libriomancer has to carry his or her books along with them, and each Libriomancer works with a preferred genre. Isaac works with fantasy and science fiction books thus wears a big coat with hidden pockets for his books. Throughout the centuries much has been learned about Libriomancey and the craft has been refined. So many books are mentioned. Many I knew but some I did not so you can imagine how thrilled I was to discover the bibliography in the back listing all the books referred to in the text. Fun fun! I enjoyed Libriomancer very much.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

CLOSE YOUR EYES HOLD HANDS – CHRIS BOHJALIAN

Books about surviving a cataclysm are of interest to me. Also ever since Dad taught my brothers and me about nuclear energy and energy plants I have worried about the danger. The first line on the first page reading, “I built an igloo against the cold out of black plastic trash bags filled with wet leaves,” was my hook.

The voice is that of 16 year-old Emily Shepard. Her dad is the chief engineer of a Vermont nuclear power plant and her mother in charge of communications. Both parents are raging alcoholics and very unhappy people. Though Emily is very bright and does love her family, home, and pet dearly, she acts out both at home and at school and appears to have behavioral problems even before the disaster. When there is a terrible explosion at the plant and thousands are immediately evacuated Emily is thrown into the world orphaned, homeless, powerless, with no money and no idea of where to turn. Not only are both of her parents killed at the plant, but the news media and and most people think it was Mr. Shepard who was responsible for the catastrophe. Emily can never go home to the contaminated area even leaving behind her dog, Maggie. The heartbreak in the book of Emily is almost tangible. Bohjalian makes the reader feel her anger, frustration, and hopelessness, but also her determination and resourcefulness.

Because of the rabid animosity Emily detects towards her and her family she decides to flee the social workers who are trying to help. She ends up in nearby Burlington surviving by her wits, stealing, hanging with drug users, visiting shelters, and inventing a new identity. She is also cutting herself and having sex for money at truck stops. She is an angry young woman and the harsh language and graphic sexual encounters show that.

Just when it seems like there is no way for Emily to make it out of the cesspool of the dark side of Burlington there is a change. Bolstered by a friendship, her love for poetry especially that of Emily Dickinson, and her determination to protect another younger runaway, Cameron she rises to the occasion. As she spends weeks doing what she has to do to protect, feed, and shelter Cameron and herself, Emily begins to realize she has no way to escape forever. Not from danger, her grief, or her past, and she cannot run endlessly. When Cameron becomes seriously ill she realizes she can no longer keep him safe.


There were so many times that my frustration for and with Emily actually made me a bit mad. I did not care for her endless use of the “F” bomb or her flippant use of sex to get what she needed but then again I am not an expert in working with troubled youth. Why wouldn't such a child in that situation ask or seek help eventually? There are pretty complicated issues in this book, and if you can't handle thinking about how troubled runaways survive it is not for you. But if you want an edgy book to make you worry and think and maybe even perhaps gain some empathy for the homeless, pick it up at your local library for an afternoon read.  

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

THE FORGOTTEN GARDEN – KATE MORTON

Part puzzle, part fairy story, part mystery, and a tale of lost heritage that affects a persons psyche is this one. I promise, if you embark on the travels of Nell and Cassandra you will be entranced. In 1930 Brisbane, Australia a young beauty finds out that the family that raised her is not related to her biologically. Indeed they “found” her in 1913 and kept her even though she was obviously lost and belonged to another family. This knowledge is a huge blow to her idea of who she thought she was which affects her relationships with her sisters and later with her own daughter. In 1975, in her 60s Nell follows her heart on a soul search which ends in Cornwall, England. There she buys a cliff cottage on the estate where she is sure she was born. But the details of her heritage won't fall into place. She must return to Australia to take care of her business and make her plans to return to finish her quest.

Unfortunately circumstances intrude and Nell never gets the opportunity to complete her research into her heritage. She dies in 2005 knowing where she came from but still not knowing who her biological family was. Nell's much beloved granddaughter Cassandra inherits Nell's Cornwall cottage, Nell's notebook of family research, and her treasured book of fairytales. Thus begins her own quest to learn Nell's background.

The early chapters mention young Nell's unusual looks and bright red hair. Thus for the rest of the book it becomes a puzzle to try to attach her to every redhead that appears in the plot. If you have worked on jigsaw puzzles very much then this book will feel like putting a complex puzzle together. It will all come together in your mind's eye close to the end and suddenly the pieces fall together quickly. So, yes you do have to pay attention and remember key points in a pretty long book of 550 pages.

I love a book with a map and The Forgotten Garden has a map of the Blackhurst Estate as it was in 1913. You may want to put a sticky note on that page for reference as you read. My favorite chapters in this non-chronological story are about Eliza Makepeace who becomes known as “The Authoress.” Her tale begins in London in 1900 when she is a child living above a rag and junk shop with her twin brother and single mother. On page 112 Eliza's dying mother tells her, “You mustn't wait for someone to rescue you. A girl expecting rescue never learns to save herself.” That, dear reader sets you up to expect Eliza to be the heroine of the book and in my opinion she is. Eliza is a natural storyteller, transfixing whatever audience she has even as a child. As an adult she publishes her fairy stories in a book illustrated by a renowned artist. How can Eliza not be your heroine when upon receiving a copy of her book from her publisher she opens the book, lifts it to her face to smell the binding, the glue and the ink? Every book-sniffer reader will understand. A copy of Eliza's book in Nell's possession, which Cassandra takes with her to England, is a key factor in pulling the puzzle together.


The Forgotten Garden has a bit of that English mystery noir about it with dark and brooding relatives and plenty of damaged people trying to keep dark secrets. Of course there is also a bit of freshness as Cassandra finds not just family history, but friendship and a bit of romance. When Cassandra realizes that Eliza's fairytales are based on real family history another puzzle falls into place for her and for the reader. On page 125 Georgiana tells Eliza, “Always remember, with a strong enough will, even the weak can wield great power.” So it is that the weak and the dead wield great power in this book. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN – PAULA HAWKINS

If you liked Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and/or you like to remain confused until you find out that characters in your book are not what you believe them to be, then this book is for you. What a hoot! I did not want to put it down as soon as I started it. But then it wouldn't have been prudent to be late to work so it did have to be put away on Thursday long enough for a 5 hour shift at the library.

Billed as a psychological thriller, it isn't actually all that “thrilling” until right before the end, then it all comes together so fast. The girl on the train is Rachel. She rides the train every day into and home from London. She has many emotional problems and is an alcoholic. Having recently been fired from her job she continues her routine in an effort to prevent her roommate from finding out. In London every day she goes to the library, visits pubs, and walks. The daily train ride takes Rachel through her old neighborhood. At a stop Rachel has a few moments every day to be a voyeur for she can see into the back yard and through the windows of the house where she had lived in happier times. Her ex-husband, Tom still lives in her old house but now with a new wife and a baby. In another house up the road from Tom's lives a nice looking and seemingly loving young couple whom Rachel calls Jess and Jason She dreams up a wonderful life for them in her imagination and very much enjoys looking for them every day to see what they are doing.

Rachel's depression and alcoholism are debilitating. She is very unhappy and still in love with her ex. She continues to contact Tom and his wife which is considered harassment, some of which she doesn't even remember. Then one day from the train Rachel sees the woman she calls Jess kissing another man. A few days later Jess, whose real name is Megan, is reported by her husband Scott as missing. Rachel tries to get involved in the case by notifying the police about what she has seen but she is an unreliable witness and not taken seriously by the police because of her reputation of harassment and public intoxication. When she contacts Scott things don't go well either.



Many in this book are not who they appear to be and some have mysterious connections. Scott is a very possessive hot-head and a bit violent. Megan had at one time been an nanny for Tom and his wife Anna. Anna had been the lover of Tom's while he was still married to Rachel. The mysterious man that Meg was kissing is her psychiatrist. There are dark secrets, lies, hidden motives, and confusion. I guarantee by the time you get to about page 244 the power better not go off unless you have candles or a book light because you will not be able to stop reading.

Isn't the cover art clever? The scenery is blurred representing what things look like on a speeding train and the double lettering which is how print in a jostled book often looks when reading in a moving vehicle.