ALA Notable Books, 2012
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Library Director Pat Leach talks about selected books from the American Library Association's 2012 Notable Books List.
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April 26, 2013 by Webmaster
Tagged in: podcast, podcasts, book talks, booktalks, Notable Books,
March 31, 2012 by PatLeach
This novel takes place on a ship traveling between Sri Lanka and England in the early 1950's. Its narrator, Michael, is eleven and traveling without supervision. He befriends two other young men on the ship and the three of them engage in the kinds of adventures one would expect--sneaking into the first class areas, filching food, sneaking a dog aboard.
The book's title refers to the table in the ship's dining room where the passengers with the lowest status were assigned. That is, of course, where one would expect to find the most interesting people--and Michael does.
About a third of the way through the book, I began to wonder where it was heading. At that point, it seemed much like a romp of a book, the mood overall light, a quirky cast of characters introduced in succession, with no sense of a narrative trajectory--no problem to solve.
And then Ondaatje introduces some evil and mystery. That dog that one of the boys sneaks aboard bites and kills a seriously ill passenger. A prisoner tries to mount an escape. Michael takes all of this in, only later figuring out how some of the pieces fit together.
At about the same point, the narrator moves away from the voyage to tell some of what happened after. He remains friends with one of his ship buddies and eventually marries that boy's sister though the marriage doesn't last. Decades after the voyage, he meets up with a cousin who had been aboard, a pretty young woman who at the time seemed to be involved in some mystery all her own. These time shifts continue until the novel ends with the ship's arrival in England.
I sensed that the novel lost energy when it left the ship itself. There's something about a ship story, a group of people confined together, that when written well becomes a delicious soup of humanity.
Each time that I read a book from the Notables list, I reflect on why it was chosen. In this case, Ondaatje is the master of elegant writing, of the effective turn of phrase. The narrator that he creates here strikes a perfect balance of a youngster's point of view with an older man's wisdom and regret. Reviewers often use the word "elegant" to describe Ondaatje's writing--fine choice of words, observations that are spot on, and that sense of writing so well done that it calls no attention to itself. Applying such elegance to so quirky a group of characters as in "The Cat's Table" is a lovely irony.
I'll recommend this to readers who often choose more literary novels, seeking the qualities that Ondaatje weaves into this fine sea story.
Tagged in: Good Reads, Notable Books, novels, fiction,
February 19, 2012 by PatLeach
Adams alternates chapters of his own recent trek to Machu Picchu with chapters describing the travels of Hiram Bingham, the Yale professor who "discovered" Machu Picchu in 1911.
Adams travels to Machu Picchu via the ancient Inca Road, using routes that allow him to see what Bingham saw. He includes himself very squarely in this story, offering many personal opinions, observations, and conversations with his guide and the Peruvians who manage the donkeys, food and gear. This works. As a travel writer, Adams achieves that delicate balance where his own personality enlivens the story with overpowering it.
There's something about Machu Picchu that remains eternally interesting. Recent developments regarding the ownership of many Inca items that Hiram Bingham transported back to Yale have added an additional measure of interest to Bingham's portion of the story.
Adams explores several theories about the function of Machu Picchu, describes well the mountainous area where it is, and draws connections among stories, geography, and personalities. He deepens his own experiences with deft study of others, including those who have always lived in the area, the early white explorers who sought the Lost City of the Incas, and the thousands who visit the site each year.
Although this is not a deep academic study, I'll recommend it to people with an interest in this area. In particular, I will mention it to those who have visited or intend to visit Machu Picchu, to readers who enjoy travel books generally, and to fiction readers who will enjoy a nonfiction book of it's "a good story."
Tagged in: Good Reads, Notable Books, nonfiction,
September 08, 2011 by Webmaster
ALA Notable Books, 2009
Listen now - 66:11, 30.2 MB
Library Director Pat Leach talks about books from the American Library Association's 2009 Notable Books List.
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Tagged in: podcast, podcasts, books, book talks, ALA, Notable Books,
March 04, 2011 by PatLeach
I was sick last weekend. In fact on Saturday for most of the day I was too sick to read. But on Sunday I got to do one of my favorite things--start and finish a book in one day. "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea" by Barbara Demick is included in the nonfiction portion of this year's Notable Books List from the American Library Association. Full of people's stories, it reads quickly.
"Nothing to Envy" chronicles the journey of several North Korean people who defected out of the country, all of them from the area around Chongjin, a northern industrial city. Demick uses them as examples of the many ways in which life is difficult in North Korea.
Their stories typically begin with a life that while difficult is predictable and seems safe. As the Communist world changed in the late 1980's, the aid that the North Korean government received from other governments also changed or stopped completely. Eventually, factories didn't function. People had no work. They had no way to receive food. There was no food. The descriptions of people's resourcefulness in finding something to eat on the one hand, and the agony of starving on the other, will stay with me from this book.
I've had many conversations with people about why we read "difficult" books. I'd describe this as "difficult" even though most of the stories are remarkably hopeful. I'd say that for those of us who have grown up in the United States in the midst of peace and (at least relative) prosperity, we need to be aware of how different life can be. I'll recommend this to readers who want to know about the world and to those who look for the stories behind what we see on the news. There's also an appeal to the stories of people who have suffered and prevailed, and that is the power behind "Nothing to Envy."
I also recently finished a title from the fiction portion of the list, "Nashville Chrome" by Rick Bass. This novel is based on the life of The Browns, a family musical group from the late 1950s and 1960s. Maxine, Jim Ed, and Bonnie Brown grew up in hardscrabble Arkansas, their father a lumber miller. That life was a hard one, with accidents in the mill amputating fingers, hands, and worse. Their father functioned with just one leg.
But the children had a remarkable gift for singing the kinds of tight harmonies that some country songs are known for. People could not believe how they could sing. Chet Atkins took up producing their records, and he made the most of their distinctive sound. Eventually, though their gift remained, their audience waned, and they broke up their singing group.
Bass tells this story in bits and pieces, moving through times and places. Bass often waxes into poetic prose about their sound, their surroundings, the sense of the people. But largely he works through Maxine, the oldest. He frames it with many scenes of an elderly Maxine, still grasping for success, still believing in a comeback.
I tend to prefer a nonfiction book that straightforwardly tells about people, over biographical fiction. I feel the same way about biopic movies--just give me a documentary, please. But in this case, Bass does a great job with the material. While he bases the novel clearly on these people's lives, he adds so much, goes so deeply into their hearts and minds, shapes their stories into one coherent piece, that he creates a whole new thing.
I'll recommend this to people who are interested in music, to those who are patient through ample description, and to those who can stand to see a good thing come to an end.
Tagged in: Notable Books, Good Reads, nonfiction, Rick Bass, Barbara Demick,